Why Do Brits Love Afternoon Tea?
There’s nothing more British than a good ‘cuppa’! But afternoon tea, a popular and elegant pastime offered by many of the UK’s most luxurious hotels, is something altogether more fancy. Where did our fascination with afternoon tea come from – and where can you find the best one?
Afternoon Tea: A Brief History
Brits have 17th-century monarch King Charles II and his wife, Catherine de Braganza, to thank for popularising tea as a drink. However, the beverage remained strictly the province of the rich for hundreds of years due to its origins: tea had to be imported, meaning that it carried a sizable price tag.
Fast-forward to 1840, when the seventh Duchess of Bedford, Anna Russell, was growing tired of the current mealtime customs. It was common to have just two meals a day – a hearty breakfast and a late evening meal – but because dinner wasn’t served until 8 pm or later, there was often a big gap between mealtimes. The Duchess started to complain of hunger pangs (‘a sinking feeling’) around 4 pm. It became a daily practice for Anna to order a snack of tea, bread and butter and cake in the afternoon – and she soon invited friends to join her.
Anna Russell happened to be a close friend of Queen Victoria; and, when she went to London, she brought this new habit with her. Queen Victoria responded with enthusiasm, particularly favouring the addition of a light cake with cream and fresh fruit (which became known as the Victoria sponge) with her tea.
It wasn’t long before afternoon tea became a staple of the English social scene. By the 1880s, it had become such an important event that aristocratic women would ‘dress’ for the occasion: donning fine gowns, gloves and hats before enjoying their tea in the drawing room. During summer, afternoon tea would be taken outdoors – another way for the upper classes to show off their opulent gardens and estates.
However, when travel became popular – and more common – the fashion for holding ‘tea parties’ at home faded in favour of going out. Visitors flocked to new luxury hotels, like The Ritz, where tea was served at 4 pm, often to the sound of live music (people even danced – a pastime that became more popular in WWII, when tea dances flourished).
Though the manner in which afternoon tea is enjoyed has changed over the centuries, one thing is certain: the UK leads the way when it comes to serving it. Here are a few of our favourite places in which to indulge in a sumptuous selection of afternoon treats.
The Best Afternoon Teas in London: Fortnum & Mason
Did you know that Fortnum & Mason (the official grocer of Queen Elizabeth II) have been importing and blending tea leaves for over three hundred years - since 1707? As such, you’d be right to have very high expectations when it comes to F&M’s afternoon tea.
With a range of options – from savoury teas (perfect for those without a massive sweet tooth) to vegan, dairy-free and gluten-free menus – Fortnum & Mason offer one of the most generous afternoon teas in London, in a relaxed yet elegant setting.
Fortnum & Mason, 181 Piccadilly, W1A 1ER
No list of afternoon tea options would be complete without a mention of The Ritz – and, if you’re looking for a traditional tea with bags of class, you can look no further. Served in the famous Palm Court to the twinkling sounds of a harpist, The Ritz don’t try to reinvent the wheel with their afternoon tea: but what they do, they do very, very well. From finger sandwiches to plump scones, tea at the Ritz is an elegant, yet quintessentially English, experience.
Oh, and be warned: there is a dress code (no jeans, no sportswear, and a jacket/tie required for men). But if you’re planning to sip tea in one of the UK’s oldest and most prestigious hotels, you’d expect nothing less!
The Ritz, 150 Piccadilly, W1J 9BR
For something a little more unusual – though in an equally grand setting – head to The Dorchester. Famous for daringly decadent options like sandwiches filled with wagyu beef or Devon crab, and ambitious flavour pairings such as bergamot and chocolate gateaux topped with popping candy, the Dorchester serves up some of the most delicious treats in town.
As an additional bonus, The Dorchester is currently offering their own version of ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ throughout September – which means you could enjoy 50% off afternoon tea (discount of up to £10 per diner, and applies to food and non-alcoholic drinks only). Cheers to that!