There’s a lot of confusion surrounding the British tradition of afternoon tea. There’s afternoon tea, Devon cream tea, Cornwall cream tea, high tea, and just plain tea… so what is a British Afternoon Tea really? And should you put jam or cream on your scone first? Stick with me, and all will be revealed!
The History of Afternoon Tea
Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, invented afternoon tea in the early 19th century. Dinner was – and is – served much later in England, generally between 7.30 and 9 pm. The Duchess often felt hungry between lunch and dinner, so she would order tea, bread and cakes. Eventually she began to invite friends to join her. Everyone enjoyed it so much, the tradition spread like wildfire, and continues to do so even today.
High Tea versus Afternoon Tea
Although High Tea sounds like it is more of a luxury than Afternoon Tea, the opposite is actually true.
Afternoon tea was enjoyed by the upper class, like the Duchess of Bedford and her friends.
High Tea was a meal eaten between 5 and 7pm by the lower classes. A heavier meal designed to refresh and sustain after a day of hard work, it usually consisted of meat pies or a stew. Tea itself, as in the drink, was an expensive luxury and was not always served. In fact, the working class were more likely to enjoy a beer with their high tea.
What is ‘Tea’ Then (Aside from a Drink)?!
The casual meal eaten by British families early in the evening (what would be called supper in North America) is often referred to as ‘tea’, even though no tea may be drunk at all.
In some homes, children are still occasionally served a meal around 4 or 5 pm instead of eating dinner later on with their parents, and this is referred to as tea as well.
So, What is British Afternoon Tea?
Afternoon tea is the luxurious three to four course meal traditionally served between 4 and 6pm. Most people don’t have afternoon tea every day. We would have to spend a lot of time in the gym to sustain that kind of lifestyle!
Afternoon tea generally consists of a first course of finger sandwiches, such as cucumber, smoked salmon, ham or egg. The fillings vary and can be quite inventive. Now let me assure you that no actual fingers are involved, except to hold the sandwiches! The crusts of the sandwiches are cut off and they are sliced in rectangles, or ‘fingers’, hence ‘finger sandwiches’.
The second course is scones with jam and cream (more about that later). The third course consists of small cakes and pastries, which may have very detailed and extravagant decoration.
The courses may be served on a three tiered tea tray as pictured above, or they may be brought to you course by course.
Afternoon Tea Glossary
Afternoon Tea – a three to four course meal consisting of finger sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, and cakes served with copious amounts of tea.
Champagne Afternoon Tea – as described above, but with a glass of champagne. This is generally served at the beginning of the meal.
Tea – either a cup of tea, or a casual main evening meal served between 5 and 7pm.
Nursery Tea – a light evening meal served to children in the nursery by their nannies before they go to bed.
High Tea – While you may see restaurants in the UK advertising High Tea, they are actually just trying to sound fancy! What they mean is Afternoon Tea. As I mentioned earlier, High Tea is a heavier meal served much more casually between 5 and 7pm. Most families just refer to it as ‘tea’.
Cream Tea – a pot of tea served with scones, jam and clotted cream. There are no sandwiches or cakes.
Devon Cream Tea – As above, but be sure to split the scone in half and spread it first with clotted cream, and then with a spoonful of jam
Cornish Cream Tea – As per Cream Tea, but be sure to split the scone in half and spread it first with a spoonful of jam, before then spreading it with clotted cream.
Scones – Scones in England are generally round, not triangular like the scones you get in Ireland, Scotland or North America. British scones may be plain, studded with raisins, or (very occasionally) dried fruit such as apricots. They are never iced or frosted.
Clotted Cream – Full cream milk or cream (whole milk/heavy cream as it is called in the US) is heated with steam or over an indirect heat. The hot milk is left to cool in shallow plates and clots (also known as clouts) form. It tastes much better than it sounds.
The Jam First/Cream First Debate
You generally find people from Devon follow the Devon Cream Tea tradition of cream first, and people from Cornwall spread their scones with jam first (see above).
I have been party to a number of heated debates about which is the correct method. For me, it’s always going to be the Cornish tradition of jam first and then cream because I can use less cream! Honestly, don’t worry about it. Just do whatever feels best to you. It’s definitely a conversation starter.
How Do You Pronounce Scone?
Is it ‘scone’ as in ‘bone’, or ‘scone’ as in ‘gone’? This tends to vary by geography. According to The Telegraph newspaper, those in the Scotland and the North of England tend to say scone as in gone, and the Midlands and London stick with scone as in bone. I use the latter pronunciation, but I’ll know what you mean if you say scone as in gone, and I’m not going to correct you!
There is no wrong way, except in some very stubborn peoples’ opinions. Again, don’t worry about it.
So, Can It Get Any More Confusing?
It sure can! There is also a village in Scotland called Scone. It’s pronounced Skoon!
Also, until recently afternoon tea was only served between 4 and 6pm . However, many top hotels now serve afternoon tea anytime between noon and 8.30pm. This is generally because there is just so much food. You would be hard pressed to eat breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. More flexible timings mean you can have afternoon tea instead of lunch or dinner.
Also some of the more famous venues for afternoon tea have a very high demand for tables and book up months in advance. The Ritz Hotel in London, for example, serves afternoon tea at 11.30am, 1.30pm, 3.30pm, 5.30pm and 7.30pm in order to allow them to serve more people.
Do I Have To Dress Up?
It depends on where you go. Most small restaurants or tea rooms are very casual. Top London hotels may expect you to dress up for afternoon tea. The Ritz Hotel, for example, has a very strict dress code.
Where are the Best Places to Have Afternoon Tea?
What’s The Verdict on Afternoon Tea?
It may be confusing, but when it comes to what is British afternoon tea really, the answer is definitely that it is a real treat!
Don’t miss these delicious recipes to help you create a traditional British afternoon tea for yourself at home.