There is nothing more quintessentially British than the perfect afternoon tea. First enjoyed by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, this deliciously popular treat has been delighting people for over 170 years. Over the years, the customs surrounding it have changed a little, so we’ve popped together a handy guide so you can enjoy your afternoon tea without making any embarrassing faux pas.
A brief bit of background
When the Duchess of Bedford first sat down to afternoon tea, she couldn’t have imagined the popularity that her newly discovered treat would gain. What started out as a snack to be enjoyed with friends would go on to become a cultural sensation. When Anna visited her lifelong friend Queen Victoria in London, afternoon tea really took off. In fact, the Queen enjoyed it so much that she started ordering a light cake with buttercream and raspberries to nibble on with her cup of tea, and thus the Victoria sponge was created. So really, that’s two iconic British treats we have to thank the Duchess for.
Even today, afternoon tea etiquette and rules are still evolving. One of the most common squabbles is whether to spread jam or cream on a scone first. We’re going to weigh in on this controversial argument and put it to bed once and for all. For Devonshire cream teas, the cream goes first, followed by the jam, while in Cornwall, the jam is spread onto the scone, followed by a healthy dollop of clotted cream. While both are technically correct, it’s worth noting that Queen Elizabeth II – who would never dream of breaking social etiquette – always spreads the jam first, according to a former Buckingham Palace chef.
There are various other debates around this tasty teatime treat, including whether tea or milk should be poured first. This is a point of contention between cuppa connoisseurs but there is some logic behind both sides. Back when Anna started taking afternoon tea, cups and saucers were made from bone china. The glaze often had cracks and imperfections, so pouring the tea in first could discolour or even break the china. Tea drinkers on the wealthier end of the scale didn’t have to worry about this happening, so pouring tea in first became a symbol of social status.
Our top 3 teatime tips
There are certain things in life that demand perfection, and tea is right at the very top of that list. If you take nothing else away with you from this, we implore you to ponder these three rules and share them with everyone you know:
- Tea shouldn’t be stirred, it should be “folded” by gently moving your spoon from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock, before popping your spoon on the right-hand side of your saucer when you’ve finished with it. (Yes, it sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?)
- Your tea stand should always have the scones on the top level, the sandwiches in the middle and any sweet treats on the very bottom level. Sandwiches should be eaten first, then the scones, topped off with cakes and pastries.
- While once considered to be the prim and proper way to drink tea, it’s now considered rude to drink with your pinky sticking out, so keep that little finger firmly tucked in.
If reading this has left you craving a cuppa and a cake, why not have a look at our selection of afternoon teas and find one to satisfy your needs? You can even add a glass of bubbly to really lift the spirits and make your afternoon truly memorable.