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Afternoon Tea - The Great Tradition

Feb 7, 2008
The Great Tradition of Afternoon Tea

Almost anyone who drinks tea has their own idea about the tea tradition of Afternoon Tea. It's an event celebrated through decades of British poetry, books, and movies, and is an event known around the world as a result. However, few Americans understand the history of this experience and its origins, and therefore they understand little of its true significance.

The History

The 7th Duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, is reputed to have begun the tradition. Because Victorian dinners were often served "fashionably late" she would begin to feel hunger pains around five in the afternoon. Rather than waiting until dinner to satisfy her hunger, she asked her butler to have tea served in the late afternoon accompanied by bread and butter and a few cakes or biscuits. It satisfied her to the degree that she soon made it a habit, even inviting her friends to join her in the sitting room for the event. When Queen Victoria herself adopted the practice, the tradition became even more popular. As tea eventually became more affordable, the middle class was able to join in on this ritual dessert tea as well, and when that occurred, the event quickly became an activity enjoyed by all.

Of course, this is a well known and respected tradition in the United Kingdom, and it is really a light meal. References to low tea and high tea have little to do with the elegance of this popular tea service. The terms low tea and high tea have more to do with the height of the surface on which tea is served than whether it is elegant or inelegant.

In fact, Afternoon tea can be very elegant. It is traditionally served between two and five in the afternoon and may include finger sandwiches, scones, jams, cakes, and even assorted pastries. It might very well be served on a low table in the sitting room or even the bedroom, hence the term "low tea." Traditionally, only loose tea is served in a china teapot, possibly accompanied by milk and sugar. Occasionally, even more elaborate desserts such as trifle, a multi-layered cake, are served as well. Afternoon Tea is usually served in the more formal rooms of the house rather than the kitchen, and this elegant treat is accompanied by the best linens, fine china and silver teapots.

High Tea

As I mentioned, high tea is a different tea service. High tea is really an early evening meal, and generally occurs between the later hours of 5 and 6 o'clock. It typically consists of cold meats, eggs, cakes and sandwiches and is a more formal event. Because of the type of foods served tends to be served on the table regularly used for meals, a higher table, and hence the term "high tea."

Which Type of Tea?

When it comes to what tea should be served at Afternoon Tea, there are many choices. Often, the hostess makes the tea using an electric kettle to boil the water. Because the water is just off the boil when it is poured over the tea more flavor is extracted. It also effectively reduces the time it takes to actually brew the tea.

The longer you brew tea, the more the tannin will be dissolved, and the tea will taste less bitter. Full leaf tea will also taste better because full leaf loose tea is not as broken as some of the the tea you might find in teabags which often include finely ground tea dust called fannings. Keep in mind that if you do use loose tea, you will need to use a tea strainer to keep from getting tea leaves in your cup. On the other hand, tea leaves in your Afternoon Tea cup gives you the opportunity to give a tea leaf reading, but that's for another article. Tea is a delicious beverage that is enjoyed around the world and in many cultures. Why don't you brew a nice steaming "cuppa" today.
About the Author
Jerry Nielsen is the publisher of the blog, Tea and Scones Vermont, http://www.tea-and-scones-vermont.com and the proprietor of Rose Arbour Tea Room in Chester, VT where his daughter Suzanne serves a truly elegant and delicious Full Afternoon Tea (by reservation only). http://www.rosearbour.com
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