Time for tea

10 min read

The ceremony of afternoon tea is a quintessentially English experience with an interesting history that is maintained today


The Ritz hotel’s tea master, Giandomenico Scandu, pours the perfect cup of tea.

Few things truly encapsulate the English spirit better than the notion of sitting down for a nice cup of tea. This ritual is something we have elevated to an art form, particularly in the case of an ‘afternoon tea’, often enjoyed for a celebration. Alex Hutchinson, archivist at Bettys (a Yorkshire-based tea room renowned for its afternoon teas) explains that though “many countries and cultures have evolved a tradition of taking tea in the afternoon with a cake, the British have evolved something very specific. That is, the expectation of tiny finger sandwiches, with the crusts cut off, a selection of very dainty cakes and scones served with cream and jam. The idea of adding anything else, perhaps sausages, would cause uproar.” It is often cited that the 7th Duchess of Bedford invented the custom of afternoon tea in 1840 when she requested something to tide her over between lunch and dinner. Though this story has its virtues, Hutchinson does explain that the more specific rituals of afternoon tea as we expect it today came much later and are tied in many ways to the history of tea itself.

Playing Mother

We were not always a nation of tea drinkers. In the 17th and 18th centuries, coffee and cocoa were the

hot drinks of choice, and predominantly drunk by men in the coffee and chocolate houses of the day, where they would be made by specialists.

Hutchinson explains (discussing the work of Annie Gray, food historian and author of From The Alps to The Dales: 100 Years of Bettys) that tea, in comparison, was easy to prepare, being simply a case of pouring hot water onto tea leaves: “It was something women could take control of at home. They kept tea leaves in a caddy which was locked away, since it was so expensive. They could dose out the leaves and brew them, which is why we still say, ‘I’ll be mother’. It was an empowering experience for women at a time when they had precious few rights.”

Over time, and owing to a dramatic reduction in the tax on it – from 119% to just 12.5% – tea became more affordable and more of us became tea drinkers. Cafes and tea rooms soon followed and became places for everyone to socialise and enjoy a cup of tea, perhaps with a

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