If you’d like to learn a little more about afternoon tea, look no further. Our guide to the different aspects of this most British of institutions includes information on the origins of afternoon tea, the etiquette you should observe while ‘taking’ it and the ways in which it differs from some of its imitators.

The history of afternoon tea

A brief history of afternoon tea

The history of afternoon tea originates back to the 1800s when it was normal for society to only eat two meals a day: breakfast in the morning and dinner served at 8pm.
The idea of eating more than twice a day first started when Anna the 7th Duchess of Bedford famously complained of “having that sinking feeling” during late afternoon. Her solution was to have a pot of tea with a light sandwich or cake privately in her boudoir in the afternoons.
The Duchess soon started to invite friends to join her for tea and sandwiches to exchange stories and share news. It became extremely popular and therefore Anna decided to bring the tradition with her to London, where it was picked up by other social hostesses and quickly caught on.
Nowadays afternoon tea is not part of everyday life and is only an occasional luxury treat much to some tourists’ surprise.

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The health benefits of drinking tea

There are many health benefits associated with drinking tea. For starters, drinking tea can be a great way to keep yourself hydrated – especially if you are looking for an alternative to drinking a glass of water.
Some studies suggest that tea not only rehydrates your body as well as water does but also that it can help prevent serious ailments (although conclusive proof is yet to be published). Alternative health benefits include the possibility of helping you to have a great smile; some researchers claim that tea can protect against tooth plaque and decay.

Spilling your drink is not ideal afternoon tea etiquette

Afternoon tea etiquette

When attending your first afternoon tea it is good to have full knowledge of what to expect and what is expected of you. The main query people have before attending such an event is dress code; most places are now ‘smart casual’, meaning strictly no sportswear or trainers allowed. There is an art to preparing your afternoon tea: when stirring your tea place the teaspoon at 6 o’clock and fold your tea bag at 12 o’clock before stirring (ensuring not to ‘clink’ against the side of the cup). Note also to always take your spoon out and place it on your saucer before sipping.
Although dunking biscuits into your tea might seem perfectly acceptable at home, it is very much frowned upon while in some of the finest hotels in the country. Last but not least, there is no need to stick out your pinkie when sipping your tea; it is afternoon tea’s biggest faux pas.

Making tea is a long, skillful process

How different teas are made

All teas originate from a variety of Camellia sinensis plants, all of which differ due to factors including the soil where they are grown and local weather conditions. Before tea can be made the leaves must be picked and sorted.
They are then withered and rolled before they undergo the chemical process of oxidation. The more oxidised the tea is, the darker the infusion will be; white and green tea are oxidised the least while black is oxidised the most. The leaves are then finally dried to lock in the flavour.

Make sure you know your afternoon tea terminology

The terminology of tea

It’s easy to confuse one type of ‘tea’ mealtime with another considering all the different variations there are. A ‘cream tea’, for instance, is where you simply have a scone with cream and jam with a pot of tea. ‘Afternoon tea’, however, is traditionally a selection of light sandwiches, cakes and scones served with a pot of tea.
You may also have heard the terminology ‘high tea’; this is often misinterpreted, especially by tourists. This term signifies a completely different meal consisting of a heartier meal including more savoury goods. In the past ‘high tea’ was what the lower classes had instead of dinner; the word ‘high’ signifying the height of the table they ate on. Some hotels advertise ‘high tea’ due to the popularity with tourists.
‘Royal tea’ is not often used but if you see it offered you may want to partake; it means that there is the addition of a glass of champagne!

Afternoon tea in London

Like the sound of afternoon tea and want to try it in the capital? A selection of our London hotels offer a fantastic afternoon tea service, including Sofitel London St James, Pullman London St Pancras and Mercure London Bridge. Please contact hotels in advance to check if afternoon tea is offered.

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