Nothing is considered as quintessentially English as tea. But they long ago adopted it as their national drink. And although the younger generation have become somewhat ‘Americanized’ and tend to drink coffee, in time of a crisis or mid-afternoon when one is feeling a bit peckish, nothing works better than a nice cup of tea.
But tea time in Britain means more than drinking a cup of tea. Teatime is an actual meal and depending upon where in the country you find yourself, this meal could be anything from a scone, to a few light sandwiches and cakes, to a full roast dinner.
There three kinds of teatime in Britain: Afternoon Tea, Cream Tea and High Tea.
Afternoon Tea is traditionally served between four and five in the afternoon — hence the name. Many people believe that this tradition was first started in 1841 by Anna Maria Stanhope, the seventh Duchess of Bedford. At that time, and in fact right up until the early decades of the 20th century, luncheon was served at twelve noon but dinner was not served until 8:00 or even 9:00 in the evening. The Duchess, so the story goes, complained of a ‘sinking’ feeling in the middle of the afternoon and asked for some tea and a few slices of bread and butter to be served to her in her private drawing room; the Blue Room at Woburn Abbey.
Whether this is true or not, at some point this trend for eating in the afternoon became more widespread and popular and soon ladies across the land who were ‘at home’ would dress elaborately in their finest dresses and visit each other’s houses to partake of afternoon tea.
In addition to the slices of bread and butter, cucumber sandwiches, salmon sandwiches as well as cakes, pastries, scones with cream, or even a Victoria sponge cake.
The tea, India or China or in many houses, both, would be served in silver tea pots and poured into fine china cups. Afternoon Tea, was, it should be noted, a social occasion in which only the upper class participated. That is, until 1864, many hotels opened tea rooms, and it became quite fashionable for women to visit these tea rooms in the afternoon.
The cream tea is similar to the afternoon tea, but without the sandwiches and other cakes.
The most famous cream tea is the Devonshire Cream Tea. According to local legend, the Devonshire Cream Tea originates from Tavistock, or more precisely Tavistock Abbey. This Benedictine Abbey was plundered by Vikings in the 11th Century and then rebuilt. The monks fed the laborers who were rebuilding it with a calorie-rich food consisting of bread, clotted cream and strawberry preserve. Over time the bread became scones and thus the cream tea was born. However, the counties of Somerset, Cornwall and Sussex will contest this legend; they all offer cream teas too!
A cream tea consists of freshly baked fruit scones, some clotted cream, butter and strawberry jam served with a large pot of tea. The idea is you pour your tea – no choice this time, just whatever is in the pot and then construct your scone to eat with your tea. Butter the scone, add some jam and then add some clotted cream to taste.
Some hotels advertise that they serve “high tea” and then go on to describe a rich and sumptuous afternoon tea. Whilst high tea sounds very, very grand, it is in fact, a working class meal. High Tea is actually dinner.
When tea was first introduced into Britain it was an expensive luxury, but over time as prices fell it became a staple in the diet of the poor and tea accompanied every meal.
Prior to the industrial revolution, when most people worked in agriculture, the workers would come home at lunch time and eat their main meal then. After the industrial revolution, the working classes could not come home at lunch time and so the main meal of the day took place in the late afternoon, or early evening — the same time as the afternoon tea of the rich. This meal became known as teatime. It was a High Tea if it contained hot and filling foods and just Tea if it comprised mainly of breads and cold cuts. A High Tea consisted of whatever was available — bacon, eggs, meats, stew — there were no hard and fast social rules for this meal except that it would always be accompanied by copious amounts of tea.
Even today the working classes – especially in the north – have their main meal at teatime. When I was growing up the three meals of the day were known as breakfast, dinner and tea – a throwback to the pre-industrial meal times – and tea was always served at 5pm.
In the south, however, and amongst the middle classes across the land, these same meals are breakfast, lunch and dinner, with dinner being served at around 7pm. Teatime does exist as a meal for the children and is served at 5pm.
Why just wait till you visit Britain, adapt these tea times in your life. Host parties around these themes and enjoy your cups of Indian tea like the way theBritish do. Get the finest Indian loose leaf tea here