The story goes that the tradition of afternoon tea began in England in the 1840s. During a visit to Belvoir Castle, Anna Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, requested that the servants prepare a light meal for her, consisting of scones, sandwiches and small cakes accompanied by a pot of tea to “lift the spirits.” With the advent of kerosine lighting, people were beginning to have dinner late in the evening. Afternoon tea was served as was a way to stave off hunger and a “wilting” feeling in the late afternoon. Anna soon invited her friends to join her for tea while their husbands gathered to discuss business and politics late into the evening. The tradition soon became popular with the upper classes, who had the staff and the means to prepare it.
The working class prepared a minimized version of the tea which included scones served with clotted cream and jam along with a large pot of tea with cream and sugar. This light snack became known as the “Cream Tea.”As working class people often had limited access to tea, leaves that had already been steeped were often dried and used again. Most people had access to clotted cream, a velvety spread with a slightly nutty taste made from slowly heated fresh cream that was utterly delicious served with scones and jam. The combination of the highly caloric scones along with the caffeinated tea gave people a boost of energy that allowed them to finish their work before dinner.
Afternoon tea saw a rise in popularity during the last century with the increase of the middle class. Ordinary people began to go out for afternoon tea at one of the high-end hotels in London for special occasions or before their daily walk in Hyde Park. Consequently, some of the best afternoon teas in London are served in the hotels clustered around the park as well as in high end shopping districts like Piccadilly.
Over the last two decades, the number of hotels and restaurants serving afternoon tea in London has grown to more than 500, turning the afternoon tea industry into a multi-million dollar business. Unless you’re the Queen of England, you probably don’t have a staff of servants who can put together an elaborate tea for you at home, but you can always splurge for an expensive afternoon tea at a high-end hotel like Brown’s or the Dorchester.