What is Afternoon Tea?

wiseGEEK Writer

Afternoon tea seems inexorably linked with the British. The Duchess of Bedford is credited with founding this tradition. By the Victorian era, the custom of afternoon tea was practiced more or less by most inhabitants of the British Isles, and elsewhere in the British Empire.

Loose leaf tea.
Loose leaf tea.

High tea as a variant of afternoon tea was not a development of the rich and powerful as its name implies. Instead of the normal sandwiches and scones, high tea was a hearty meal, usually with meat, taken around four in the afternoon. Laborers often had high tea to hold them over to the next meal, as four to five hours might still remain in their workday. Conversely, traditional afternoon tea is also taken at approximately four, but the food offerings are light. The meal may include small bread and butter sandwiches, cucumber or watercress sandwiches, and perhaps small, light cakes.

A tea pot and cup.
A tea pot and cup.

The intent of afternoon tea is as much social as it may be satisfying. An afternoon tea might be suggested as the perfect meeting for friends, but it was also a traditional time for families to convene, particularly if school children had arrived home needing a snack. In boarding schools, the same need for sustenance and socialization prevailed.

Cakes and sandwiches for tea.
Cakes and sandwiches for tea.

Teas chosen for afternoon tea tend to be light in nature. Popular choices include Earl Grey, tea flavored with bergamot, and Lady Grey, also enhanced with bergamot but containing some light citrus flavors as well. Some prefer Darjeeling, Lapsang Souchong, or Ceylon. Varieties today may simply be packaged as “Afternoon Tea.” Even though tea was traditionally the beverage of choice, coffee might also be offered.

Afternoon tea time is popular in the UK.
Afternoon tea time is popular in the UK.

When afternoon tea was held as a large social gathering, food offerings might differ significantly. Along with the traditional sandwiches, complex cakes, pastries, and crumpets laden with butter would perhaps be offered. Devonshire clotted cream might be on the table as well. This difference signified that afternoon tea was in fact a cream tea, as it is known in Devonshire and Cornwall. It is also the way most non-British people think of tea, as something quite fancy.

Devonshire clotted cream is often served with scones at afternoon tea.
Devonshire clotted cream is often served with scones at afternoon tea.

Though the practice of afternoon tea has declined steadily in the British Isles, there are still some that adhere to this delightful tradition. In the United States, some of the better hotels have always offered high or afternoon tea. Since tea has antioxidant properties, Americans have more recently considered introducing the afternoon tea tradition.

Teahouses throughout the US continue to open, hoping to find an American market. They have met with initial success, offering a mix of afternoon tea, high tea, and cream tea. Usually, such teahouses serve a rather fancy variant of tea, where scones, elaborate cakes, and sandwiches are the order of the day. These restaurants are generally happy to educate newcomers about tea service and traditions, and may offer tea, tea sets, or recipe books to purchase.

It is somewhat ironic that as interest in afternoon tea increases in the US, fewer and fewer British have the time for anything but a cup of tea in the afternoon, if they take anything at all at four o’clock. In an increasingly complicated work-world, stopping for tea does not make sense and can lengthen the workday, meaning more time away from family.

A high tea held in the afternoon may be a formal social occasion.
A high tea held in the afternoon may be a formal social occasion.

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Discussion Comments

Grivusangel

Going to the Russian Tea Room in New York City for afternoon tea is on my bucket list. I've seen the menu on their website and I really want to do that once.

I've never been to NYC, but doing something like that, after a morning at the Museum of Modern Art, is a real castle in the air for me.

I'm not much interested in the caviar they serve. In fact, they can leave it off. But I do want to hit that restaurant once in my life.

Pippinwhite

I'm planning an afternoon tea for my female cousins this summer. I want to do tea sandwiches and I may even try scones. Real scones are not that different from Southern biscuits. I suspect the biscuit evolved from the scone, in fact.

I really want a Brown Betty teapot. They're so very homey and traditional and I really love the way they look. I'm going to do it right, with loose tea in a tea ball, Devonshire cream and the whole nine yards!

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