Afternoon tea is a traditional English meal that is usually served at around 4pm and consists of tea (of course) and a number of other tasty snacks. Its origins are with Anna, the Duchess of Bedford. During the 1840s dinner wasn’t served until later in the evening and she would become very hungry in the later afternoon.
She would ask for tea and nibbles to be sent to her chambers and eventually the “afternoon tea” was adopted by high society and turned into a social event. These days afternoon tea is a beloved meal that is served every day all over Britain, in hotels, restaurants, cafes and even on a Thames cruise.
So, what types of foods are traditionally served at afternoon tea? The details vary depending on where the tea is being served, but there are a few specific foods that are considered to be representative of this meal.
Of course, all of these foods are washed down with cups of tea, served in dainty cups and saucers. The type of teas usually served include Earl Grey, Darjeeling, English Breakfast Tea, Assam and Lapsang. Some hotels and restaurants may even add the option to include a glass of champagne with your afternoon tea for an extra charge.
Dainty Little Sandwiches
A typical afternoon tea spread will include little sandwiches, often made with thinly sliced cucumber or egg and cress. These are often cut into small triangles or fingers with the crusts removed. You would never serve a full-sized sandwich at afternoon tea, it just isn’t done. However, you may eat several of these little sandwich fingers – enough to equal at least one full sized one!
The cucumber sandwich is an odd one – it is simply paper thin cucumber slices between two slices of white bread. The chef will pride themselves on how thinly they can slice the cucumber – ideally the slices should be almost transparent.
So why do cucumber sandwiches have such a “posh high society” association? Well, they contain little protein and they are not very filling at all. During the Victorian era the upper classes in Britain were the only ones who could afford to eat such frivolous foods of minimal nutritional value. The working class ate much more satisfying and filling meals such as pies and stews.
Cakes and Pastries
Another typical snack that is served at a traditional afternoon tea in the UK is a cake or a pastry. Often this will be a Victoria sponge cake or a Battenberg Cake. The Victoria Sponge cake is, of course, named after Queen Victoria and usually includes raspberry jam and whipped cream sandwiches between two layers of sponge. This type of cake is notoriously sensitive to cooking times, so much so that oven manufacturers often use a Victoria sponge recipe as a test for their ovens.
A Battenberg Cake is another form of sponge cake, which is covered in marzipan and has a special two by two square pattern when cut in a cross section. It’s a bit more complicated to make, as you need to make a yellow and pink cake separately, then cut them apart and reassemble them in the chequered pattern. Apricot jam is used to hold the cake together.
Scones, Jam and Clotted Cream
A freshly baked scone, warm from the oven, is an essential part of afternoon tea. Clotted cream is a type of thick cream is that made by heating full cream cow’s milk using steam and then letting it cool in a shallow pan. This causes the milk to form “clots” and become thick enough to spread. This spread used to be a way for dairy farmers to reduce the amount of waste milk and it became a part of the culture of southwest Britain. It is strongly associated with Devon and Cornwall, although the exactly point of origin is unclear.
Should you put the clotted cream or the jam on first? This is a subject of fierce debate that many people take very seriously.
These are just a few of the typical foods that are served at a traditional British afternoon tea. Whether the tea is being served in a hotel, in a private home, at a restaurant or on a London afternoon tea cruise, these treats are likely to be included.