Last week was ‘Afternoon Tea’ week so I thought I would write about what Afternoon Tea is and what it means to me. I’ve always thought of Afternoon Tea as a very grand affair. It conjures up images of Dukes and Duchesses sitting in impressive houses. Afternoon Tea actually was first introduced by a Duchess. The seventh Duchess of Bedford introduced it in 1840 as she found that she was hungry around four O’Clock but the evening meal wasn’t served until around 8 O’Clock. I am guilty of being hungry around 4pm for the same reasons as we eat late in the evening. A mug of tea, a couple of biscuits or a slice of cake in the afternoon are possibly not the grandest form of Afternoon Tea but none the less I think we all enjoy Afternoon Tea of some form or another even if we don’t refer to it by name.
When I was 21 I travelled to Australia on a Young Farmers’ exchange. Whilst there I discovered that Afternoon Tea and Morning Tea are taken religiously and always referred to as just that. I thought it funny at the time as the title does sound far too regal to be used for a brew and a few digestives in the outback but I actually think it is really nice that they class it as important enough in their day that its name should be still used on a day to day basis. Technically Afternoon Tea should compose of small sandwiches and pastries as well as cake but I think as long as tea is involved it shouldn’t really matter. On the farm some form of sustenance should be provided at 4pm and I may start referring to it as Afternoon Tea.
‘What is High Tea?’ I hear you ask. I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to the meals of the day being referred to correctly as people often confuse Lunch and Dinner. Firstly Lunch is the lighter meal that you would have around midday and you would follow this with Dinner, a much heartier meal, later in the evening, possibly not leaving room for supper. Alternatively you may have your main cooked meal at midday and so this is Dinner to be followed by Tea later on and almost certainly leaving room for Supper just before bedtime. High Tea is purely what we now know as ‘Tea time’. Whilst the rich were enjoying Afternoon Tea the working class were clocking off work without having had much to eat in the day, they were returning home for something more substantial than sandwiches and cake. High Tea could be cheese on toast or a light stew. It was usually hot followed by a big pot of tea to restore weary bodies after a hard day’s graft. I often smile when I hear people say that they have booked into Harrods or wherever for High Tea, thinking they are being posh. They actually mean Afternoon Tea. One reason that it is called High Tea is that it would be eaten at a normal kitchen table, whereas Afternoon Tea would generally be served around low tables in an orangery or parlour.
Growing up my family did and still do have Dinner in the middle of the day, the farming version of Afternoon Tea around 4pm (brew and cake), Tea after milking and as a child I would have supper before bed, which was usually a bowl of cereal and mug of Ovaltine. I much prefer this way round as you aren’t going to bed on a heavy meal. Now, however due to my job and D only having sandwiches in the daytime we have our main meal in the evening so technically we have Lunch and Dinner. I do easily fall into the trap of calling my meals Dinner and Tea despite being annoyed when others get this wrong! I just don’t really like the word Lunch, it seems modern and a bit pretentious.
One of my favourite books to bake from is the National Trust ‘Book of Afternoon Tea’. In celebration of Afternoon Tea week I made some sausage rolls and scones from the book and have enjoyed pretending that I’m a bit posh whilst I’ve eaten them. My family does supposedly descend from the Vernon’s of Haddon Hall in Bakewell so maybe I have a conflict of posh Afternoon Tea and High Tea going on in my genes.
Whatever you choose to call it, next time your boil the kettle and reach for the cake tin mid- afternoon, raise your mug / china tea cup to the seventh Duchess of Bedford for giving us a great English tradition and an excuse to eat cake!