Bitesize sandwiches, petit fours and flavoured hot water- a meal with royal approval. Apparently.
Afternoon tea is the single British tradition that fills me with nothing but pure, effulgent excitement. That’s not to say that every other Anglian oddity disgusts me- I mean, I’m always up for a quick jig around the maypole or chasing a rolling cheese down a hill if the opportunity ever presents itself- but afternoon tea is the only one that sets my heart a-flutter.
There’s something altogether charming about it. Just the name conjures up notions of silver platters, dainty cakes, pristine crockery and tea on tap. I adore the quintessential Britishness that comes with it and it has become so engrained in the image of England, as characteristic of traditional English fare as London buses, Beefeaters, red postboxes and fish and chips.
The popularity of the mid-afternoon tradition has skyrocketed in recent times and has become a sure-fire money maker for any restaurant with a tea pot, a cupcake and a slow afternoon. Yet despite its new-found position nestled deep in the quavering heart of the British Isles, it was a custom that, until recently, was largely ignored by almost everyone in Britain except the upper classes.
The ritual originated in the 1840s, when tea consumption soared, and would be served between 4pm and 6pm. It was mostly observed by royalty, with the Duchess of Bedford Anna Maria Russell often credited for transforming the afternoon tea to something which most closely resembles what we recognise it as today- those famed high-end teas of platters piled high with handmade petit fours, unique sandwich combinations and elegant infused teas. She was said to have lamented of “having that sinking feeling” during the late afternoon, so she would take a pot of tea, along with a light snack, to enjoy in the privacy of her boudoir. Later, she invited her friends to Woburn Abbey to join her, and as the ritual proved popular she continued the practice upon returning to London in the winter, writing to her friends and requesting they join her for “tea and a walking the fields.” Many other social hostesses copied, and soon the custom of taking tea and sandwiches in the middle of the afternoon was observed by all of high society. In 1906, The Ritz opened, along with a restaurant that would provide afternoon tea. Harrods followed in their footsteps in 1911 opening their instore restaurant, The Georgian. Claridge’s have been in on the act for over a century.
What was once served as an expensive treat at British institutions and considered a ritual for only the very wealthy, is now being served in every café, restaurant and stately home in England as they turn their hand to the delicate British tradition. But why the sudden demand? Well, perhaps that can be attributed to the surging success of The Great British Bake Off, that not-quite reality show that introduced us humble, Greggs-dwelling peasants to the world of profiteroles, religeuses and macarons. We watched Mary Berry lift those sugar laced deities with such poise, and as she declared each one as delicious as the last, we found ourselves drooling at the television, hooked on the lavishness of Ms. Berry’s everyday rituals and desperate for a fix. That’s where afternoon tea holds its own; it provides us lowly mortals with a chance to sample the life of the sponge cake starlet and gorge on cakes we’ve never heard of and patisseries we can’t pronounce.
As soon as we walk through the doors of the stately home/expensive café of our choice, the sheer beauty of the whole experience hits. We have star-eyed expectations and this is a taste of the high life that we were destined to enjoy.
It looks like a scene that’s been lifted from our dreams; we see ourselves lazing on a chaise lounge, glittering silk dress flowing beside us as we extend two fingers and select a dainty sandwich from a pristine platter, before consuming it with the kind of languid grace befitting only of 50s screen starlets and poised Great-Grandmothers’. Everything is bathed in a soft, sunlight yellow; glass chandeliers hang from the ceilings as if by magic. The silken murmurs of a piano and violin duet whisper in the background and sound like angels crying, and the waiter is devilishly handsome with a chiselled jaw and cheekbones that could cut marble. It’s beautiful and refined and it’s finally where we know we were destined to belong- nestled between the most distinguished rungs of society and drowning in tea.
The reality, however, is slightly less beautiful. We’ve tried desperately to hold in our giddy excitement but a fit of giggles bubble out amongst whispered mutterings of ‘how civilised!’ and ‘so cute!’. We trot out the phone to attempt an obligatory ‘afternoon tea selfie’ that we can Instagram later to let everyone know that it really did happen and we’re like, so civilised. Suddenly the waiter arrives mid-selfie, and we look down to see spilt tea in the saucer and cake crumbs in our lap. It’s all gone pear shaped; we’re really not pulling off the elegant demeanour we know we’re capable of. We try to laugh it off but we’ve waved our arms with too much wild abandon and we’ve sent the teapot flying, like we’ve been studying Miranda Hart all our life.
Even considering the lack of demeanour and the overexcited giggles, it’s still a gloriously civilised treat and I will be the first to admit I go weak at the knees at the very idea. But always at the back of my mind, is a tiny voice that keeps asking, isn’t it a bit much?
Let’s consider what afternoon tea really consists of; a meagre two rounds of bread, barely a morsel of a sweet treat and lukewarm weak tea. It won’t starve off afternoon hunger so it’s hardly a suitable lunch time replacement, and it isn’t sufficient enough for dinner nor do they serve it late enough in the evening.
I can empathise with Duchess Bedford, but that sinking feeling comes from the realisation that for all its glory, afternoon tea just can’t quite live up to the hype, and the pedestal we’ve put it on is just too high. (Or maybe that’s just me- maybe I’m the only person who treats the ritual of afternoon tea with the kind of reverence that would be more suited to the Last Supper.)
But despite my doubts, I will always jump at the chance to seek out my vision of afternoon tea Elysium, and I think it’s a ritual that so few of us could ignore. The quaint glamour is too much. When we get there, when we settle in the mahogany dining chairs and take up the china tea pot, we ignore everything else. We ignore the inconvenience, we ignore the price. We ignore the dry sandwiches and the miserable portions of cake. We ignore every social faux pas we’ve executed, every sin we’ve committed, and best of all, every real-life problem that’s waiting for us when we leave. Because afternoon tea is more than just the food and drink. It is the setting, the atmosphere, and that tiny moment where we can be glamorous, refined and elegant, sipping tea from china cups and eating bite size cakes from a silver stand with our very best friend pretending we’re living the high life- before we return to the reality that we have to keep ploughing on at our nine-to-five office job so we can afford just the thinnest slice of that luxurious pie. We ignore the longing to be more than a visitor in this world. It is our calm amongst the chaos; civilisation in a bustling metropolis. We can have what we’ve always dreamt of; champagne taste on a lemonade pay. And the bubbles have gone straight to our head.