The history of afternoon tea is very interesting! Let’s explore this long-standing ritual.
Tea goes way back to China and the Far East where people have been enjoying the fragrant brew for thousands of years.
The Asian culture has a beautiful tea ceremony that has specific motions and meanings.
When tea began to travel along the trade routes along with silk and spices, people in western Europe were able to include the drink with their daily meals.
Daily Meals Now Versus Then
Most of us are accustomed to eating breakfast early in the morning, lunch around noon, and dinner in the early evening.
But way back in the mid-1700s, fashionable mealtimes were much different.
Folks would rise for a leisurely breakfast mid-morning. This was a substantial meal that included the usual morning foods such as eggs and bacon.
But it could also include sausages, kippers (small fish), cold meats, hot chocolate, tea, and toast. You can try English Breakfast Tea one morning!
The diners would enjoy their morning goodies while they read the newspaper to catch up on all the recent events.
Then the gentlemen would head off to their business for the day, often talking finance and politics until well into the late afternoon.
By the time dinner was ready, it was very late! (Sometimes not before eight o’clock in the evening.) Of course, dinner was also a lavish affair with plenty of meats, vegetables, and breads.
So what happened to lunch? There wasn’t any!
The ladies would pass the afternoon in various amusements but waiting all that time for food made them a little hungry.
Okay, a lot hungry. You could even say they were "hangry".
Duchess Anne to the Rescue
This isn't Duchess Anne, but she does look kind of hangry.
There was a lovely Victorian lady in England named Anne, the Duchess of Bedford, who admitted to having “that sinking feeling” in the late afternoon and set about to fix it.
Of course, she didn’t want to call for a big meal, so she had someone bring her some delicious tea and a few snacks including fresh fruit, tiny sandwiches, and little cakes.
After a while of hanging out in her bedroom snacking alone, the Duchess learned her other friends were feeling a bit famished at the same time.
So, she sent word that they should join her for some light refreshments, moved the feast into the drawing room, and started referring to the event as afternoon tea.
Afternoon Tea Goes Mainstream
Word got out about this delightful ritual, and plenty of other Victorian ladies began hosting their own versions.
By the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, afternoon tea was all the rage. It became a competition to see who could host the best festival with the fanciest menu and table décor.
Afternoon tea was just for the grownups, so when a young adult was old enough to attend, that was a very important milestone in their lives.
What is the difference between afternoon tea and high tea?
Back during the Industrial Age, the population was divided into classes. The upper-class elites enjoyed the dainty sandwiches and cakes mentioned above.
This tea was taken in the drawing rooms and parlors at low tea tables. We sometimes call them coffee tables.
But the working-class folks were really hungry after working all day. So, when they got home, they had a heartier meal with meats, cheeses, pickles, bread, and of course, tea.
Instead of sitting in the living room eating from a low table, this tea was eaten at the higher dining room table. It became known as “high tea”.
Thankfully, we can now have any kind of tea we want! Today, many countries refer to the fancy tea as high tea.
And you can enjoy your own version of tea whether you want some tiny cucumber sandwiches and cakes or a hefty roast beef sandwich and pickles.
Fun fact about sandwiches:
While people have been seen munching on food wrapped in bread for a couple thousand years, the sandwich as we know it got its name from another fellow from England, John Montague.
Wait a minute. We don’t call it a “Montague”. What’s up with the name?
It turns out, in the 18th century, Montague was the Earl of Sandwich, which is a historic town in Kent, England.
Anyway, the Earl liked to play cards, but he wasn’t fond of getting grease on them. He couldn’t be bothered to leave the table to wash his hands, so he ordered his meat stuffed between two slices of bread to keep his fingers clean.
And lo, the sandwich was born.
People around the world enjoy having a bit of tea as a refreshment in the middle of the afternoon.
You can explore more about England and the rest of the UK in our UK box.
Have the delicious regional dishes at your regular dinnertime but remember to set aside a day for a delicious afternoon tea. Or turn your UK meal into high tea!
It’s all fun when you eat2explore!