Thanks to Mary Berry, among others, afternoon tea is very much back in vogue. Social media is awash with snaps of people holding their teacups (pinkies extended, absurdly) and gorging on a 4-star hotel’s dry scone.
Tea appeals to all social classes, from the manual worker who prefers it as something to moisten his sugar, to the dowager Countess for whom it is an elaborate ceremony involving warming pots, strainers, and rules about adding milk. Whoever is drinking it, the occasion we know as ‘afternoon tea’ remains one of the most civilised and pleasurable ways to entertain friends and family.
One of the principal advantages of hosting such an occasion is that it only need last a few hours or less; your guests are usually gone by 6pm, and you have the evening to yourself. But do not be fooled into thinking that this form of entertaining needs any less effort and attention than a dinner party. Finger sandwiches can be fiddly and are labour-intensive, and getting your scones and lemon sponge to rise can be a challenge for novice bakers.
First and foremost, you should be clear about the following: afternoon tea is not the same as high tea. Many, wrongly, call sandwiches and scones ‘high tea’ as they think this sounds grander than just ‘tea’. This is very wrong. Those in the know will not say anything, of course, but eyebrows will be raised. High tea was what the servants of a large house ate at around 6pm, after the upstairs had been given their (afternoon) tea. It wasn’t cucumber sandwiches. It was things like large joints of meat (often a roasted ham), slices of thick bread, potted shrimps, a big cake to share, and ale. It was eaten at a proper table, rather than a lower, coffee table, and so it became known in the servants’ hall as ‘high tea’. Later, for people staying in post-war, pre- package-holiday British hotels and boarding houses, it usually comprised sausage, egg and chips (distinguished from breakfast by the absence of fried bread). There are no signs that this particular menu is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Those who call the more refined pastime high tea are perhaps best left off future guest lists due to their delusions of grandeur.
It is generally believed that a woman of privilege called Anna Maria Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, is the person to thank for introducing the tradition of afternoon tea. Back in the early nineteenth century meals were much further apart than they are now. The upper classes would eat dinner around 8.30pm, and maybe slightly later. Understandably, the Duchess frequently became a little peckish in the middle of the afternoon and so ordered her staff to bring her some bread, jam and tea. As she sat alone, consuming this in her husband’s ancestral seat of Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, she decided she’d much prefer to share the moment with her friends. So carriages from neighbouring estates rolled up, ladies gracefully alighted, and the idea caught on.
What then happened was that the newly created middle classes adopted the practice as well. But because they didn’t have sprawling houses with sitting rooms or conservatories to entertain guests for tea, they went to tea shops instead, which served as the first fast-food outlets of the day. These were popularised in large part by the Aerated Bread Company, which in 1864 opened the first of a number of tearooms in London, known as ABC teashops. Then the Lyons teashop chain was established in 1884 and dominated the market for many years, opening its first famous ‘Corner House’ in 1909. These were huge establishments arranged over many floors, with hairdressers, chocolate shops, theatre ticket booking agencies, themed restaurants, and of course the tearooms themselves.
If you find yourself in a discussion about teahouses, you can comment knowledgably that the original ABC teashop in London’s Fenchurch Street station is now a Tesco Express. And although both ABCs and the Corner Houses have long since disappeared into the mists of time, the tradition of going out for afternoon tea is flourishing in Britain’s smarter hotels and specialist tea shops.
Sandwiches are the staple dish of afternoon tea and they too are thought to have an interesting history. The story goes that the sandwich was invented by one John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich and the man who went on to become First Lord of the Admiralty in 1748. Montagu was an inveterate gambler who was so glued to the card table that he opted to miss meals. Instead he ordered his servants to bring him some salt beef between two slices of bread – the bread was there to keep his hands clean so he could handle the cards without them sticking to his fingers.
Ever since, the sandwich has been a finger food – whether served as part of tea or eaten at lunchtime. The exception would be ‘open’ sandwiches, which are eaten with cutlery but not served as part of afternoon tea. Everyone should (but often doesn’t) know that tea sandwiches must have their crusts cut off, and presented either in the shape of triangles, rectangles or – as the royal household prefers – in small squares. Don’t ever serve them in large diagonal crosscuts, because they’ll look like something you bought in a garage forecourt.