Afternoon Tea

It’s almost as if we’ve gone back in time, this year everyone’s hankering for afternoon tea. This great British tradition is very much en vogue but what’s the story behind the tradition?

Afternoon tea was originally invented by Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford in the early nineteenth Century. At the time, one would only have two main meals (breakfast and dinner) per day and the Duchess began to take tea and a light snack in her private chamber to combat “that sinking feeling” she got in the afternoon.

The Duchess would invite close friends to join her when entertaining them in Woburn Abbey. Having enjoyed tea with the Duchess, they would do the same when they hosted their friends and the trend grew and grew.

Today the custom of taking afternoon tea has developed into an event which takes people to hotels, cafés and coffee shops to enjoy afternoon tea. A typical afternoon tea will consist of a variety of finger sandwiches; scones with cream and jam and a selection of cakes. They are invariably advertised as Afternoon Tea and High Tea.

These terms have become interchangeable but originally there was a significant difference. The upper classes would take afternoon tea or low tea (a phrase which has all but died out) in a drawing room with low tables. The lower classes would be at work in the afternoon and would invariably not have a drawing room so they’d take tea on their dining (high) table as their evening meal.

So the difference is in the size, time and choice of table. This explains also how in various parts of the UK, tea is also used to describe the main evening meal, instead of dinner. That the word dinner is used instead of lunch is a whole other subject!

The “high” prefix adds some grandeur too, so hotels often use this term when serving tea in their dining rooms. But to add genuine grandeur consider adding Champagne or a cocktail. This decadent twist becomes a Royal Tea and is increasingly popular in high end department stores and hotels.

The great British tradition of afternoon tea is something the rest of the world still believe we British do every day when “at half past three, everything stops for tea.” Sadly it’s a leisure time luxury today but one which is increasingly being indulged in. A deliberately light meal, could its rise be linked to public awareness of the need to reduce our portion sizes?

The Café Life Awards 2014 will hold an Afternoon Tea Experience Challenge to find the UK’s best, most innovative new afternoon tea. Held on the first afternoon of the lunch! show, 23 September at the Business Design Centre, London.