Afternoon Tea: a repast lost
A distinctly Indian custom, tea was introduced to the English palate through the good offices of the East India Company. The English had reportedly never heard of it up till the beginning of the seventeenth century. Ironically, by the middle of the following century tea had replaced the hard liquor drinks enjoyed by the masses. Today, it is the nation’s most popular beverage.
And while the country of origin has begun to endorse faddish tea habits, the English continue to attach great ceremony to the tradition of tea-drinking. Prior to the introduction of tea, they partook of two main meals, breakfast and an early dinner, served fashionably late amongst the upper classes. This left plenty of room for the inclusion of nibbles and tea in the afternoon, by one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting. This repast continues to be a part of English style in the 21st century, the finest experience of which can be had at the Palm Court in the Ritz in London, amongst elegant surroundings and live music.
Closer home, I have many an indelible memory of afternoon teas hosted by my grandmother. Fine china, lacy serviettes, the faintest tinkling of silverware and dainty manners was once a way of life for grey-haired ladies. The spread, served by soft-footed and uniformed help, had usually consisted of fine cucumber slices or egg and mayonnaise sandwiched between soft triangles of bread. Warm scones topped with freshly potted jam or clotted cream, cakes and tea brewed just right.
This was not to be confused with high tea then. While afternoon tea was an aristocratic consequence of a constantly peckish Duchess, high tea was really an early dinner for workers; the meal including meats, pickles, bread and cheese along with the tea. And since it was eaten at the loftier dining table, it was, quite simply, high tea. In recent times, this term has undergone a change in definition, however, especially outside of England. Allowing for a more traditional tea with lighter meal and dessert offerings.