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Afternoon Tea: where did it all start and what is it?

Posted by Martin Birkhead on

Afternoon Tea

Afternoon Tea: where did it all start and what is it?


Afternoon tea has become a national institution, but where did the tradition start and what constitutes a traditional afternoon tea?


For many years, tea was considered a luxury product in Britain, but this changed during the first half of the 19th century when consumption boomed. It was during this period that the nobility began enjoying a cup of tea and a snack — afternoon tea was born.


Who invented afternoon tea?

Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, is widely regarded as creating afternoon tea during a visit to the 5th Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle in the mid-1840s.


The story goes that dinner was usually served between 7pm and 8.30pm, which was a long time after a light luncheon at midday. Not surprisingly, people often felt hungry during the long afternoons, and Anna found that a light meal of tea (usually Darjeeling) and cakes or sandwiches to be a perfect solution.


The Duchess began to invite her friends to join her, and so afternoon tea soon became a popular pastime of the middle and upper classes.


What constitutes an afternoon tea?

The traditional afternoon tea begins with a round of sandwiches, which are normally cut delicately into fingers without crusts. This is followed by a selection of sweet pastries and cakes.


Today’s interpretation with scones, clotted cream and jam is a recent invention and only became popular in the 20th century.


What is a high tea?

The afternoon tea was served to upper classes on low tables in lounges or drawing rooms at around 4pm, just before they enjoyed some gentle exercise outside.


However, middle and lower classes would have a more substantial 'high' tea at around 5pm or 6pm instead of dinner. The name comes from the fact that a high tea is served at the higher dinner table. It consisted of a mug of tea, bread, vegetables and cheese, plus pies, potatoes or meat.


In other parts of the world, an afternoon tea is often called a high tea.


Order your tea today

Take a look at our range of teas and coffee beans and place your order today. Don’t forget that our team of tea experts are always on hand to give you some helpful advice.


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