A Brief History of Afternoon Tea – A Victorian Tradition
No one can think of England without associating it with afternoon tea. What most people don’t know is before Brits drank tea they were coffee lovers. In fact, coffee houses were the place to see and be seen. Up until the switch from coffee to tea most tea sets, pre-Victorian-era included a coffee pot. Most sets consisted of a coffee pot, a teapot, sugar & creamer and of course a waste bowl for lemons and other – well waste.
First introduced to England during King Charles II, circa 1660, tea was brought in by trade ships to the court for his wife Catherine De Braganza of Portugal. It was thought Queen Catherine preferred tea to wine, ale or coffee, three of the main beverages in England at the time.
Tea has been around for centuries, dating as far back 2737 BCE. According to Chinese legend Emperor Shennong, an herbalist first discovered the brew while surveying his lands. Legend has it, on one faithful day tealeaves fell into his pot of boiling water and the rest, as they say is history.
In England, tea wasn’t as fashionable to drink as coffee until Lady Anna Russell the seventh Duchess of Bedford introduced Afternoon Tea in 1840. While in the post of Lady of the Bedchamber for Queen Victoria, Afternoon tea was born out of pure necessity for Lady Anna who suffered headaches and dizziness if she didn’t eat often. She would grow hungry between luncheon, which was served around noon-ish and included only lighter fair and suppertime much later in the evening. With the typical super served around eight o’clock or sometimes later, what was a lady supposed to do in-between?
Lady Ann decided mid-afternoon was the perfect time to serve a light snack to ward off headaches and possible fainting spells. Lady Anna took to ordering up tea along with scrumptious tidbits to keep her hunger at bay. Soon after this ritual started, the Duchess began inviting her close friends to pass the time until evening events. The practice of taking tea in the afternoon with Lady Anna began. Word spread like a courtly scandal and intrigue among nobles and upper-class members of the ton. They spoke about the marvelous repast for late afternoon and sought the coveted invite from the Duchess.
Middle-class households soon followed in the example set by the Lady Anne. Polite society joined in serving afternoon tea in the parlor. Within a short period, teahouses sprang up like lilies all over London and began replacing coffee houses.
Afternoon tea became a way for polite society to show off their wealth and prosperity. Elaborate sterling silver tea sets were prized, even as it was perfectly acceptable for one of modest means to use a tea set of fine bone china or even, it they must – silverplate. If the porcelain was commissioned by the Queen’s favorite maker or the silverplate fashioned by Sheffield, all the better. Many types of tea services donned drawing room tables around the empire and still do so to this day.
Like years past, today’s afternoon tea consists mostly of finger sandwiches. Think, cucumber with a light coating of butter and crustless bread. If cucumber sandwiches are not your thing, other more tasty morsels like small cakes, scones, pastries, preserves and clotted cream are welcome options.
Thank Lady Anne and Queen Catherine for making tea a staple of Europe and North America.
For fun, the History’s channel website offers several recipes from the past.
Try this one
Start to finish: 30 minutes
2 cups flour, sifted
1-teaspoon baking powder
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with nonstick parchment paper.
Mix dry ingredients: flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Cut butter into small pieces and work into dry mixture using either 2 knives or your fingertips. Once butter is fully worked in, add milk until mixture becomes soft, bread-like dough. Turn dough out onto a floured surface or wooden cutting board and pat into a disk about 1 inch thick. Cut into rounds with a biscuit cutter or the rim of a small glass. Place on the baking sheet and coat the tops with a thin film of milk to seal them up. Bake for 12 minutes until lightly golden and well risen. Remove from oven and place on a wire rack until cooled.