The Art of Afternoon Tea: How to Enjoy an Essential English Tradition

Afternoon tea montcalm

There are few things you can do when visiting London that seem to embody the British, nay English, experience more than indulging in afternoon tea. Both tasteful and full of tasty food and drink flavours, it’s certainly an activity to savour in the right surroundings. But is there anything you should know before giving it a go? Well, you may find the following points helpful – and hopefully certainly interesting…

The history

As an entity, afternoon tea dates all the way back to the early 19th Century when, finding she was feeling rather peckish owing to enjoying only two meals a day (one early in the morning for breakfast and the other around 8pm at night), Anna the seventh Duchess of Bedford devised a solution for ‘that sinking feeling’ she experienced in the late afternoon – a pot of tea with a light sandwich or slice of cake. The practice soon became a trend when she invited over friends to join in her ‘afternoon tea’ and, so popular did it prove with them, it quickly spread throughout London society.

Only ever really a tradition in the British higher classes, afternoon tea has admittedly now died out as a regular feature of people’s everyday lives (as they’ve become ever busier and so more demands have grown on their time), leaving it as something of a luxury treat to be enjoyed – which often comes as a surprise to overseas tourists.

The process

Tea itself, of course, isn’t just packed into jars and teabags, ready prepared from nature. There’s quite a thorough process that the leaves are exposed to, following they’re being picked, in order to be properly prepared for consumption. All teas, wherever they come from in the world, originate from camellia sinensis plants; these plants – and their teas then – tend to differ from one another according to several factors (such as geography, climate, weather conditions and soil type).

Once picked from their plants, the tea leaves are sorted, withered, rolled and oxidised. Put simply, oxidisation involves the exposure of leaves to oxygen; the more oxidised they are, the darker their infusion will be, which will affect their flavour. This means that, given their lighter appearance, green and white teas are oxidised less than many others. Finally, the tea leaves are allowed to dry out, locking in their particular flavour.

The benefits

Although there’s yet to be any truly conclusive proof published, it’s been long held that drinking tea does your body good – and probably considerable good at that. So long as it’s not drank to excess (tea contains the stimulant caffeine, after all), it’s believed that as an alternative to drinking water, tea is a fine way to hydrate yourself and can even help keep ailments ay bay. Moreover, it’s arguable that tea-drinking does enormous good to your smile – as it’s possible it may protect teeth from plaque and decay.

The etiquette

All right, here comes the most important information when it comes to enjoying afternoon tea in London. That is, what’s expected of you when you actually indulge in the experience – given it’s a tradition that’s a hangover from high society, so there are a few ‘rules’ that go along with it. First of all, when enjoying it at a suitably salubrious venue – like, say, one of the 5 star hotels in London – be aware that a dress code will no doubt be in force. ‘Smart causal’ is usually the order of the day, which means that for men jackets and ties are expected; jeans and trainers are a big no-no.

Secondly, it should be pointed out that while nobody will really care that much how you prepare your tea, there is a traditional ‘correct’ way to do it. And, let’s be honest, if you’re going to do it the ‘right’ way, when better than on this occasion? To do it right, you’re supposed to (imagining the surface of the teacup as a 24-hour clock face) fold the tea bag at 12 o’clock before stirring with the teaspoon held at six o’clock, being mindful not to clink the inside of the cup with your spoon as you do so. Plus, make sure you’ve removed the spoon and placed it on the saucer when you sip. And, thirdly, according to the rules, dunking biscuits in your tea is definitely wrong, as is the affected touch of allowing your little finger to stick out as your hold and sip from your cup. Nobody actually does this in ‘polite society’.

The terminology

Finally, a word to the wise when it comes to the different uses of the word ‘tea’ in British culture. Confusion sometimes arises for those from outside the UK as it’s a word that’s commonly used to refer to other snacking times and mealtimes beyond the drink itself and, of course, afternoon tea. For instance, in times past the ‘common’ classes came to refer to supper or dinner as ‘tea’ (and many people still do) – this can also be referred to as ‘high tea’, although it happens far less often.

You might too have heard of – or, during your time spent in the UK, you may hear of – the term ‘cream tea’. This, similarly to afternoon tea, means taking tea at a café or the like along with a scone and some jam. Furthermore, there’s also ‘Royal tea’. Given its lofty title you’d probably expect it to be rather special and it arguably is – it means that alongside a pot of tea you’ll likely be served a glass of Champagne. Something not to be sniffed (rather, sipped at), for sure!