Afternoon tea has been on my mind a lot lately. I love assembling the dainty servings and appreciate the ritual of the tea itself. As I work away preparing tea, I find myself wondering just how the custom evolved.
The tradition of afternoon tea owes its existence to Anna, seventh duchess of Bedford (1783- 1857). As the length of time between breakfast and dinner increased in the summer months, the duchess found herself unwilling to wait such a long time between repasts. She took to her boudoir and ordered her servants to bring her bread spread with “good sweet butter,” macaroons, cheese cakes, biscuits, and small cakes, on which she secretly feasted. Her secret was not long kept but instead of castigating her (as might well have happened), her peers adopted the habit as well.
Afternoon tea as we know it, though, is really a product of Victorian England. The Industrial Revolution brought great wealth to a new stratum of society; the middle class. Middle class society’s ample money, unoccupied leisure time, and strong desire to show off their newly acquired wealth led to the development of the “At Home.” This highly ritualized arrangement of social calls and hosted events afforded the Victorian hostess an opportunity to show off.
At Home teas were elaborate displays of food, china, silver, and servants. The menu might include delicate finger sandwiches, sausage rolls, delicate pastries (fancies), cake for slicing, wine, sherry, and of course several types of tea. Musical entertainment was often provided.
After the First World War, domestic servants became less common, societal rules became more relaxed, and afternoon tea became a ritual greatly diminished. Happily, it's enjoying a resurgence now. Tea is gaining in popularity as a beverage because of its healthful properties, and social teas are once again becoming a means of celebrating weddings, anniversaries, and christenings.
As a means of hosting a social gathering, a tea has many advantages: It is a leisurely occasion; a special gift of time to family and friends, and it's less expensive to host than a cocktail party or dinner might be. The mannerly nature of an afternoon tea helps to ensure that guests will be on their best behaviour, and—because of its structured menu and service—tea has a distinct beginning and end. This last attribute is greatly prized by hostesses. We are all acquainted with that lingering guest who hangs on long after the rest of the party has gone!
Going out to afternoon tea is a lovely way to spend time with a friend or to gather with a group. It is a splendid means of celebrating life's occasions. Hosting tea at home can be even more pleasant than going out, and every bit as celebratory. It does require advance preparation, but the effort is worth it: You are providing your friends with the gift of an elegant meal, a social gathering, and time to slow down and enjoy the ritual.
Want to host a tea but don’t know where to start? I’ll be providing recipes and suggestions in coming blogs. Have any questions or suggestions? Please let me know. I’d love to hear from you.