As a Brit who is an avid tea drinker, I can’t think of many things more quintessentially British than afternoon tea. Whether you are a fellow tea lover, or planning a trip to England for the first time, here is everything you need to know about British afternoon tea and high tea.
When did Tea First Come to England?
Tea was first brought to England in the 17th century by the East India Company when Dutch traders brought tea to England during the 1650s. Initially, it was served as a novelty in London’s coffee houses.
The elegance of tea was introduced to the English Royal Court around 1662 by Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II. Catherine of Braganza had grown up drinking tea in Portugal where it had been imported since 1610.
Over time tea slowly became increasingly and the very first tea shop was opened in 1706 by Thomas Twining in London’s Strand. Twinings Tea Company still exists today as one of the most popular tea brands.
A Brief History Of English Afternoon Tea
The legend is that afternoon tea was started in the mid-1800s by the Duchess of Bedford. This was during a time when kerosene lamps had been introduced in wealthier homes, and eating a late dinner (around 8 or 9 p.m.) became fashionable. This late dinner was one of only two meals each day, the other was a mid-morning, breakfast-like meal.
The story goes that the Duchess found herself with a “sinking feeling.” during the long wait between meals. So she began to order tea, bread and butter and cakes to be served in her room to keep the hunger at bay. Later she invited friends over for assorted snacks and tea, which was a very fashionable drink at the time.
Bridgerton, Jane Austen & Afternoon Tea
If you are a Bridgerton fan you may not realize how historically inaccurate the show is about life in England in that era. You will see lavish cakes and expensive tea in the show but the afternoon tea that they depict was invented around 20 years after the Regency era was over.
Jane Austen was also a writer during the Regency era who was famous for her love of tea. She particularly loved Chinese black tea and dandelion tea. If you are a fan of hers, you will know that she was best known for writing love stories such as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. Jane Austen’s books are over 200 years old but they are still hugely popular and relatable these days. Pride and Prejudice has been on the list of my favorite books since high school.
But although many tea parties are themed on Jane Austen and Regency tea time, afternoon tea wasn’t invented until later on. During regency England, tea drinking was very popular amongst the high societies and wealthy population in England but no more popular than coffee or alcoholic drinks at that time. Tea would have been enjoyed but there weren’t rituals of afternoon tea. In fact, it was some time before the tradition of afternoon tea really started.
Afternoon Tea As A Popular Past Time
When light tea was received so successfully, the idea of Afternoon Tea began to spread across high society and it became a popular pastime. Over time it became more accessible for other socioeconomic groups rather than just the upper class.
Afternoon Tea and Tea Parties became the norm in England, which led to Tea Rooms, and Tea Gardens springing up everywhere. Afternoon tea had become a very fashionable pastime. Luxury hotels like the Ritz created tea lounges and served afternoon tea at four o’clock with light music and sometimes a little dancing.
These Tea dances became a phenomenon that lasted until well after the Second World War, before gradually disappearing.
To this day, tea is enjoyed as part of daily routines. There is breakfast tea, afternoon tea, and even mugs of tea with supper, known as ‘high tea’.
English Afternoon Tea Today
It was the two World Wars that changed Afternoon Tea. This was largely due to the tea rationing that continued well into the 1950s. The custom did survive though and it has continued well into the mid-20th century.
It became less popular, as the British began to love coffee and coffee bars and Afternoon Tea became a faded tradition primarily for tourists to enjoy.
Now in the 21st century, it’s very popular again. For example, Afternoon Tea at the Ritz is one of the hardest-to-book dining experiences in London, and the famous Betty’s Tea Rooms in Yorkshire always has queues around the block. Around three o’clock all over England hotel dining rooms are filled with people enjoying stands of cakes and scones with tea.
So what caused the revival? the economic downturn of 2008 caused a return to traditional values and homely activities. It is somewhat different these days though because it now replaces lunch and diminishes the need for dinner. Even Spas serves Afternoon Tea as part of a spa day out.
The Basics Of An English Afternoon Tea
Afternoon Tea, also known as (Low Tea) is what most people think of when they hear High Tea. It is served in the mid-afternoon and has a light menu of scones, finger sandwiches, and cakes. Side condiments like jam, marmalade, and lemon curds may be served with it. Teas that will be served will probably include black teas like Earl Grey and Assam, along with herbal teas like Chamomile and Mint.
Types Of Afternoon Tea
You can enjoy a traditional Full Tea (Afternoon Tea), but there are actually many variations to this popular tea time service that you can enjoy. If you want something lighter, sweeter, or fancier, these are some of the options that you can enjoy.
As its name suggests it is basically a bigger meal. With a Full Tea, you will also get savory foods, like mini sandwiches with your Afternoon Tea.
Light Tea is either Afternoon Tea without the tea sandwiches and savory course or Cream Tea with more sweets added. In addition to the scones with cream and jam, cakes, cookies, and fruit treats may be included. As the name states, even though more items are included than Cream Tea this is still more of a snack than a meal and is much lighter than Afternoon Tea.
Instead of three courses, it usually just includes one. So If you add more sweets to cream tea, you get light tea.
One of my favorites is a simple Cream Tea which is tea and scones with jam and cream.
Add fresh strawberries to cream tea and you have strawberry tea.
Also often referred to as Royal Tea. This is Afternoon Tea accompanied by a glass of champagne. When a glass of prosecco, cava, or sparkling wine is added it is Sparkling Afternoon Tea.
Teddy Bear Tea
This afternoon tea party is for children and includes dolls and teddy bears.
Drinks Offered For Afternoon Tea
Afternoon Tea usually includes a variety of hot teas, but it may also include iced tea in warmer weather. These are some of the teas that you would likely choose from.
English Breakfast Tea
English Breakfast Tea which is often just called Breakfast Tea is a traditional blend of black teas from Assam, Ceylon, and Kenya. It’s one of the most popular blends of tea in the UK. It is a full-bodied, and rich tea that is usually enjoyed with milk and sugar.
Earl Grey is another well-known and popular black tea that has a citrusy flavor from Bergamot. It can be enjoyed hot or cold and goes really well with sweet foods in an afternoon tea like cakes and cookies.
Camomile Tea is a herbal tea that has a floral, apple flavor. It is naturally caffeine-free, is known for being soothing and relaxing, and goes well with scones and fruity confections.
Mint Teas and Peppermint Teas are also herbal teas that are usually caffeine-free. It’s another tea that can be enjoyed hot or cold. It is another great tea choice for sweet treats like cakes and biscuits as well as sandwiches.
Fruit & Herbal Teas
Other fruit and herbal teas may also be offered with your afternoon tea such as Lavender Tea.
Chai Tea is a spiced tea. The most common ingredient is Cardamom usually with a mixture of cinnamon, ginger, star anise, and cloves.
White Tea is a sweet low-caffeine tea that has a delicate floral fragrance. It is ideal with sweet afternoon treats like scones, sponge cake, and shortbread.
Assam Black Tea
Assam Black Tea comes from the mountainous region of Assam in India. It is a popular breakfast tea that has a malty sometimes tannic flavour. It is enjoyed with or without milk and sugar. malty known for its robust, malty, and sometimes tannic (astringent) flavor. A popular breakfast tea, many people enjoy their Assam tea with a little milk and sugar.
Ceylon Black Tea
Ceylon Black Tea from Sri Lanka is a popular choice for afternoon tea. Varieties of Ceylon Tea include:
- Orange Pekoe (doesn’t taste like oranges)
- Nuwara Eliya (floral and light)
- Uva (sweet and woodsy)
English Afternoon Tea Etiquette
The Difference Between English Afternoon Tea & English High Tea
There is often confusion between High Tea and Afternoon Tea, and they are not the same.
Afternoon Tea is a formal get-together served in the afternoon that consists of cups of tea and a light snack before dinner. High Tea is an informal, larger meal served in the early evening which will include foods like meat and fish as well as breads and desserts.
The Basics Of English High Tea
High Tea has traditionally been a working-class meal that is served after a workday, usually shortly after 5 p.m.
It is generally a heavy meal that may include:
- Meat dishes such as steak and kidney pie
- Fish dishes such as pickled salmon
- Baked goods such as crumpets or, in Ireland, barmbrack
- Vegetables such as potatoes or onion cakes
- Other heavy foods such as baked beans and cheesy casseroles
English Cream Tea In England
Cream Tea is very popular in England, especially in Cornwall and Devon. It’s a very light and relaxed meal of warm freshly baked scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam.
What Comes First On A Scone? Jam or Cream?
Traditionally, the Cornish method is to split the scone in two, spread the jam on, and then put a spoonful of clotted cream onto the jam. This is the method used in the south and at Buckingham Palace.
In Devonshire, it is the opposite and the jam is put on top of the cream.
The Difference Between a Cornish and Devon Cream Tea
The only difference between Cornish and Devon Cream Tea is the way that the Cream Tea is served. Whether you order a Cornish or Devon Cream Tea you will get the same things: tea, scones, jam, and cream. It’s just the way you eat the ingredients that differ depending on whether you prefer to put the jam or cream onto the scone first.
What Is Clotted Cream?
Clotted cream is made with unpasteurized cow’s milk that is heated for hours until it rises to the surface and ‘clots’. It is yellow and thick like butter, as well as rich and creamy like whipped cream.
Whether you choose to enjoy Afternoon Tea, Cream Tea, Champagne Tea, or any other version of our British tea traditions, I hope that this post has been helpful. If you’ve experienced Afternoon Tea in England or have any recommendations I’d love to hear them in the comments.
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Gemma Lawrence is the creator of This Brits Life. Born and raised in England, she has been living in British Columbia, Canada as a permanent resident since 2016. A solo traveler for the past 9 years, she hopes to inspire and help others to enjoy solo adventures too. As someone who has always struggled with her self-confidence and mental health, she also shares tips and inspirational stories relating to self-love, self-care, and mental health.