If there’s one thing that the British are famous for, it’s undoubtedly their love of tea. But while the consumption of tea has been widespread across the United Kingdom for centuries, the tradition of afternoon tea has found its most dedicated disciples in the capital. From how to brew the perfect cup of British tea to English scones and the correct way to eat them, follow this guide to everything you need to know before indulging in a quintessentially British afternoon tea at Corinthia Hotel London.
A Rich History
When tea was first brought to England in the 1660s, it was an exclusive beverage enjoyed by the royal family and the most elite members of high society. Over the next two centuries it became an integral part of daily life for all classes, and in the 1840s the concept of a ‘tea break’ took on a whole new meaning thanks to the invention of afternoon tea.
The person accredited with introducing the concept is Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford and a friend of Queen Victoria. Legend has it that the Duchess, upon finding herself hungry between lunch and dinner, began ordering a pot of a tea and a light snack to her quarters at around 4pm each day. Soon thereafter, she started inviting her well-to-do friends to join and moved festivities to the drawing room, where the ladies were served tea, cakes and sandwiches, before taking a leisurely walk through the grounds of the estate. The trend took off in high society circles and inspired the launch of tea shops, where the middle classes could also indulge.
Nowadays, afternoon tea is seen as a treat rather than a daily ritual and is enjoyed at a leisurely pace at tea parlours around the country, including at Corinthia Hotel London.
Traditions and Customs
Afternoon tea is not without its customs and formalities. While it’s no longer an experience reserved for the upper classes, most establishments insist on a smart-casual dress code to continue the aesthetics of the glamorous 1800’s tea parties. For men, this could this mean trousers and collared shirts, while for women, it’s often seen as an excuse to dress up.
When done properly, afternoon tea is served in delicate china cups and plates, often covered in pretty floral patterns. The food is generally presented on silver tiered trays, with savoury items at the bottom and sweets at the top, from which guests help themselves.
Afternoon tea shouldn’t be confused with cream tea or high tea. While afternoon tea is a decadent and indulgent late afternoon affair, cream tea usually just consists of a pot of tea and scones, while high tea was traditionally a more substantial affair enjoyed by the middle and lower classes in place of their usual evening meal and served at the ‘high’ dinner table.
English Scones and Other Delicacies
Warm, freshly baked scones with clotted cream and jam (usually strawberry), are the highlight of a British afternoon tea experience. A long-term conundrum, however, has been in the construction of the scone. The Devon way is to layer on the cream first, followed by a generous dollop of jam, while the Cornish manner is the reverse. If in doubt, look at the type of cream being served and follow suite accordingly.
Diners will also be served a selection of light finger sandwiches, always without crusts. Cucumber sandwiches are the most famous variety, alongside other staples such as smoked salmon and cream cheese, egg mayonnaise and cress, and coronation chicken. There’ll also always be a selection of sweet treats, cakes and pastries. Cakes will be served in small portions or slices, which can be easily picked up, while pastries such as tarts and éclairs will be miniatures. Bite-sized sweets like macaroons and teacakes are also commonplace on the top of the silver tray.