Although Britain as a nation has been on trend with many things, it was actually behind the times when it came to tea drinking. It’s thought that the Chinese were drinking tea as far back as the 3rd Millennium BC, but tea was a discovery they initially kept to themselves. When trade routes opened between Asia and The Netherlands, tea arrived in Europe, later reaching British shores around 1640. Tea leaves were expensive though, and you either had to order tea from a coffee house, or if you were wealthy, you could make it at home.
The concept of’ Afternoon Tea’ was also introduced into high society, around 1840, by the then Duchess of Bedford. Because evening meals were served fashionably late in those days, hunger pangs often hit in the afternoon between meals. The Duchess ordered tea, bread and butter, and cake to be served mid-afternoon, and invited friends to join her. Afternoon tea was born, and the craze was picked up by many upper class society women, who would even dress for the occasion.
Although ‘Afternoon Tea’ in its most indulgent form, was always a favourite among the upper classes, the advent of tea shops, where you could have tea and cake, brought a variation of the tradition within reach of the working classes. The Aerated Bread Company opened the first tea shop in 1864, and their success was followed by Express Dairies, J Lyons, and many department stores that opened tea shops.
Although there have been some periods of decline in British tea culture, partly due to tea rationing after World War II, and the rise in popularity of other drinks, Afternoon Tea is very much back in fashion. The London Hotels continue to be world renowned for their Afternoon Tea Menus, with tourists and business people listing it as a ‘must do’ on trips to the capital.
Hotels such as The Ritz, The Savoy, and The Dorchester , have been serving up Afternoon Tea in their luxury surroundings for hundreds of years. Although their menus may vary in content, they have always been based around that iconic, long established tradition of taking tea with cake and sandwiches. You could be sipping champagne, choosing from a selection of different teas from around the world, and devouring dainty pastries. If you book well in advance that is.
Look beyond the ‘luxury treat’ that is Afternoon Tea in London, and you’ll also find it served up in hotels, stately homes, tea rooms, pubs, and even supermarkets. There’s also a variation- Devonshire Cream Teas, served with local clotted cream and scones to look out for. Feeling hungry?