5 things you didn’t know about the traditional afternoon tea

Written 23rd July 2019

Which do you lather onto your scone first – jam or cream? A debate that’s divided the nation, particularly the counties of Devon and Cornwall. In our eyes, a cream tea tastes delicious no matter the ordering of the toppings. What was once a decadent feast enjoyed as a 4pm pick-me-up at home is now enjoyed in quaint tea rooms across the country, featuring at a whole host of occasions – from birthday bashes to hen parties.


The origins of afternoon tea

It’s hardly surprising that the afternoon tea experience dates back to mid 19th century dining considering its highly sophisticated appearance. To this day, tea rooms across the country take pride in creating a feast that consists of dainty teacups, with a three-tiered selection of sweet and savoury bite-sized treats.


It’s thought that afternoon tea was introduced to England in 1840 by the Duchess of Bedford. After discovering that the gap between the time at which she ate her lunch and dinner was a little too long, she began to indulge in a tray of tea, bread and butter and cakes during the afternoon to stave off her hunger. This soon became a habit of hers, and before long, she invited her friends to join in on the experience.


Green tea… enjoyed as a vegetable?

Heading further back in time, tea leaves were, apocryphally, first discovered over 6,000 years ago by a Chinese farmer. Whilst sitting under a tree, and coincidentally feeling a little unwell, the farmer encountered a tea leaf that fell into his mouth. After chewing on it, he suddenly felt revived from its medicinal properties. Following this, tea leaves were enjoyed as a vegetable – before being made into ‘matcha’ tea, through processing the leaves and adding hot water.


Butter tea, anyone?

We know what you’re thinking, and yes, this is exactly as it sounds. Commonly ingested as a way to ease digestion in the body, butter was added to cups of tea by Tibetans, a Himalayan people, somewhere after the 7th century, before becoming an established tradition by the 13th century. This unusual beverage was also thought to provide the body with a good boost of energy, and was appreciated for its moisturising properties.


Serving tea with milk was a custom that eventually came to Europe in the mid 17th century, first introduced by a Parisian in her salon.


A delicate ‘low tea’ for the upper class

Before long, afternoon tea became ‘low tea’ for the upper class, and was characterised as a mid-day light indulgence that filled the gap between lunch and dinner. The name ‘low tea’ was inspired by the low-level tables at which their tea was enjoyed. This quintessentially British selection of treats was typically enjoyed by ladies of leisure at the time, quickly being transformed into both a dining and social experience.


High tea for the working class

Contrary to popular belief, high tea was once a hearty repast enjoyed at high-level tables by the middle and working classes. After a long day’s labouring, working men would return home to a heavy high tea, which meant it was ate later (at 5 or 6 o’clock) in place of a late dinner, and usually consisted of a selection of cold meats, meat pies, tea and bread and butter.


The history of afternoon tea is undoubtedly fascinating, and whilst we wouldn’t advise adding butter into your tea, we do encourage our guests to enjoy their feast like a true Victorian! To find out more about our afternoon tea experience, click here.


Between 1st July and 30th September 2019, we’re offering our visitors a complementary gin from our Shakespeare Distillery range to accompany the afternoon tea experience. For more information, contact our team here.