Afternoon tea seems inexorably linked with the British. The Duchess of Bedford is credited with founding this tradition. By the Victorian era, the custom of afternoon tea was practiced more or less by most inhabitants of the British Isles, and elsewhere in the British Empire.
High tea as a variant of afternoon tea was not a development of the rich and powerful as its name implies. Instead of the normal sandwiches and scones, high tea was a hearty meal, usually with meat, taken around four in the afternoon. Laborers often had high tea to hold them over to the next meal, as four to five hours might still remain in their workday. Conversely, traditional afternoon tea is also taken at approximately four, but the food offerings are light. The meal may include small bread and butter sandwiches, cucumber or watercress sandwiches, and perhaps small, light cakes.
The intent of afternoon tea is as much social as it may be satisfying. An afternoon tea might be suggested as the perfect meeting for friends, but it was also a traditional time for families to convene, particularly if school children had arrived home needing a snack. In boarding schools, the same need for sustenance and socialization prevailed.
Teas chosen for afternoon tea tend to be light in nature. Popular choices include Earl Grey, tea flavored with bergamot, and Lady Grey, also enhanced with bergamot but containing some light citrus flavors as well. Some prefer Darjeeling, Lapsang Souchong, or Ceylon. Varieties today may simply be packaged as “Afternoon Tea.” Even though tea was traditionally the beverage of choice, coffee might also be offered.
When afternoon tea was held as a large social gathering, food offerings might differ significantly. Along with the traditional sandwiches, complex cakes, pastries, and crumpets laden with butter would perhaps be offered. Devonshire clotted cream might be on the table as well. This difference signified that afternoon tea was in fact a cream tea, as it is known in Devonshire and Cornwall. It is also the way most non-British people think of tea, as something quite fancy.
Though the practice of afternoon tea has declined steadily in the British Isles, there are still some that adhere to this delightful tradition. In the United States, some of the better hotels have always offered high or afternoon tea. Since tea has antioxidant properties, Americans have more recently considered introducing the afternoon tea tradition.
Teahouses throughout the US continue to open, hoping to find an American market. They have met with initial success, offering a mix of afternoon tea, high tea, and cream tea. Usually, such teahouses serve a rather fancy variant of tea, where scones, elaborate cakes, and sandwiches are the order of the day. These restaurants are generally happy to educate newcomers about tea service and traditions, and may offer tea, tea sets, or recipe books to purchase.
It is somewhat ironic that as interest in afternoon tea increases in the US, fewer and fewer British have the time for anything but a cup of tea in the afternoon, if they take anything at all at four o’clock. In an increasingly complicated work-world, stopping for tea does not make sense and can lengthen the workday, meaning more time away from family.