What does afternoon tea mean to the British?

21 Jul 2022

Food + Drink

Rain or shine, it’s always teatime. What exactly does afternoon tea consist of and what does it mean to us Brits?

There are few things the Brits love more than tea. It’s a ritual that punctuates our day from morning to night. Whether starting our day, celebrating, visiting a friend for a chat, commiserating or even consoling, we ‘pop the kettle on’. Afternoon tea takes the humble cup of tea to a new level – so what sets it apart from a builder’s brew?

As with many traditions in the UK, the way we take tea is deeply interlinked with the class system – never more distinctly than when we talk about afternoon tea and high tea. Read on to discover the history and cultural importance of afternoon tea. We’ll even touch upon chocolate afternoon tea, our very own twist on the sophisticated pastime.

Tea cup, macarons, and books

What is afternoon tea?

The most globally renowned of our ways to ‘take tea’ is the Queen Victoria-endorsed afternoon tea. This activity was initially devised as a way for the upper classes to fill the gap between lunch and supper.

In 1840, the Seventh Duchess of Bedford complained of being hungry at 4 pm and started taking a small snack at this time. She asked for bread and butter, cake, and of course, tea, to be brought to her.

Soon, she started inviting friends, and the trend started to spread amongst the upper classes and even royalty. It quickly became a social opportunity across the country, with aristocratic homes opening to esteemed guests – as many as 400 might attend. Soon, the phenomenon was cemented into British culture.

What’s on the menu?

Whilst afternoon tea is no longer confined to high society, it still offers a more dainty and decadent way to enjoy a cuppa, a sandwich and a slice of cake.

No afternoon tea could be complete without tea, traditionally served in china cups. English Breakfast Tea – a blend of black teas – is generally considered the one true ‘cup of tea’ in Britain. In day-to-day life, we only specify the type of tea we want if it isn’t English Breakfast Tea. Otherwise, we just ask for a ‘cup of tea’, and everyone knows which one we mean.

At afternoon tea, you may find a much wider range of teas offered, including Darjeeling, Earl Grey, Assam and many more. 

These teas complement an array of finger sandwiches and sweet treats, from sponge cakes and scones to macaroons and biscuits. One may very well find a luxury biscuit such as our Billionaire’s Shortbread, Milk Chocolate Batons or a handful of creations from our Macaron Collection, at a reputable afternoon tea.

afternoon tea with tea, scones, cakes, sandwiches

How does high tea differ from afternoon tea?

If afternoon tea belonged to the upper echelons of society, then high tea was the poorer man’s version. Victorian-era working folk returned home from a hard day’s graft famished. Emulating their loftier counterparts, high tea became a staple of British life. Whilst afternoon tea was typically enjoyed whilst sitting demurely on a sofa chatting amongst friends, high tea was a meal for workers, enjoyed at the table with family. High tea was taken as dinner, rather than a simple snack.

Typically, high tea consisted of more substantial foods, such as pork pies, cold meats, bread and tea cakes. Whilst tea did make an appearance, it was a strong, black hearty brew.

Over time, the terms high tea and afternoon tea have become somewhat interchangeable. Today, any hotels offering ‘high tea’ will not offer a mug of tea and a simple dinner. They will pull all the stops out and deliver what is, essentially, afternoon tea by another name. This is particularly common internationally and may be borne from a simple historical misinterpretation.

Milk or tea first? An age-old argument

Spend long enough drinking tea in Britain and you’ll eventually witness a light-hearted argument about whether to put the milk in before the tea, or after. Again, as with so many things in UK culture, class plays a big part. Afternoon tea is traditionally served using fine crockery, but in the post-industrial era, the working classes often couldn’t afford such an extravagance. Cheaper crockery can’t withstand sudden changes in temperature. So, it made sense to pour the milk in first and top it up with tea.

However, those with fine china brew their tea in a pot, pour tea into a cup and follow with milk. There’s no right way or wrong way, in practice – you can simply decide for yourself whether to follow aristocratic or working-class tradition.

How does cream tea fit in?

Speaking of age-old arguments… Cream tea is a stripped-back version of afternoon tea. Most often, you’ll find this drink and treat combination in the southern counties of Devon, Somerset and Cornwall. Eschewing the diversity of an afternoon tea menu, cream tea focuses on two staple ingredients: tea and scones.

And this is where the arguments start. The scones are invariably loaded with jam and clotted cream. But the order you slather them provokes fierce (if tongue-in-cheek) debate.

In both Devon and Cornwall, one slices the scone in two first. However, in Devon it’s traditional to add cream first and jam after. The Cornish do it the other way around. 

Freshly baked scones

Try a chocolate twist with Hotel Chocolat

Traditional afternoon tea consists of miniature versions of sandwiches, cakes and biscuits. Here at Hotel Chocolat, we couldn’t help but wonder if a little bit of chocolate could add an extra flourish to make the experience all the more indulgent.

That’s why we created our Afternoon Tea of the Gods. Served at our Rabot Restaurant in London’s Borough Market, it is a cacao-rich take on the quintessential snack. But don’t be fooled: while chocolate and sweet treats are, of course, on the menu, our unique cacao cuisine approach delivers sumptuous savoury delights to boot. From egg mayonnaise brioche to freshly baked cinnamon scones, you can enjoy an extensive menu of delights infused with cacao.

Can’t make it to London? Why not gather your friends and set up your very own chocolate afternoon tea? With just a few tasty sandwiches, some high-quality chocolates to share, and a pot of tea, you can enjoy a sophisticated nibble. Browse our patisserie chocolate range to find the perfect petit fours for the occasion.