The History and Evolution of Afternoon Tea: Menu, Traditions, and More

Introduced in Britain during the early 1840s, Afternoon Tea was initially developed as a small meal to ease the hunger and anticipation of dinner at 8pm. The ritual consisted of sandwiches, sweet pastries, cakes, and later, scones with clotted cream and jam. While it was first enjoyed privately by women of high society, it gained popularity after Queen Victoria began hosting formal ‘tea receptions,’ with up to 200 guests invited between 4pm and 7pm. Today, Afternoon Tea is often reserved for special occasions and celebrations among friends, and it remains a beloved British tradition.

The History and Evolution of Afternoon Tea

During the early 19th century, tea became an increasingly popular beverage in Britain. It was during this time that the 7th Duchess of Bedford, Anna, reportedly began experiencing “that sinking feeling” in the late afternoon due to the typical two-meal-a-day schedule of breakfast and dinner around 8 pm.

To address this, the Duchess started having a pot of tea and a light snack in her private boudoir during the afternoon. She later invited friends to join her at Woburn Abbey, and the practice became so popular that she continued it in London, sending out cards inviting friends to “tea and a walking the fields.”

The idea quickly caught on among other social hostesses, and it became fashionable to serve tea and nibbles in the drawing room during the afternoon. The practice became known as Afternoon Tea and became an established social event.

Hotels sometimes offer a “high tea,” which was traditionally a more substantial meal served to the middle and lower classes at five or six o’clock, in place of a late dinner. The “low” or “afternoon” tea, served around four o’clock, was more common among the upper classes just before the fashionable promenade in Hyde Park.

Nowadays, Afternoon Tea is no longer a daily occurrence but rather an occasional indulgence for most Brits, often enjoyed at a country house hotel or as a respite from a busy day of shopping. Nonetheless, visitors can still experience this British tradition and indulge in the delicious treats that make up an Afternoon Tea spread.

The Menu for Afternoon Tea

While there are no hard and fast rules for what must be included in a traditional Afternoon Tea menu, it usually comprises a selection of sandwiches and an assortment of sweets.

A typical Afternoon Tea menu might include:

  • A selection of freshly prepared finger sandwiches
  • Warm scones with clotted cream and preserves
  • A variety of homemade cakes and pastries
  • Your choice of tea from a range of options

What kind of sandwiches are typically served during Afternoon Tea?

The classic selection of sandwiches served with Afternoon Tea generally includes:

  • Cucumber
  • Egg mayonnaise with cress
  • Smoked salmon with cream cheese
  • Coronation chicken
  • Ham and mustard

What is a Cream Tea?

A Cream Tea usually consists of scones, clotted cream, and jam served with a pot of tea.

What is Champagne Afternoon Tea?

Many hotels also offer fixed menus that include a glass of Champagne with the Traditional Afternoon Tea, or you can add a glass of Champagne for an extra charge.

What types of tea are served during Afternoon Tea?

The range of teas on offer during Afternoon Tea can vary from half a dozen to over a hundred, including some very rare and obscure ones. Some of the commonly available teas are:

  • Assam – A strong, full-bodied tea from India with a distinct “malty” flavor.
  • Darjeeling – An aromatic and astringent tea from India with a hint of almonds and wildflowers.
  • Earl Grey – A blend of black teas scented with oil of bergamot named after Charles, 2nd Earl Grey, who was Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834.
  • Lapsang Souchong – A Chinese tea fired over smoking pine needles, which produces a striking smoky aroma and flavor.

High Tea

Tea drinking in the 18th and 19th centuries became a social event for the upper classes, with Afternoon Tea being the bridge between meals. However, the working classes couldn’t afford to waste expensive tea on anything other than necessities. They needed a substantial meal after a long day at work, so the high tea was born, which consisted of bread, vegetables, cheese, and occasionally meat.

While Afternoon Tea was a social event, high tea was a necessary meal. This tradition still exists in some parts of the North and Scotland. The term “high tea” may have originated because it was eaten at a table, unlike Afternoon Tea, which was served while sitting in comfortable chairs or sofas. Later, the upper classes developed their own version of high tea that included pigeon, veal, salmon, and fruit.

Today, the Afternoon Tea menu served in the UK is often referred to as high tea in other parts of the world. To cater to overseas customers, some hotels like The Ritz in London use the term “High Tea in London” to advertise their Afternoon Tea. Some venues offer a special high tea menu that includes savoury items such as Welsh Rarebit, English muffins, pies or omelette, in addition to the traditional Afternoon Tea.

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