Many people associate afternoon tea with scenes of ladies gathered around a table having a tea party, gossiping, and taking elegant-looking photos. However, British afternoon tea has a culture surrounding it that is just as intricate and fascinating as it is elegant and relaxing having a teatime of your own.
While Britain’s food is often considered lackluster, British afternoon tea significantly burnishes the overall image of British cuisine. In the 17th century when Princess Catherine of Portugal was married, China brought tea to England, and a tea-drinking ethos developed among the royalty. As the kingdom entered the British Victorian era in the 19th century, England became unprecedentedly powerful and prosperous. It established colonies and dependencies all around the world, making it known as “the empire on which the sun never sets.” The intense power and wealth of the country allowed people to pursue a higher quality of life, especially among noble families.
Around the year 1840 — when people only ate two meals per day, once at 8 a.m. and once more at 8 p.m — Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, woke up around 4 p.m. after taking a nap. She felt a little hungry, so she had her maid make some snacks. The maid prepared some desserts and poured a pot of black tea for her. Anna was satisfied. Later, Anna started to invite her girlfriends to the mountain resort for refreshments and strolls through the countryside. As the years went on, nobilities began to adopt this occasion for gathering, and afternoon tea became more and more formal and luxurious. The location of afternoon tea shifted from a lady’s boudoir to the sitting room. In these times, afternoon tea became the place to socialize.
The most orthodox afternoon tea begins at 4 p.m., with “high tea” differing slightly from “low tea.” Nowadays, most venues serve high tea. Specifically, high tea refers to afternoon tea taken around 5 p.m. among middle and lower classes. Many snacks are served with high tea, and diners usually sit on high wingback chairs, thus leading to the term “high tea.”
In contrast, low tea is an afternoon tea traditionally served to the upper class. The snacks come in lower quantity, and goers usually sit on comfortable sofas. Refreshments are placed on a low and decorative tea table.
A standard British afternoon tea must contain three layers of plates:
The first layer mainly consists of sandwiches made with fresh ingredients. (The number of sandwiches is modest and their shapes often elongated. Generally, an afternoon tea menu offers toppings which include cucumber, smoked salmon, mayonnaise, cream cheese, ham, etc.)
The second layer is made of freshly baked scones with clotted cream and jam. (Scones are baked dough. When scones are paired with clotted cream and jam as well as a mouthful of tea, they become a marvelous delicacy.)
The third layer is composed of small desserts, cakes, and pastries. (The selection of the third layer varies by venue. It does not have a particular menu, and each teahouse typically provides a wide variety. Commonly, the desserts include macarons, tiramisu, fruit towers, and so on.)
The selection of tea also varies from place to place, but it generally includes the following types:
Assam black tea (Light malt and rose flavor. Intense tea with thick taste.)
Darjeeling (Grape flavor with delicate and soft taste. Suited for light drinking.)
Earl Grey (With bergamot oil added into the black tea for a strong taste.)
Lapsang Souchong (Diffuses a smell of longan.)
English Breakfast Tea (Rich and mellow taste with a slight fragrance of flowers. Add milk for an extra dimension.)
The question of serving tea or milk first for British afternoon tea is debatable, and the answer is not yet settled. Therefore, it is acceptable to start with either. Every venue generally has its own special tea drink, too.
Are you ready to enjoy an afternoon tea banquet?
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