The tradition of the afternoon tea is still very much alive in England. Indeed, over the centuries, the English have become so fond of this drink that it has become an integral part of their daily life and star of a social ritual that dates back to the nineteenth century.
Both in London and in other English cities you can find many places where you can taste the real essence of 5 o’clock tea, including savory and sweet treats which are typically enjoyed at this time of day. So what are the secrets to preparing a perfect English tea and how did this custom start? Let’s find out.
English tea: the history of the “5 o’clock tea”
Over the course of history, meal times have not always been the same. For example, in the first half of the nineteenth century, in England, the two most important meals of the day were breakfast and dinner, which was served around 8 o’clock in the evening; the tradition of afternoon tea, then, should be seen in this context. In fact, the story goes that the Seventh Duchess of Bedford, Anna, first had the idea in 1840 for what was to become afternoon tea when, tired from the weariness of the afternoon, asked her servants to prepare her some tea and something sweet to eat with it. She took to the idea so much that this ritual of five o’clock tea was soon extended to her guests.
Initially English tea remained mainly a private event, to which the ladies of high society invited their friends and acquaintances; when even Queen Victoria started organizing her own afternoon teas, these became really formal occasions, known as tea receptions. These were generally appointments between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. and could include up to 200 guests. The ritual, widespread among the upper classes, was transformed throughout the 1900s to become a real social event, which required lengthy preparations and careful selection of what to wear. Later, this custom was extended to all the social classes, and establishments dedicated to this afternoon tea ritual began to spring up everywhere.
The English tradition of afternoon tea
The tradition, started by the Duchess Anna and carried on throughout the nineteenth century, included the serving of a selection of light foods, such as lightly buttered slices of bread, cucumber and other savory sandwiches, muffins and scones. Over time, more and more sweet delicacies were added to the treats on offer, such as the Victoria Sponge, a light, two-layered sponge cake, filled with strawberry jam and butter cream, which was apparently the Queen’s favorite cake.
Cream Tea and High Tea: from the light, sweet snack to dinner
The afternoon tea could also be based on scones, jam and clotted or whipped cream: in this case it was known as a cream tea. But the afternoon tea could also take on a different aspect and become more like a full meal. If the upper classes saw these moments as fun occasions for meeting people, which preceded a sumptuous dinner to be eaten as late as possible (the time was a question of prestige), the other social classes did not have the same possibilities. Particularly in the rural and industrial areas, in the north of England and in Scotland, the tradition of afternoon tea developed into what was called high tea, closer in practice to a full meal, which included, besides the tea, a hot dish with eggs and, sometimes meat or fish, bread, butter and fruit-based desserts.
The tradition of milk in tea
For the English, tea is a real institution and one of the rules is that it should be drunk with milk: if you intend to serve afternoon tea, forget the slice of lemon, which is particularly common and well-loved in Italy. Leaving aside personal taste for a moment, it is interesting to know that the habit of adding milk, originally came from a practical need: pouring the tea directly into the porcelain cup ran the risk of staining the porcelain or even damaging or breaking poorer quality varieties. That is why the milk was poured in first, a custom which has lasted to this day.
What do you need for your English tea?
For many English, afternoon tea is now just a cup of tea and just a couple of biscuits to go with it, but the tradition remains and the afternoon tea is a common formula used for birthdays or baby shower parties.
If you want to surprise your friends with a perfect English tea, even thousands of miles from London, here are some handy hints and tips on what you need:
- a selection of sandwiches with cucumber, smoked salmon and cream cheese, ham and mustard;
- scones, a traditional English baked teatime delight, which you cut in half and fill with sweet ingredients such as clotted cream and jam;
- home-made cakes, such as the Victoria Sponge Cake that we mentioned before, custard cake, which is similar to a shortcrust pastry flan base filled with custard cream and fruit, or Battenberg Cake, made using ground almonds and covered in a layer of marzipan.
Which tea to choose
Now that you know what kind of delicacies to offer the guests at your English tea, you just need to choose which type of tea to serve. The most commonly used varieties are Earl Grey and English Breakfast, but Darjeeling is also an interesting blend to keep in mind. And finally, remember that, if you want to stick to the tradition, you should use leaf tea, and not teabags, leave it to brew for a while in a porcelain teapot and then serve it in porcelain cups, too.
After such a mouthwatering article, what with cookies, cakes and sandwiches, aren’t you dying to take a break and have your own 5 o’clock tea?