“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”
This great British tradition is enduringly popular and is a great way of entertaining a small group of friends without having to commit to hosting a more ambitious, and time-consuming sit-down meal.
It is said that tea was first introduced to Britain by the Portuguese wife of King Charles II, Catherine of Braganza, in the mid-17th century. Tea was considered a ladies’ drink, consumed in the privacy of their own private quarters and served in delicate porcelain cups. These cups followed the Chinese style and were bowl shaped, without handles. It was not until the mid-18th century that handles were introduced, which prevented the ladies from burning their fingers. It is said that the idea of the saucer evolved at about this time when the daughter of a Chinese military officer, who found it difficult to handle hot bowls of tea, asked a local potter to create a little plate on which she could place the bowl. In Victorian times it was quite acceptable to decant hot tea into the saucer to cool it down before sipping it, which was known as a “dish of tea”.
The actual ritual of afternoon tea dates to about 1840 and owes much to Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, who would become hungry at around four o’clock in the afternoon. The evening meal in her household was served fashionably late at eight o’clock, and the interval between lunch and dinner was frustratingly long, leaving her with a ‘sinking feeling’. The Duchess asked for a sustaining tray of tea, bread and butter and cake to be brought to her room during the late afternoon. This became a habit of hers and she began inviting friends to join her.
This pause for tea became a fashionable social event. During the 1880s upper-class and society women would change into long gowns, gloves and hats for their afternoon tea, which was usually an all-female gathering, either served in the lady’s bedchamber or, more formally, in the drawing room between four and five o’clock.
Traditional afternoon tea has now evolved into a light meal, which comprises a selection of dainty sandwiches (including, of course, thinly sliced cucumber sandwiches), followed by cakes, pastries and scones, served with clotted cream and preserves. Tea grown in India or Ceylon is poured from teapots into delicate bone china cups.
After plucking, the fresh leaves are spread out to dry. Then the leaves are either rolled to crush the leaf and release the essential oils and enzymes, or passed through a ‘cut, tear and curl’ machine. After that the tea is left to ferment until it becomes a bright copper colour. Then it’s dried to halt the fermentation and sterilise the leaves. This turns the leaves dark brown or black. Finally, the tea is sorted into the various leaf grades.
Green teas are not fermented. Immediately after plucking, the leaves are softened by steaming in large iron pans over a fire. They are then rolled and dried.
Black tea is the most popular variety of tea drunk in the UK and is more oxidized than the oolong, green, and white varieties. After plucking and drying, the leaves are then rolled out so that the mix of warm air, aromatic juices, bacteria and enzymes leads to oxidation (this fermentation is a natural reaction that affects strength and colour). Fermentation is stopped by ‘firing’ the leaves with hot air, which makes them turn black as they dry. Assam, English Breakfast, Kenya, Early Grey, Lapsang Souchong and Darjeeling are all black teas.
Means ‘black dragon’ in Chinese and is traditionally used for a tea that is semi-fermented. After plucking, oolong teas are processed in a similar way to black teas, but the fermentation time is much shorter. They tend to have a large leaf and produce a pale bright liquor with a delicate flavour.
This tea is unfermented; only the unopened bud and sometimes the first new leaf are used.
Herbal and fruit infusions are not in fact produced from the Camellia Sinensis plant, but from other plants and fruits. Herbal teas can be drunk either hot or cold, but it is important to let the infusion steep for a few minutes to extract the flavour. Herbal infusions are made from the fruits, flowers, leaves, seeds or roots of the plant, which are then boiled and strained. Popular herbal teas include camomile, Moroccan mint, peppermint, ginger, lemon balm, cardamon.
•Create your own tea blend
If you want to make your own unique blend, sample as many varieties as possible and make notes on leaf colour, fragrance and taste. Then experiment with combining two different tea types: you might, for example, want to add a small amount of fragrant lapsang souchong to a more robust Darjeeling. Once you’ve arrived at a great blend, make up a caddy-full, keep airtight and note down exactly the quantities you’ve used.
If serving tea for a group, it is worth brewing a pot. Loose leaf tea will taste best but will need to be poured through a tea strainer. A second pot with hot water in it should be provided to dilute over-brewed tea if necessary. Use one rounded teaspoon of tea per cup and leave to brew for 2-4 minutes before pouring. Use water that has boiled but is not actually boiling.
If an afternoon tea is being hosted at home, then it is the hostess’s responsibility to pour the tea. In a hotel or restaurant, if a waiter places a teapot on the table without pouring the tea the person nearest the pot should pour for everyone.
The tea should be poured first and any milk, lemon or sugar added afterwards. In Victorian times hot tea was poured straight into the cup to test the quality of the bone china. Expensive china did not crack.
When serving lemon with tea, place a slice (not chunk) of lemon in the cup after it has been poured. Never add milk to lemon tea; the citric acid in the lemon will make the milk curdle.
When you are served tea in a teacup and saucer at a low table, for example in a drawing room, you should pick up the teacup and saucer. At a dining table, you leave the saucer on the table and raise the cup to your lips.
Hold delicate teacups by pinching the handle between your forefinger and thumb – don’t extend your little finger!
When stirring the tea don’t clink the spoon against your cup. Once you have stirred your tea, remove the spoon from the cup and place it on the saucer.
Don’t dunk your biscuits in your tea unless in a very informal setting, and don't make slurping noises – even if it is hot.
Sandwiches are eaten with the fingers, never with a knife and fork.
If you are served an extremely elaborate cake (with layers of cream and fruit filling), it is a good idea to use the cake fork provided, rather than struggling with your fingers.
When you are served scones, you should also not use your knife to cut them in half, horizontally. Instead, break the scone in half with your hand. Take a dollop of jam and cream, using the serving spoon, and put it on the side of the plate. Break off small bite-sized pieces with your fingers, spread with jam and cream and consume in one mouthful.
Which should go first? In Cornwall it is said to be traditional to spread the jam and then add the cream, whereas in Devon cream comes first and jam second is favoured. Either method is completely acceptable, and you should opt for an arrangement that causes the least mess when it comes to conveying the delicious morsel to your mouth.
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