It’s difficult to think of anything more English than afternoon tea – or “low” tea as it’s also uncommonly known.
With its dainty sandwiches, melt-in-the-mouth scones and multitude of pretty confections, it really is one of our most noble British institutions. So I feel it’s my duty to give heartfelt thanks to TV programmes such as The Great British Bake Off for rehabilitating the tradition and restoring it to national glory after so many years spent languishing quietly in the parlours of maiden aunts.
And in honour of this ritual, which has such a special place in our collective hearts these days, I decided to dedicate one of several 50th birthday celebrations to partaking of its delights. So following a recommendation from my Beloved, we plumped for a family afternoon out with both sets of parents at Luton Hoo. The former manor house in Bedfordshire was formerly owned by the Anglo-Norman de Hoo family, which a couple of generations after the name itself died out, spawned Anne Boleyn of King Henry VIII fame.
Anyway, not to be confused with Sutton Hoo, a renowned burial site of Anglo-Saxon royalty near Woodbridge in East Anglia, the mansion with its stunning vista, originally landscaped by none other than Lancelot Capability Brown himself, is now an 18-hole golf course and spa hotel. And the rather odd name ‘Hoo’ is less of a badly spelled question, it seems, and more of a Saxon word meaning “spur of a hill”.
As for afternoon tea itself, although very nice, the wealth of tiny, rich cakes made it somewhat sugar-rush-inducing, which lost it marks. As a result, it failed to make it into the global top three carefully devised by my parents and myself over several years. After jointly indulging during various trips both at home and abroad, the number one slot simply has to go to the exquisite repast provided by the Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg, which was only enhanced by its discrete and solicitous service.
High and low tea
But it all set me to wondering just where this glorious convention came from in the first place. Interestingly, while the name itself obviously refers to the beverage that sits at its heart, its application appears to be of rather more mixed heritage.
At the lower end of the social scale during the Industrial Revolution, when working class families came home after a wearying day at their looms and factories, they apparently sat down to a table set with all manner of cold cuts, bread, butter, pickles, cheese and, of course, the drink of the day, tea. Because the meal was partaken of at a high dining table rather than a low tea table near a sofa or chair in the drawing room like the aristocracy, however, it was known as “high tea” – a name with which afternoon tea, or low tea, is all too often distressingly confused. And as might be expected, “tea” is still the working class name assigned to one’s big evening meal to this day.
As to the original creator of afternoon tea as we think of it now, meanwhile, that is believed to be one Anna Maria Stanhope, Duchess of Bedford and one of the young Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting. Because the upper class lunchtime meal was petite and the evening meal distinctly large and late, the Duchess proclaimed that she suffered from a “sinking feeling” at around four o’clock in the afternoon.
At first, she had her servants sneak her up a pot of tea and a few dainty morsels of bread to tide her over. But as time went on, she adopted the habit of inviting friends to her rooms in Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, during the summer months to indulge in a cup of tea and a bite to eat at five o’clock.
Her menu consisted of bread and butter sandwiches, small cakes and assorted sweets – and the practice proved so popular that she transported it to London when she returned for the Season. There she sent cards to friends asking them to join her for “tea and a walking in the fields” and her quaint idiosyncrasy was quickly picked up and emulated by other society ladies, making it quite the thing to do.
At this point though, I feel I must inject and clarify the difference between afternoon tea and a cream tea, which is something different again and is actually thought to be a much older tradition. According to local historians, the dish was actually created by monks at the Benedictine Abbey in Tavistock, West Devon, around 1,000 or so AD.
They had suffered their home being plundered and wrecked by a band of marauding Vikings, but Ordulf, Earl of Devon, sent some workers to try and sort out the mess. They were lucky enough to be fed on plates of bread, clotted cream and strawberry preserves for their trouble – and so the Devon cream tea was born, although the bread eventually morphed into scones, of course.
Anyway, so popular did the cream teas prove that the monks continued serving them to passing travellers, which saw their fame only grow and spread – although such idle talk is, of course, hotly disputed by arch-rival Cornwall, which also claims the cream tea as its own.
But there is, of course, a significant difference between the two varieties: After breaking (rather than cutting) their scone in two as is correct practice, the good people of Devon cover each half with thick clotted, (rather than whipped cream, God forbid) before putting strawberry jam on top. In Cornwall, however, it is de rigueur to butter your scone first, layer on your strawberry jam and then complete the whole pretty picture with the aforementioned cream dollop.
On a final note though, there is, unsurprisingly given its origins, a whole raft of etiquette associated with the afternoon tea tradition, which I learned by strange coincidence only the week before my Luton Hoo jaunt from a speaker at a Women’s Institute meeting. Although my pearls of wisdom were to fall on deaf ears on the day itself, I nonetheless did attempt to appraise my recalcitrant audience of the finer points. These include:
- placing your napkin on your knee as soon as you sit down, ensuring it’s folded down the middle into a rectangle shape, with the fold facing your stomach. If you have to leave the table at any point (not recommended), be careful to fold the napkin up and place it on your chair rather than just dumping it down on the table, covering your fellow guests with crumbs in the process
- putting sugar in your cup first, followed by tea. Last of all comes the milk – a sign in the old days that you were wealthy enough to afford porcelain rather than regular china, which would shatter with the heat if milk wasn’t poured in first to cool it
- stirring your tea by placing your spoon at six o’clock and folding it towards the 12 o’clock position, being careful not to chink against the sides and set everyone’s teeth on edge.
So as you can see, although such great English habits may appear to have been invented quite arbitrarily to confuse the lower classes, there is some rhyme and reason to them, no matter how obscure.