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English Afternoon Tea

English Afternoon Tea

by Myer Leonard ~

Poet Henry James said, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as the afternoon tea.” The English afternoon tea is one of the most famous and certainly favorite repasts in the civilized world.  It shares with breakfast the tradition of not being embellished with alcohol, which is often overlooked and sometimes Sherry or Champagne is served.

The essential nature of the tea is not to satisfy a hunger but to assuage the desire for a meal with a small sandwich or a piece of cake. That it has grown to be something more substantial is of more recent times than intended at its origin.

The start of this tradition is attributed to Anna, Duchess of Bedford (1783-1857).  It appears that in 1840 she was visiting the Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, and dinner there was served at 8:30 p.m. An extra meal called luncheon had been created to fill the gap between breakfast and dinner, but this meal was also light, leaving a long interval before dinner. With no refreshment, people felt hungry, but obviously did not want to eat a large meal and have no appetite for their multi-course dinner. It is said that the Duchess called for her manservant to bring her a pot of tea, some sandwiches, and a piece of cake, which would be refreshment enough without spoiling her appetite.

Since this seemed to be a most felicitous arrangement, she had it repeated daily, and since she was a friend of Queen Victoria, it wasn’t long before this repast made its way into the court. It really became something of a social necessity in the 1870s through the turn-of-the-century. The wealthier and more aristocratic ladies would leave their cards at the home of similarly placed people and invite them to an afternoon tea between about 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. when they would be “at home” and so receive visitors. It was there that marriageable young ladies could be introduced to, or further their friendships with, eligible young bachelors.

The practice was for the hostess to serve the tea herself, and depending upon the fineness of her china and the freshness of her milk (remember there were no fridges), she would either invite you to tell her whether you wished your tea to be poured in the cup first or the milk first. If she gave you a choice, it meant she had no misgivings about the quality of her china—in that she knew it would not fracture on meeting boiling water and thus scalding the recipient.

Because the cups were small and elegant, they were usually held by the thumb and two other fingers, allowing the little finger to vault into space.

Sandwiches were either of chicken, curried chicken, smoked salmon, or cucumber. In one of the wittiest plays ever written, The Importance of being Ernest, Oscar Wilde parodied the afternoon tea and the role of the cucumber sandwich. No tomato sandwiches because you cannot dry tomatoes, and thus they could easily soggy the bread and drip onto clothes, the carpet, or the furnishings.

The crusts were cut off the sandwiches so that one could see what the contents were without having to surreptitiously lift an edge. It also prevented someone from taking a bite of something they did not like and then having to discard it behind the photo on the piano or into a floral arrangement. The sandwiches were presented in a triangular form so that they could easily be lifted by three digits and not with the whole hand.  The guest inserted the point of the triangle between their teeth and took only a small bite. That was the whole point, to just have a nibble to get rid of the pangs of hunger, not to satiate them.

Small cakes, petit fours, and scones with cream and jam were added, all presented on a three-layered plate stand—sandwiches on the lowest deck, scones next, and the cakes at the top

The people who were invited to afternoon tea were expected to dress smartly, be affable and polite, talk frivolously and amusingly, avoid contentious topics, and never to retain the power of speech but lose the art of conversation.

At the beginning of the 20th century, due to the decrease in the availability of domestic help and the increase in wealth among the middle classes, hotels entered the market. First were tea dances, and later hotels began to serve afternoon teas as a more complete meal with a variety of sandwiches, though still without crusts and in triangles. People sat at a normal dining table instead of at low sofas and low tables, hence, “High Tea.” Among the lower classes, this meal, enhanced with meats, became the evening meal.

Many opulent hotels around the world still serve an English Afternoon Tea on low tables and sofas.
The charm nowadays is not in the likelihood of meeting a potential partner as it is indulging in a rite of leisure and pleasure.

Dr. Myer Leonard is a resident of Sun City Carolina Lakes.  This article was originally published in Living @ Sun City Carolina Lakes and is republished with permission.