The time-honoured tradition of afternoon tea has come back into fashion in the last few years – and it’s not just Britain that’s embracing it. To celebrate afternoon tea week, we’re taking a look at where it all started and sharing some of our favourite afternoon tea spots around the world.
A history of afternoon tea
The trend was kick-started back in the early 19th century, when the Duchess of Bedford (obviously suffering from the dreaded 4pm slump) would invite her high society friends to join her for sandwiches, cake and a pot of tea in the afternoons.
It was a formal affair, with ladies donning elegant gowns, gloves and hats – even nowadays, some afternoon tea venues have a dress code to keep this formal feel.
As time went by, afternoon tea became more and more lavish, becoming the grand occasion we know today, with piles of dainty finger sandwiches, delicious cakes and patisserie, and freshly baked scones served with fruit preserves and clotted cream. It was all washed down with cups of loose-leaf tea, poured from impressive silver teapots (not a tea bag in sight).
High tea or low tea?
Afternoon tea was also known as ‘low tea’, as it tended to be taken at the low tables in the parlour or garden. High tea was more of a middle and lower-class pastime – they would include more substantial savoury goodies and eat it at the ‘high’ dinner table, in place of an evening meal. These days, there are even more variations, from royal teas (with a glass of champagne included) to quirky set-ups like gentleman’s afternoon teas, complete with pork pies and steak-and-snail sandwiches.
Afternoon tea now
Rationing during the Second World War meant that afternoon tea all but disappeared – but now it’s back in a big way, offered everywhere from quaint countryside tea rooms to the most expensive London hotels (spots at The Ritz book up months in advance). It’s even made its way abroad, with hotels offering guests a selection of teas, scones, sandwiches and pastries in elegant lounges or out on sunny terraces.
Tea at the Palace
Product Executive Petra Skelly treated herself to a gluten-free afternoon tea at Belmond Reid’s Palace. Here’s her verdict…
The afternoon tea at Belmond Reid’s Palace is a must for anyone visiting Madeira. It has a traditional British ‘bygone era’ feel, and you’re required to wear smart clothing so it’s got a real sense of class. Aim to eat outside on the terrace – the views over the gardens towards the sea are amazing.
Because it’s so popular, I’d recommend booking in advance – you can do this online. I also emailed the hotel to advise them about my gluten-free request. The tea consisted of white and brown sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, and a selection of muffin-like cakes, all gluten-free. I was pregnant at the time so I had to pass on the glass of champagne, but there was a large selection of teas.
Although my husband’s regular tea looked slightly more appealing with its colourful pastries, mine was really tasty and it was great to still be able to experience this lovely tradition in such a beautiful setting.
Our favourite hotel afternoon teas
The tea terrace at the Belmond Reid’s Palace is the perfect mix of British and Mediterranean – it’s got the traditional checkerboard floor and white linen tablecloths, but the open sides overlook breeze-rustled palms and the ink-blue ocean. You’ll have 24 teas to choose from, plus a delicious selection of sandwiches, scones and homemade pastries.
Afternoon tea at La Residencia is served out on Café Miro’s terrace, overlooking the village of Deia. You’ll start with a round of smoked salmon, cucumber and egg sandwiches, followed by cakes and scones, homemade marmalade, fresh fruit and whipped cream. Wash it down with a Ceylon tea or a glass of champagne.
Waiters in the Camelia lounge will bring you an elegant silver tea stand laid out with homemade sandwiches, cakes and pastries, but it’s the tea itself that really takes centre stage here. You’ll have 150 loose-leaf varieties to choose from, and there are even tea specialists on hand to help you find your perfect cuppa.
The setting for afternoon tea at the Elysium is gorgeous, with antique leather seats, a medieval fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows with views out to the Mediterranean Sea. Three-tier tea stands come loaded with traditional sandwiches like cucumber and ham and cheese, as well as miniature cakes and pastries, and fluffy scones with jam and cream.