The Extremely British History of Afternoon Tea

Most Americans know what tea is, but did you know that in British culture, “tea” can mean the hot drink prepared with boiled water and herbs or tea leaves, or it can mean a small, daily meal enjoyed in between lunch and dinner? Well, we usually get to snacking around this time at any rate because the interim between lunch at noon and dinner whenever we get home can be unbearable. And the British nobility circa 1840 would have most likely agreed with that dramatic statement! 

The Noble Tradition of Taking Tea

Tea leaves first became a popular English delicacy when they first traveled West from Asia in the 1600s under the rule of King Charles II and the Portuguese Queen consort, Catherine de Braganza. After the 15th century, tea became a symbol of British culture and refinement, but it wasn’t until nearly 250 years after tea arrived in England that “afternoon tea” originated due to a noble complaint.

In the 1840s, Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, would complain of hunger around four o’clock in the afternoon. She would usually have the evening meal served at eight o’clock, so it’s not hard to imagine that the long eight-hour break between lunch and dinner was a consistent torment for the duchess. As a result of her hunger pains, Anna would ask for a tray of cakes, bread-and-butter, and tea to be brought to her in the mid-afternoon. This meal quickly became a habit of hers, and she would often invite friends to take tea with her. 

When word got out about this new meal invented by Duchess Anna, afternoon tea became the fashionable social event of the day for the British upper-class. Society women would don long gowns, gloves, hats, and jewelry, and enjoy a meal in their drawing rooms between four and five in the afternoon that mimicked Anna’s culinary requests. 

Traditional Afternoon Tea Menu

  • Dainty Sandwiches (The Earl of Sandwich invented the sandwich not long before)
  • Scones served with butter, fruit preserves, and clotted cream
  • Cakes & Pastries
  • Tea from India or Ceylon (aka Sri Lanka) poured into bone china teacups from silver teapots 

Today, afternoon tea in Britain could just mean a plate of biscuits/cookies and a mug of tea prepared with a teabag, but the tradition is still upheld in that small way. Afternoon tea prepared in the manner of Duchess Anna is still a British staple but is usually enjoyed as a fancy event in tea shops around the world, including many in America. Of course, those meals can cost a hefty sum per person, so they are not enjoyed as frequently as they were in the past. Luckily, we at Village Catering can host your afternoon tea at our elegant and affordable catering venue, Cottage Green, located in the Northeast. 

Call us today to learn more about afternoon tea, or to book us for corporate box lunches in Philadelphia, sweet 16 parties throughout Pennsylvania, and more professional catering services!