There are few things more quintessentially British than afternoon tea, but how and why did this most genteel and sophisticated of customs become such a great British institution?
During the Georgian era (1714-1830), the British upper classes would generally eat a light lunch and not dine until eight o’clock in the evening. This issue was addressed by the 7th Duchess of Bedford and Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Victoria, Anna Maria Russel, who, during her visits to the Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle, would request her servant provide her with a fine selection of sliced sandwiches and cakes, accompanied by some Darjeeling tea in the afternoon.
Originally, this practice occurred privately in her boudoir, but such was her sociable nature that she began to invite guests to join in her ritual which was deemed respectable enough to take place in the drawing room and was often followed by “a walking the fields”. As word spread like wildfire, this concept rapidly became fashionable amongst the noble classes and in an attempt to better one’s self by emulating the habits of the nobility, the lower classes also followed suit. In a few short decades, the institution of afternoon tea filtered its way into the social fabric of all classes, becoming a mainstay of the British national identity. During the height of Britain’s empire, around the turn of the 20th century, afternoon tea was so commonplace that the custom even spread overseas.
Rather alike the British Empire, the institution of afternoon tea somewhat dwindled in the 21st century as people simply lacked the time to set aside for a modest meal and some polite conversation in pleasant surroundings. Despite no longer being a necessity, afternoon tea in refined settings that invoke the aurora of the 19th and 20th centuries is still viewed as a periodical treat and an indulgence of the highest order. When it comes to elegant surroundings for afternoon tea, there is none more so than The Ritz, London.
Conceived by illustrious hotelier César Ritz and designed by architects Arthur Davis and Charles Mewés, The Ritz opened in 1906 boasting unique innovations such as brass beds, double glazing, a complex ventilation system and bathrooms for every guestroom. As the first steel building of significance in London, The Ritz oozed elegance and refinement of detail through its Louis XVI furnishings and French chateau style architecture and throughout its 108 year history, it has hosted and homed an inexhaustible list of rich and famous faces. In its earlier years, The Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VIII and other members of English aristocracy frequented the hotel where King Alfonso of Spain and Queen Amelie of Portugal met. Pavlova, the Russian Prima Ballerina, danced at The Ritz, Paul Getty and Aga Khan had suites and Churchill, Eisenhower and de Gaulle met for summit meetings in the Marie Antoinette Suite during the Second World War. Hollywood stars have made The Ritz their home away from home, with Charlie Chaplin needing a forty-strong police escort to guide him through crowds to the hotel in 1921, Nöel Coward notoriously using the venue as his creative inspiration to write songs and Tallulah Bankhead famously supping Champagne from her slipper throughout a press conference at The Ritz in 1951. Such is the prestige of The Ritz that it became the first ever hotel to be awarded a Royal Warrant for Banqueting and Catering Services, by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales.
Situated at the very heart of The Ritz and known formerly as the Winter Garden, The Palm Court is a sophisticated salon, designed primarily as a venue for the glamorous from high society to see and be seen. The dramatically elegant room centres around a wonderfully elaborate floral display, but is overflowing with intricacies of the finest detail, from the extravagantly oversized mirrors and the delicately structured high ceilings to the romantic birdcage chandeliers and stone fountain accompanied by grand gilded statues.
The Palm Court remains the focal point for the famous Afternoon Tea at The Ritz, indeed an institution in itself and the quintessential British experience. With a generous menu offering a selection of no less than sixteen loose leaf teas, cut finger sandwiches with traditional fillings and a plentiful selection of freshly made tea cakes, pastries and warm baked scones, accompanied by strawberry preserve and rich, delicious Devonshire clotted cream, one is spoilt for choice. In the most luxurious of settings, with the atmosphere set by the resident pianist and the hum of sophisticated guests served by immaculately presented waiters at tables adorned with fine chinaware and shining silver, Afternoon Tea at The Ritz is certainly dramatic.
The etiquette surrounding afternoon tea and the rules concerning the manner in which one must conduct oneself are almost as extensive as the menu. Originally, all porcelain cups were produced in China around 620 A.D. without handles and it was not until 1710 that the Meissen Porcelain Company introduced handles to teacups. The correct technique for holding a teacup involves pinching the handle between one’s thumb on the near side and the index and middle fingers behind, allowing the ‘pinkie’ to extend away from the vessel allowing for balance, in order to avoid spillage. By no means should you loop your fingers through the handle or clasp the cup in the palm of your hand.
Twelve-inch napkins are used for afternoon tea service, but few people are aware of the protocol for napkin placement. Without exception, the proper placement for a napkin at a formal event, such as afternoon tea, is on the left of the place setting with the folded edge to the left and the closed edge to the right, regardless of the shape of the fold. There is never an acceptable moment to place one’s napkin on a chair, simply because of the possible stain or damage that could be caused to the seat covering, which, for obvious reasons, may be much more costly or taxing to repair than that of a soiled napkin, able to be laundered with ease. When excusing oneself from the table or upon completion of a dining experience a folded napkin with a crease should be placed on the left of your place setting, indicating to the host or hostess that you desire to be invited again. The term “to make ends meet” originates from the 1729 French Court, when men tied a napkin around their neck during a dining experience to protect their ostentatious, stiff, ruffled collars.
Utensils should be used from the outside inwards. A petit knife and fork may be used for open-faced sandwiches and pastries, but not for a closed sandwich, which, if made properly, should not possess a danger of drippage. Utensils of any nature should never be placed upon the table or cloth when not in use, rather they should be left delicately upon the right side of the plate in question. Sugar tongs should be between 3 ¼ inches to 6 ½ inches, the name of which derives from the European-Indonesian word ‘denk’, meaning ‘to bite’. First introduced in Europe in 1780, they were used for compressed sugar, sold in cone shapes that resembled witches headwear and were thus called hats. Hence the phrase “I’ll eat my hat” was born. When redundant, tongs should be placed besides the sugar bowl or suspended over the handle.
When preparing your tea, contrary to popular belief, it should never be stirred in a circular manner. Rather, the liquid should be folded gently from the six o’clock position away from the drinker, no more than a few times. The spoon should be placed on the right side of the tea saucer when not being used and should never be left in the tea cup during consumption. The tea cup should also be placed upon the saucer when not in use and must not be waved or held in the air. At a buffet tea, the saucer may be held in one’s lap using the left hand, with the tea cup in the right.
When drinking tea, it is not to be used as an aid to wash down food or to be consumed before food matter has been fully swallowed. It goes without saying that slurping one’s tea is strictly forbidden and that the correct method is to sip one’s brew. The biggest debate amongst tea drinkers has surrounded the topic of whether milk should be added before or after. Originally, due to the soft paste porcelain cups in Europe, milk was added first to temper the cups from cracking. However, once hard porcelain was discovered in 1710, by Bottger, for the Meissen Porcelain factory, this was no longer a necessity and it became commonplace to add milk after the tea had brewed.
A lemon slice may float in the tea to enhance flavour that traditionally contained a clove within. A lemon wedge should be wrapped in a gauze or cheesecloth to prevent seeds escaping or squirting juices. If there is no lemon press or squeezer present, it is acceptable to use one’s fingers to lightly squeeze the juice of the wedge into the tea cup, discarding of the wedge via your tea saucer or an available service plate.
As with all elements of afternoon tea there are rigid rules to abide by when serving and eating scones, savouries, sandwiches and sweets.When presenting a three-tier curate stand, savouries and tea sandwiches followed by sweets should be placed upon the middle and lower tiers respectively. As each course progresses, immaculate service should ensure the removal of each tier. The convention of placing scones upon the upper tier dates back to the 1800’s, when, through lack of modern kitchen conveniences, a warming dome was provided over the scones, which would only fit on the top tier. Most people would believe that slicing the scone horizontally into two parts and applying preserve and cream, as if preparing a piece of toast is correct. It is not. Scones should be treated in a manner akin to a bread roll. A small bite-size amount should be broken off and placed upon one’s plate, before using a bread and butter knife to add preserve and cream. A fork is not used to eat a scone and the scone should certainly not be dipped. In fact, for large functions or buffets, the host or hostess should insist the scones be made smaller to accommodate guests.
Finally, afternoon tea must not be referred to as ‘high tea’, which is served between five o’clock and seven o’clock in the early evening, taking place of dinner. High tea takes its name as it is served at high tables, with seated place settings and consists of more substantial foods, including hot dishes, pot pies, sliced meats, salads, cakes, tarts and fruits. The tea may also be served iced or hot. Afternoon tea may also be named ‘low tea’ as it occurs earlier in the afternoon, often served on low-lying coffee tables.
The resurgence in popularity of afternoon tea can, in part, be attributed to the growing number of television period dramas and film productions set in the early 1900’s such as Downton Abbey and Pride and Prejudice. In an ever-expanding world of cancerous commercialism and frenzied technological advance, the opportunity to return to traditional ways, reigniting the art of conversation and affording those taking part the pleasure of escaping the din of modern society, afternoon tea provides the perfect setting to reconnect with nobility and pay homage to a great British tradition. An institution, no less.
Translation by Sanza Bulaya