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The Victorian custom of afternoon tea has certainly remained a big part of established tea culture.  We have all seen or at least heard about the chintz-decorated rooms with tiered trays of treats and china teacups filled with beautiful black tea with milk and sugar.  But how did this tradition start?  Are there other British tea-taking traditions?

The idea of afternoon tea was created in the mid-1800s in England by Anna Maria, the 7th Duchess of Bedford.  Anna was one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting.  She often complained that the break between lunch and dinner was much too long.  At that time, dinner was often eaten at 9 p.m.  She said that she always experienced a “sinking feeling” in those long hours.  (I know that feeling well, don’t you?)  One afternoon she requested some tea and cakes to tide her over.  She decided this snack was exactly what she needed and made it part of her daily routine.  Soon, Queen Victoria adopted the tradition and it became popular throughout the country.  This tea was dubbed “afternoon tea” or “low tea”.

There are different variations of afternoon tea.  “Cream tea” usually includes scones, jam, and clotted cream with tea.  “Strawberry tea” is another version you would find on the Isle of Wight.  “Children’s tea” includes cinnamon toast, jelly sandwiches, and cambric tea.  The full afternoon tea that many of us think of usually includes tea sandwiches (crustless squares of bread filled with things like cream cheese and cucumber, chicken salad, or tomato and cheese), scones, and cakes and pastries.

Sometimes you might hear someone talk about “high tea,” thinking it refers to this formal tea service.  Actually “high tea” is the less elegant of the teas.  Also called “meat tea” is actually a full meal.  Sometimes it is leftovers from lunch, but it usually includes a meat dish or other savory, cheese, and cake or pie.

“Elevenses” is a lesser known tradition here.  It is simply tea and a small snack taken in the morning.  (And, yes, this was frequently referred to in the “Lord of the Rings” movies.  I think it came after second breakfast.)

Personally, I think I’ll go celebrate the tradition of elevenses right now.


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