“It’s half past three, everything must stop for tea”, there isn’t anything more British than their love for tea and the customs that follow it. There really isn’t a problem or an emotional issue that can’t be resolved with a spot of tea. Their quaint tea drinking traditions are a core part of Britishness and has its roots in time honored customs steeped in history. When you go to London, you see the hustle and bustle of the modern world and the cosmopolitan nature of the city – but hiding in plain sight are plenty of reminders of an old-world charm, architectural history, and a rich saga of a classical past. When you visit Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and the Tower of London, Hyde Park, Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s Cathedral – you might even think that’s all there is to it from a tourism perspective.
Aah! But that isn’t so – to really embrace and immerse yourself as a tourist in London, one must try the British tea experience. And not just any tea ritual - but the quintessential, good, old-fashioned afternoon tea with all the bells and whistles: finger sandwiches, dainty china cups, clotted cream, hot scones and all the formality of the Regency era or the Downton Abbey period or just of a gentile age, lost in the mists of time.
Tea and Brits are a just like peaches and cream – a good fit, made perfect. There are quite a few English tea traditions, but we want to share a few quirky and interesting ones.
Ever heard of the ‘elevenses’? This is a very British tradition. At around mid-morning, people like to take a break from their work and go have some tea with a little bit of something to eat. Essentially, it can be called a second breakfast. Usually, people drink their tea accompanied with biscuits or small sandwiches or pastries – while socializing with their colleagues. Imagine just being able to disconnect from work for a while to have a soul satisfying cup of tea without getting evil eyes from anyone – it’s a tradition and nobody considers it as ‘slacking off’ at all. If you have Brit colleagues and they do it, don’t give them a hard time – join them instead and you might be transformed.
Historians speculate that the tradition of ‘elevenses’ actually isn't very old, it seems likely the custom came to be in and around the 20th century, as there is no reference to the term in the 1800s. It has stuck around, though! This very British custom can’t be faulted - a break from work, a hot cup of tea and some food. Who in good faith would complain? Who wouldn’t want that?
Then we have the very well-known ‘afternoon tea’ tradition, this one is said to have started quite accidentally - quite like the discovery of tea and involves a very hungry duchess.
Now in one of our earlier blog posts, we talked about how Portugal's Catherine of Braganza is credited with introducing tea to England after marrying King Charles II in 1662. That got people curious about this new brew, but it was too expensive for the masses – so it was only to the upper crust of society who imbibed it. Then in the 1800s tea prices dropped and the teeming masses could now afford it. It caught on and the deep culture of tea became a fixture of British life.
Historical accounts note that lunch for the higher echelons of society was generally a light meal around noon, and dinner was served at about 7:30 p.m. Now, to our Duchess – in 1840, it was said to be around four o’clock in the afternoon at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, England, when said duchess began to get hungry and realized this gnawing ache of hunger would not be going anywhere until dinner, which was hours away. To stave it off, she ordered tea with some bread and butter. It took the edge off and she loved it – she had just found a way to assuage her hunger gracefully while she waited for dinner in the future. So, the next time, she invited a few friends to partake in tea and sandwiches – and thus a trend was born. Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford had given birth to a very English tradition that would stand the test of time.
It became a rage among the elites, more so, when Queen Victoria and the royals attended these afternoon teas. Every hostess worth her salt from the upper crust vied to host afternoon teas and many tried to outdo their rivals. Quite amusing, really when you think it all came about because of one hungry duchess had tea with bread and butter to keep her hunger at bay.
As with everything, what you served at afternoon tea evolved as well. Ever had some Devonshire cream tea? It’s delicious. Thought to have been created by the monks of the Benedictine Abbey at Tavistock in Devon - historical accounts suggest they served bread with clotted cream and strawberry preserves to local workers who helped rebuild the Abbey after a Viking raid in 997AD damaged it. It is delicious (if you get to try it), it caught on and became popular across England. Of course, the aristocrats had to have it as part of their afternoon tea. Devonshire cream tea typically includes a pot of tea, along with scones, strawberry preserves, clotted cream, and sometimes curds and butter. It’s exquisite.
Now, some would say tea is just a beverage. No, it isn’t - tea is an experience and the British have obviously elevated it to an art form. The English think of tea as more than a beverage, it can also point towards being a meal in itself. In the Victorian era, there were two terms that were used - “Low Tea” and “High Tea”. One would automatically assume that ‘high tea’ was posher than the other, but that’s where we would be wrong.
“Low tea” was served on low seating – sofa’s, couches and lounge chairs with low tables (similar to coffee tables) and it was how aristocrats enjoyed their tea.
“High tea” on the other hand was served on high tables and you guessed it - it was enjoyed by the lower classes. Such a dichotomy – since high tea sounds classier. High tea is also not the same as afternoon tea, the trend begun by the hungry Duchess of Bedford.
Afternoon tea is actually taken between 4-6pm and usually consists of Devonshire cream tea or another tea with an assortment of delicate crustless sandwiches, sweets, and cakes. This is what you experience in stylish country tea rooms and city hotels across England and it is a treat! A must-do if you love tea and visit London but we digress!
High Tea is different and is referred to as a sort of dinner – confused yet?! Don’t be – it’s really quite simple. We talked about high tea as being a tradition among the working class. They didn’t have time to break off for afternoon tea and serve up expensive delicacies with tea. Instead, high tea is served at the end of the day when the job was done, and people headed home. In a nutshell, it was referred to as a meal for working class people and included things like cold meats, pies, salad, pickles, bread and butter, cakes, and a pot of tea. Today, this distinction is usually ignored and both terms are used interchangeably outside of the UK when referring to a posh selection of finger foods with tea.
Often, in the olden days, working class women would say “I got to get home and make some tea (meaning high tea) for the family”. This is still the case in large parts of the UK but not so in the rest of world.
And we move on to the next quirk. How do you take your tea? Do you add milk first or last? Does it matter? The British thought so and had a method, depending on what class you belonged to or how rich you were. If you want to do it the aristocratic way – add the milk last.
Does it make the tea taste better – absolutely not! It was all about china cups. Yes, the china cup. Cheaper china cups cracked when hot tea was poured into it – so to show off their quality chinaware, the upper class poured hot tea first and then added a dash of milk! That’s all there really was to it. Today, we can add milk first or last – the taste is just as divine, and our teacups don’t fall apart.
The quaint customs of tea in England are steeped in history, so the next time you visit the UK, try to experience a proper afternoon tea, the British way. Though do remember according to British etiquette experts – the pinkie always stays down when drinking tea. Napkins on laps. No clicking the spoon against the walls of the cup while stirring or splashing tea everywhere. When the tiered stands of food are placed, you serve yourself food from the top tier and work your way to the bottom. The first tier contains scones, second tier has sandwiches and the third, all the pastries and sweets. Heaven help your sweet tooth; you usually can’t have the sweets until you have had items on the first two tiers. That’s a faux pas and we don’t want to be shown up as gauche. Do not devour your food or lick your fingers – the whole point is not to appear ravenous.
Other than those few things, you’re good to go. Soak in the atmosphere, pretend you’re a lady of the manor – converse and enjoy the delicacies on offer. It really is a one-of-a-kind tea experience to savor. And, if you can’t get to England, host one at home.
Just have a hot pot of tea - some tiered stands filled with little quiches, cucumber sandwiches and choice of mini cakes and pastries. Gather some friends together and enjoy a wonderful afternoon with people you adore. Ditch the etiquette, if you want. There really isn’t anything more satisfying and heartwarming than enjoying delicate food, laughter, conversations with friends and a delicious pot of tea.
Like the British say – ‘Come have a bit of a coze with tea’. Yes, please - the English definitely have the right of it!