Tea, the most quintessential of English drinks, is a relative latecomer to Britain. Although the custom of drinking tea dates back to the third millennium BC in China, it was not until the mid 17th century that tea first appeared in England.
It is said that Queen Catherine started the British on drinking tea when she brought some as part of her wedding gifts in 1662. Initially, tea drinking was only for the wealthy classes due to high shipping costs and import duties. The lower classes still drank beer with their breakfast.
Afternoon tea was introduced in England by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the year 1840. The Duchess would become hungry around four o’clock in the afternoon. The evening meal was generally served late, at eight o’clock, thus leaving a long period of time between lunch and dinner. The Duchess asked for a tray of tea, cake and bread and butter (some time earlier, the Earl of Sandwich had had the idea of putting a filling between two slices of bread) to be brought to her room. This became a habit of hers and she began inviting her friends to join her.
This pause for tea became a fashionable social event. During the 1880s upper-class and society women would change into long dress, hat and gloves for their afternoon tea, which was usually served in the drawing room between four and five o’clock.
In the average suburban home today, afternoon tea is likely to be just a biscuit or small cake and a mug of tea, usually produced using a teabag. Sacrilege!