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The History of Afternoon Tea

In British tradition the terms 'Afternoon Tea', 'Cream Tea' or 'Devonshire Cream Tea' and even 'High Tea' can be quite confusing.

The British tradition of High Tea began in the mid 1700s as an afternoon meal, usually served between 3 and 4 o’clock. It was designed for the working man and was taken standing or sitting on a tall stool or table, thus the term ‘high’. The meal would generally consist of tea served with cakes, scones, and cheese on toast or thick sliced bread and butter and cooked meats.

Anna Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford (1788-1861) is credited as the creator of the official ‘English teatime’ for the upper classes, whilst visiting the 5th Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle in the mid-1840s. During the 18th century, dinner came to be served later and later in the day until, by the early 19th century, the normal time was between 7:00 and 8:30 p.m. An extra meal called luncheon had been created to fill the midday gap between breakfast and dinner, but as this new meal was very light, the long afternoon with no refreshment at all left people feeling hungry.

The Duchess found that a light meal of tea (usually Darjeeling) bread and butter and cakes was the perfect filler.

This practice proved so popular that the Duchess continued it when she went to London, sending cards to her friends asking them to join her for “tea and a walking in the fields.” The practice of inviting friends to come for tea in the afternoon was quickly picked up by other society hostesses, in particular by Queen Victoria, a lifelong friend of the Duchess. Once the Queen made taking Afternoon Tea stylish, a whole industry grew around the practice, including fine china, tea services and lace table cloths. By the late 1800’s, public Tea Rooms opened making taking afternoon tea available to the masses.

John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, had the idea of placing meat and other fillings between two slices of bread. The modern sandwich is named after him, but the exact circumstances of its invention and original use are still the subject of debate; was it because he didn’t want to leave the card table while he was gambling or not leave his desk while he was working. I guess we’ll never really know.

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