• Joanne Higgs

Afternoon Tea - What you need to know

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

Afternoon tea - that most quintessential of English customs - but would you like to know a bit more about tradition and the ‘correct’ way to do things? If the answer is yes, then you have come to the right place. This is a simple guide to the do’s and don’ts of this most enjoyable of British traditions.


Where did afternoon tea originate?

Lets start at the beginning, a very good place to start! Where did afternoon tea originate? It is said that afternoon tea was introduced in England by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the year 1840. You may not have heard of her but like many great forgotten women of history we owe her a lot. With her dinner being prepared fashionably late at around eight o'clock, the Duchess was said to get peckish around four o'clock in the afternoon and asked that a tray of tea, bread & butter and cake be brought to her room. This became quite a habit of hers and she began inviting her friends to join her, and why not! This social element of her snacking turned into the act of afternoon tea, as we know it. This pause for tea became a very fashionable social event. During the 1880’s upper-class and society women would change into long gowns, gloves and hats for their afternoon tea which was usually served in the drawing room between four and five o’clock. Today the attire requested for guests to adhere to for afternoon tea is normally “smart casual,” which falls somewhere between business casual and casual. However this dainty social occasion seems to me to be the perfect excuse to pull out your favorite frock or trouser suit, don’t you agree?


What is in a traditional afternoon tea?

Afternoon tea is traditionally served with sandwiches, scones and cakes you may also get some savoury extras now such as scotch eggs, pork pies or mini quiches. I will elaborate on the scones later, there is much to learn but firstly the sandwiches. At afternoon tea you would expect that the sandwiches are finger sandwiches. As the name suggests you need to cut the sandwiches into dainty long thin sizes with crusts off. Allow for at least 3 servings per person, with a choice of 3-4 filings on a mixture of brown and white bread. Traditional sandwich fillings include cucumber, coronation chicken, smoked salmon with cream cheese (a personal favourite), ham & mustard and egg mayonnaise with cress. The order of presentation is the sandwiches first followed by scones then the cakes. If you have a cake stand then the order starts from the bottom to the top i.e. sandwiches at the bottom, then scones and cakes at the top. There should be an assortment of at least two cakes. These are normally dainty pastries or small portions. Remember this is a heavy combination of food and you’ll want to sample everything (well I know I do anyway : ). Dessert forks or spoons are to be supplied to use for the delicate sweet morsels. In case you want to really push the boat out a Royal tea is afternoon tea served with champagne, what’s not to love? Afternoon tea is an occasion not just a meal and should always ideally be served on fine bone china such as our beautiful hire collection.


What is a cream tea?

A ‘Cream tea’ is a simpler version of its counterpart the Afternoon tea. A cream tea consists only of tea and scones. Scones may be offered with the choice of plain or fruit and should never be presented already assembled. They should always be served warm and traditionally eaten with clotted cream and strawberry jam. While this is certainly a delicious treat it is not the full belt-popping extravaganza that a full afternoon tea consists of.

Cream or jam on the top?

When it comes to the humble treat of a ‘Cream tea’ the question of cream or jam first is a contentious one. The difference between a Cornish (Cornwall) and a Devon cream tea are subtle but important. The Cornish put their jam on first then the cream. In Devon it is cream before jam. The debate on the ‘correct’ way remains a long-running rivalry between the two counties. Now if you are ever on holiday in one of these gorgeous locations you can impress the locals and get it right – well ‘their right’ at least! Another tip is that scones should be pulled apart and not cut. This shows respect to the baker. It also shows you how fresh your scone is, if you can’t pull it apart then it may not be the best. Lastly never sandwich the scones back together, its just bad form.

Now you can impress your guests with your vast afternoon tea knowledge, at your afternoon tea event. To keep the peace, just don’t sit the Cornish next to anyone from Devon ; )

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