Indulging in afternoon tea is a quintessential experience in England. Not to be confused with “high tea” which is a heartier meal that features more meat dishes and is served in early evening, afternoon tea is a light mid-afternoon snack, served from around 2:30 -5 p.m.
Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, is the person credited with making “tea” a daily ritual as opposed to a simple beverage. The story goes that in the early 1800’s the Duchess, who found herself plagued by hunger between lunch and dinner (usually served around 8pm at that time), began having a late afternoon snack of tea with small sandwiches or cakes. She invited friends to join her and soon the ritual spread in popularity throughout the middle and upper class. While today the demands of modern life often keep people from settling in to enjoy a leisurely tea as they once might have, many people still enjoy an afternoon tea much as Americans indulge in a mid-morning “coffee break”.
The tea served can range from traditional flavors to new and exotic blends. In a traditional afternoon tea service, there are two to three courses. Sandwiches provide a light snack and can include standard varieties like smoked salmon, cucumber, or egg salad (often in dainty portions with the crust cut off the bread). Next come scones with fresh fruit or Devonshire cream, followed by small dessert pastries or cakes. More luxurious modern teas can also finish off with a glass of champagne.
Traditional service dictates that the tea be served from ornate silver tea pots and delicate china cups while the sandwiches and scones arrive on a tiered china cake stand. Of course, for people on the go, a paper cup or travel mug works just as well. Since most tourists and visitors to England won’t be as pressed for time, they’ll be able to sit, relax, and enjoy a traditional tea service the way it was intended.
Here are some of London’s best spots for afternoon tea
The Tea Room at Brown’s Hotel was voted 2009’s top tea room by the Tea Guild. With such an impressive stamp of approval, the service has become quite popular and reservations are a must. Service starts at £35 per person and includes nearly 20 tea varieties plus sandwiches, scones and pastries. For an extra treat, sign up for a £75 per person “tea-torial”, a lesson in scone and pastry making from the head chef plus afternoon tea.
The Lanesborough hotel’s afternoon tea is a lavish affair. The setting is luxurious and refined, the service is without fault, and the tea selection is vast. Tried and true varieties of sandwiches and scones are made with fresh ingredients by master chefs. Tea service starts at £33 per person, but the experience of being treated like royalty is an unforgettable memory.