The taking of Afternoon Tea first arose in England in the 1840’s just as the Agrarian Age began to give way to the Industrial Victorian era. The class structure at that time saw the upper classes eating luncheon at about Noon, with dinner or at times a late supper, at 8pm or later. The lower orders ate their more substantial meal, referred to as, dinner, at about 11.30 am and had a lighter meal, which they called tea or supper, after the working day at about 7pm.
For both classes a welcome mid afternoon cup of tea with a little something delicious filled the gap between main meals. The custom spread throughout the Empire and beyond for decades to come. These days changes in social customs, working hours, and conditions mean that most people rarely have time to take afternoon tea in quite that prescribed way.
Traditionally, loose tea is brewed in a warmed teapot and served in a china cup and saucer with milk and, if preferred, sugar. For the working poor of the Industrial Age the sugar and caffeine provided fortification against the doldrums of long working hours. Theirs was a hard-scrabble life of physically demanding labour and they ate far less than their 21st century counterparts. For these laborers strong tea was often accompanied by a small sandwich or a baked scone that had been packed for them in the morning.
For the privileged few afternoon tea was replete with luxury ingredients. Sandwiches of cucumber, egg, fish paste, ham and smoked salmon. This over the top culinary feast was followed by baked scones, served with clotted cream and jam and cakes and pastries that might include a Battenburg, fruit cake or a delicious Victoria sponge.
The High Tea or Creamed Tea we partake of today is an emulation of the opulent lifestyle of the English upper classes in the hey day of the British Empire. Although these days it’s become quite a trend to suspend calorie counting and splurge and it’s a great alternative to the wine bar or pub allowing you to spend time with friends who don’t imbibe.
A luke warm cup of water with a stale old tea bag on the side is not tea. If anyone tries to serve you such you can quote literary geniuses like, George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens, and tell them it is quite simply, swill, and out of the question.