We’re starting a new series all about the quintessential English afternoon tea! Primarily, we’ll be sharing the perfect recipes for your afternoon tea menu, with traditional and modern recipes and recipes to suit certain themes. We’ll also look at afternoon tea etiquette. But first, let’s look at some of the basics about traditional afternoon tea, the afternoon tea menu and how to plan your own English afternoon tea.
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The history of English afternoon tea
Perhaps surprisingly, afternoon tea is a a relatively new tradition.
In 1840, the evening meal was customarily served at around 8 pm. Feeling peckish around 4pm in the afternoon, Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, ordered that a cup of tea, some buttered bread and a small cake be brought up to her room.
This tea in the afternoon became a habit and the Duchess soon started inviting friends to join her.
Tea became a social event. In the 1880s, ladies of society would regularly change into gowns, gloves and hats to meet for a cup of tea, a small cake and a good dose of gossip.
When is afternoon tea traditionally served?
Afternoon tea is normally served in the drawing room between four and five o’clock. English afternoon tea was an event for the the Ton and ladies would dress appropriately.
It is now served in the restaurant, lobby or tea rooms of the more noble hotels in England and throughout the globe.
It was not a biscuit or small cake scoffed with a cup of tea brewed with a tea bag. That would be considered sacrilegious!
There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.
Is high tea for higher society?
Quite the opposite, though I thought it was for many years.
High tea was traditionally eaten by the lower classes between five and seven o’clock in the evening. The high referred to the higher-backed chairs that participants sat on to consume a much more hearty meal.
The daintier, more elegant traditional English afternoon tea was served at much lower tables earlier in the afternoon.
This post unravels the teatime differences in more detail.
What is normally part of the afternoon tea menu?
Traditional English afternoon tea consists of:
- a selection of dainty sandwiches, normally cut into fingers
- scones served with clotted cream and preserves: our almost-foolproof featherlight scones are perfect!
- small cakes and pastries, such as our mini orange Gugelhüpfe
- tea, traditionally tea grown in India or Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), is poured from silver tea pots into delicate bone china cups.
Optional dishes include:
- a small selection of bite-sized warm savories may also be served, though this is not strictly necessary
- a large cake to be shared
- small biscuits (cookies) or macarons, including as decorations or gifts for guests to take with them
- champagne or cocktails.
What makes a good afternoon tea and afternoon tea menu?
The best afternoon tea will serve fresh posts of tea of your choice in dainty teacups and saucers. The food should be served on a three-tiered stand, or perhaps one plate for the savories and finger sandwiches and a two-tiered stand for the scones and then the small cakes.
The best English afternoon tea will serve the scones fresh and still warm, but NOT warmed in the microwave. They should be served with two type two types of preserves, normally raspberry preserves and lemon curd, together with lashings of clotted cream.
The finger sandwiches will be crust-less and will not be overfilled so filling will not ooze everywhere when you bite into the sandwich. They also will not have come straight out of the fridge, as cold bread is not pleasant.
Bite-sized savories will be optional. They will have the perfect temperature and will work wonderfully with tea and not be overpowering. They will also not be too heavy on cheese and cream, especially for those of us who are lactose intolerant.
There will be a selection of small cakes, which will be pretty and dainty to look at and taste delicious, served on a tiered stand.
There will be an unending pot of hot tea in your favourite flavour, made with loose tea, not bags. Perhaps it will even be kept warm with a tea warmer.
The bigger question is how can you recreate the perfect English afternoon tea at home?
Where’s the best place to have afternoon tea?
Obviously, while things are on lockdown, the best place to have afternoon tea is at home. We’ll be showing you how to plan an English afternoon tea and afternoon tea menu for you and some friends (when friends are able to visit again. We may also look at how to have afternoon tea with your friend remotely if the lockdown continues much longer).
To experience the best of the afternoon tea tradition when in London, indulge yourself with a trip to one of the finest hotels. Try the Palm Court at the Langham, reportedly the first ever London hotel to serve afternoon tea when it opened in 1865. The Dorchester, the Ritz and the Savoy are known for their afternoon tea, as are Harrods and Fortnum and Mason (where you can also buy some of your favourite tea to take home with you). Some of the more unusual (and fairly priced) afternoon teas can be found at lesser-known hotels.
The west country – Dorset, Cornwall and Somerset – are known for their afternoon tea too. Be sure to visit a quaint tearoom if you are in the area.
Nowadays, fine hotels the world over will often serve an afternoon tea menu in their lobby. Check your local hotels to see what they have on offer.
Why should you host afternoon tea?
Afternoon tea is so versatile! Imagine:
- An afternoon tea with bib and bear shaped cookies and a gender reveal cake for a baby shower
- A gin and champagne afternoon tea for a hen’s do
- Petit fours decorated with flowers for a Mothers’ Day afternoon tea
- A Mad Hatter’s tea party for a child’s birthday
- Pink cakes and cocktails for a pink afternoon tea to raise money for breast cancer
- A French-themed afternoon tea with macarons and eclairs for Bastille Day
- Lemon cakes and daffodils to for an afternoon tea to raise money for cancer
- A traditional English afternoon tea for a special (or not so special) birthday.
I could go on.
The best part about hosting an afternoon tea is that it is a much cheaper alternative and it is (relatively) easy to tailor to fit dietary requirements. Scones cost almost nothing to make and finger sandwiches are also cheap (you don’t have to serve smoked salmon if that is not in your budget). You can adjust your afternoon tea menu to suit your budget.
Compared to a formal lunch or a dinner party, afternoon tea is much cheaper and relaxed. That is not to say it cannot be formal – you can easily specify a formal dress code that includes hats or fascinators.
How to plan an English afternoon tea
1. Work out the basic details and send out invitations
Logically, the first place to start is with the basics. When and where will it be held? What time? Who is invited? You might also want to take a leaf out of the Ritz’ playbook and specify a dress code.
The next question is will there be a theme? Is it an Easter afternoon tea? Will it be a pink afternoon tea to raise money for breast cancer? Is it a birthday, hen’s party or baby shower? This might dictate your menu, decorations and whether there is any additional information your guests should know.
Send out your invitations. Depending on the reason for the afternoon tea, this could be a casual invite or a formal hand-written invitation sent in the post. Your invitation will set the tone for your afternoon tea.
2. Decide on your afternoon tea menu
Next, decide what you will be serving and find your recipes. Consider:
- how the dishes fit with your theme or occasion. Does there need to be a birthday cake?
- Are there any dietary needs that you need to take into account?
- how many of each dish will you will need?
- is the afternoon tea replacing another meal? Does it then need to be more substantial? Do you need to add more/add savory dishes?
- are you planning to make or buy your food?
- is there anything that can be made in advance?
- are there any elements that you would like to try/try to make in advance?
Unless you are absolutely certain that all of your guests drink the same type of tea, try and have a few different types of tea available. Be sure to have cream, sugar and lemon available. Nowadays, it is also polite to have coffee available for those who prefer it over coffee.
3. Organise your table settings for afternoon tea
Next, organise your table settings. Each person will need at least a small plate, a tea cup and a fork and spoon. Saucers are lovely, but you may not have any. If you are servings savories, you might want a second plate for each person. Also consider the drinks you are serving: you might need champagne flutes, cocktail glasses and/or water glasses in addition to the tea cups.
You will also need serving plates or a cake stand or stands for the your cones, sandwiches and delicacies, as well as bowls for your preserves and clotted cream. It does not need to be a three-tiered stand: I don’t have one and don’t intend to get one unless I decide to make one (perhaps I’ll do a post on how to make one using one of these sets).
If you don’t have one, there are a number of three, two-tiered and single tiered cake stands available online or a stores like IKEA. You can also just place a plate on an upside down glass or bowl to get the same effect.
Most importantly, you will need a teapot. Most likely, you will need a tea strainer, a rest for the tea strainer and a sugar bowl and milk jug to serve the tea as well.
Perhaps the best place to find suitable plates and cups and decorative bowls, etc. for your English afternoon tea is your grandmother’s or great aunt’s cupboards. If your elderly relatives are anything like mine, they will have an interesting collection of floral cups and sauces and plates and interesting bowls. They may not all match, but they could make a nice mixture or you could supplement them with some more modern everyday pieces.
If you are looking to buy something to hold a number of afternoon tea parties, try thrift and charity shops, or online market places like etsy. Look for pieces that will coordinate with your remaining dinner set.
If you are like me, you have a small collection of antique tea paraphernalia, interesting spoons or cake servers. This is the opportunity to use them.
4. What decorations do you need?
Unless you are planning a themed afternoon tea, there is very little else you will need in the way of decorations and much will depend on the size of your table. You want to ensure that you have enough space for your food and teapot!
- Some pretty serviettes or napkins (that will help tie together a mismatched tea service)
- A bunch or two of flowers or a small pot of lilacs or daffodils or similar
- Perhaps a small card with the menu written on it (helps for any food allergies).
If you are planning a themed afternoon tea, add some themed decorations (to go with your themed food). Try and keep the decorations to a minimum though, so that your table is not too cluttered.
5. Is there anything else you should plan in advance?
On the day, you will want to relax and enjoy your guests while musing on the merits of the tea and sharing a good slice of gossip. If you are worried about discussions getting a little thin, find out more about reading tea leaves as a fun game to play with your guests.
Our plans for the next few months: Our afternoon tea series
Now that you know the history behind the afternoon tea and know how to plan an English afternoon tea, we’ll look closer at the afternoon tea menu. For the next few months, we’ll be sharing a variety of recipes for afternoon tea, from traditional to modern with a few twists thrown in for good measure. And we’ll start with recipes for traditional English afternoon tea finger sandwiches – crustless of course!