The Afternoon Tea has been around for a long time. It differs from a High Tea even though most people use the two interchangeably.
Most of us are familiar with the lovely and eloquent tradition of Afternoon Tea but few know how it actually originated. While the discovery of tea and the use as a drink originated in China, the idea of the Afternoon Tea originated in England.
History and legend tell us that it was Queen Victoria’s life-long friend and Lady of the Bedchamber, Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, who is attributed with creating the “Afternoon Tea”. Understandably, the woman in the home would become hungry in between meals. She is waiting for her husband and other household members to have “High Tea” (which is the heavier meal served in the late evening- equivalent to our dinner) and she feels the need to have something small to eat to curb the hunger.
The Duchess found herself terribly hungry around 4:00 in the afternoon so she would ask that she be brought up a cup of tea and toast with butter or some other simple sandwich or sweet. As was common with many members of the oligarchy, the Duchess would entertain women friends in her bedchamber. If they were invited around the time of her “Afternoon Tea” she would of course want it to be more special.
As the idea of the Afternoon Tea spread, women would often invite over friends to sup with them. In those cases they would prepare more than just a cup of tea and a piece of toast. They would ask that their cooks prepare finer sandwiches and interesting and tasty sweets. The more popular this became the more sophisticated it was.
Over time, the women would make sure that the finer china was used when serving the Afternoon Tea and that there be more than one course. To make the event more eloquent, women would wear their finest hats, nicest dresses and gloves.
The whole idea of this Afternoon Tea Party was so popular and pervasive that it inspired women to start wearing tea dresses. When hosting the event, the woman of the house would put out her finest china and her best delicacies. Proper service of tea during an Afternoon Tea Party is done by the hostess who serves the tea to her guests. She does this by holding the tea pot in her right hand and the cup and saucer in her left. The hostess, or server, would also add the sugar (usually served in cube style) and cream as desired by the recipient.
It is considered a great honor if the hostess asks a guest to serve the tea on her behalf. It would be impolite to refuse such an offer. The guest should serve it in the same manner.
Along with the food and drink, the Afternoon Tea Party was a social event. It was an opportunity for the ladies to get together, show off their clothes and jewelry and share tidbits of information, something we call gossiping. It was something to definitely look forward to attending.
Afternoon Tea is also referred to as “low” tea” because it would be served on low tables that would be placed around the room where the guests were being entertained. Afternoon Tea is generally held in the later part of the afternoon, as you see its inventor preferred it around 4:00 p.m.
Luckily, by the time the Duchess began her Afternoon Tea Parties in 1840, the “sandwich” had been created by John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. The Earl was a fascinating fellow. He was a British First Lord of Admiralty during the American Revolution 1776-1781.Like many of his stature, it is said that he loved gambling. When you are a gambler you do not want to leave the gaming tables to eat. The Earl was no different than others with this habit but he was more creative.It is claimed that while at the gambling tables, and not wanting to stop gambling to eat, he directed the food server to put meat in between two pieces of bread. As a result of this culinary creation, the sandwich as we know it was born. For more about the Earl go to: https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Montagu-4th-Earl-of-Sandwich.
The idea of the “Afternoon Tea” spread throughout England and eventually made its way to the United States (along with the idea of drinking large amounts of tea in general).
Many people today like to refer to the Afternoon Tea as “High Tea” because it sounds more sophisticated. However, they are two distinct events and should be respected and treated as such. Impress your guests when hosting a tea by using the correct terminology.
A traditional Tea Party would consist of tea of course, scones with clotted cream and lemon curd (or another type of cream and jam), petite sandwiches typically made of cucumbers or watercress and small pastries of varying types. Today, people are way more creative with their Afternoon Tea Parties. I have been to Tea Houses that serve soup in tea cups and light salads before the traditional Afternoon Tea foods.
Iced tea has also become a favorite in place of the traditional hot tea. Coffee/tea blends, alcoholic beverages and other specialty drinks have eased their way into the Afternoon Tea.
Another difference between the traditional Afternoon Tea Party and the modern day one is that it can be used for large groups, not just small intimate groups of ladies. Many men today also enjoy a good Afternoon Tea Party as well.