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History of Afternoon Tea



The origins of Afternoon Tea, as we know it today, reveal a fascinating mixture of historical and cultural influences. The practice of having afternoon tea is now far more diverse and prevalent than in the past, when it was reserved purely for royalty and the aristocracy. Afternoon Tea is now enjoyed everyday around the world by millions, yet a setting as appropriate as Melbourne’s famous Hotel Windsor would be hard to find.


The simple ‘cuppa’ has a far-from-simple history. Tea gained popularity with nobility in Britain after the tea trade took off in the 1670s with the advent of the British East India Company. A century later tea arrived in Australia with the First Fleet in 1788, and having ‘Tea’ in the new colony represented a time for social interaction and friendship rather than the more class-focussed rituals of the UK.


Afternoon Tea itself came about around the time that gas lighting was introduced in the 1800s in Britain. This meant people were able to stay up later into the night, and therefore sought to eat their evening meal later too. This shift left a large, foodless gap in the day.


Legend has it that in 1840 Anna, the Seventh Duchess of Bedford (one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting), began to request tea and a small meal of bread and butter, cakes and biscuits in the afternoon to tide her over until dinner. Her innovative (and somewhat indulgent) habit became a highly social occasion, with friends coming to share the hot beverages, delicate snacks and convivial conversation. By 1880, the trend took off and afternoon tea spread to the homes of the upper classes with teashops later springing up across the country.




The name ‘High Tea’ actually refers to a similar practice adopted by the working classes midway through the Industrial Revolution. It involved a heavier meal served with tea at 5.00 pm, upon returning home from work. As it was served at high tables it became known as “high tea”, whereas the more sophisticated afternoon tea was technically named ‘low tea’ in reference to the low drawing room tables that the upper classes would sit around to carry out the ritual.


Tea Etiquette


1 - What is the dress code for Afternoon Tea?

First things first, before you even sit down to enjoy a delectable Afternoon Tea it is likely that you will be wondering about the dress code for what seems such a formal occasion. Most venues have a relaxed 'smart casual' dress code these days, so there is no need for men to wear a jacket and tie (unless otherwise specified) - trousers or smart jeans, collared shirt and clean/un-scuffed shoes are acceptable. No sportswear or trainers (sneakers). For the ladies it's the perfect excuse to get dressed up!

2 - Cream Tea or Afternoon Tea or High Tea or Royal Tea?

The terminology used often confuses people when talking about Afternoon Tea. A 'Cream Tea' is usually just scones with cream and preserves served with tea. 'Afternoon Tea' is traditionally sandwiches, scones and a selection of cakes, served with tea.

Visitors from overseas often refer to the British Afternoon Tea as 'High Tea' but this term traditionally signifies an entirely different meal, usually compromising of more savoury foods and an altogether heartier meal, historically taken by the lower classes. Some hotels, such as the Ritz in London advertise 'High Tea in London' due to the popularity of Afternoon Tea with overseas visitors.

'Royal Tea' is a less widely used term signifying the addition of a glass of champagne to a traditional Afternoon Tea, for those extra special occasions!

3 - Is it acceptable to dunk biscuits into my tea?

There is not much to say on this matter, other than a very stern and finger wagging no! In the privacy of your own home this is a perfectly acceptable and enjoyable practice, however when taking Afternoon Tea in one of the finest hotels in the country we suggest you do not partake in this.

4 - Cream or jam first?

An integral part of an Afternoon Tea experience is the inclusion of freshly baked, warm scones with cream, butter and preserves. This conundrum, along with the meaning of life and how long is a piece of string, is yet another of life's on-going debates. Both the Cornish and Devonshire people lay claim to the invention of the Cream Tea, and each have a view on the order of the toppings. The Devon tradition is cream first with jam spread on top whilst the Cornish tradition is to slather the jam on and top it off with clotted cream. At the end of the day it remains a matter of preference.

5 - How should I stir the tea?

When preparing your tea there are many ways in which you can tailor the drink to your own personal tastes, whether that be the addition of lemon, sugar or milk, but one thing stands, you must remember to stir correctly! Place your spoon in a 6 o'clock position in the cup and fold the tea towards the 12 o'clock position whilst making sure not to 'clink' the spoon against the sides of the cup. You must also remember to not leave the spoon in the cup, instead placing it on the saucer to the side of the cup. 

6 - How long should I let my tea brew for?

This is another common question, and another that lies firmly in the realm of personal preference, although there is some science involved as well. Depending on your own taste and the type of tea used you can alter brewing time to suit, but the longer you brew the tea the higher the level of antioxidants called flavonoids, which research has shown to have many health benefits. We would recommend three to six minutes of brewing time, no longer, so as to avoid damaging the flavour of the tea. 

7 - What type of tea should I use?

There are hundreds of different varieties of tea and each particular tea suits certain tastes, accompaniments and brewing times, however we would always stress the use of loose or leaf tea when crafting your perfect Afternoon Tea, so as to obtain the finest experience possible. Tea bags and the popular brands of tea certainly have their place, but the use of a speciality loose leaf tea not only enhances the flavour but also the overall experience of taking Afternoon Tea.

8 - Pinkies Up?

Absolutely not. The common misconception is that outstretching ones little finger aids the balance of the cup when taking a sip of tea; this is almost certainly not the case and is not only pointless but slightly silly. We wouldn't recommend grasping the cup in the palm of your hand but there is no need to stick a pinkie out, it has rapidly become one of Afternoon Teas most common faux pas. 

9 - How should I eat my scones?

Common practice dictates that when eating the scone section of an Afternoon Tea you would break small pieces off and top each section with the desired amount of butter, cream or jam eating them individually so as to avoid any social mishaps. This however is a far less observed guideline and some may choose to slice the scone in half and top each section with the desired preserves and cream.

10 - Should I put milk or tea in to the cup first?

The question of the order in which you add milk to tea or tea to milk is quite possibly the most hotly debated of all the tea related enigmas and unfortunately, like many good tea connoisseurs before us, we are unable to offer the definitive answer.

Both schools of thought have notable benefits. If you put the tea in first then you allow the guest to flavour their own tea to their personal preference. Putting milk in first apparently offers a better combination of the two liquids and traditionally the cold milk protected delicate china from boiling tea that may crack or damage it. You can usually make the decision yourself by pouring your own tea, but at some of the top hotels the tea is poured for you and you add the milk afterwards.




Despite all of the quaint practices associated with the experience, the important thing to remember is that Afternoon Tea is meant to be fun, and you can't let the etiquette get too much in the way of your own personal enjoyment.






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