The Truth About Afternoon Tea

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It never ceases to amaze me how many people make this mistake. The fanciest hotels in New York, London and Paris are all guilty of using the wrong term when referring to Afternoon Tea. They refer to the serving of dainty sandwiches, marble cake, madeleines and scones with clotted cream as High Tea—this could not be further from the truth.

Anna Maria of Bedford started Afternoon Tea around 1840. The Duchess felt peckish in the afternoon and wanted something to tide her over until dinner, which was being served later and later. By 1880 it became a sophisticated afternoon event and ladies in attendance dressed in long, elegant dresses. Tea service became much more elaborate with fine china teapots, cups and saucers, polished sterling silver epergnes, serving pieces and crisply starched lace and linen napkins.

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Once Queen Victoria engaged in the ritual it became a formal occasion on a larger scale, known as a ‘tea reception.’ These events would have as many as 200 guests, and the open invitation would be to the host’s home between the hours of 3 PM and 6 PM, during which guests would come and go as they pleased.

An array of savory sandwiches like cucumber, egg salad or watercress is usually served, cut into either circles, triangles or soldiers with crusts trimmed off. For the sweet tooth, a selection of baked goods ranging from scones to crumpets served with clotted cream and jam to marble cake, seed cake or madeleines.  The teas themselves can be quite exotic, with most coming from India and China. A few favorites we see often are teas such as Darjeeling, Ceylon, Jasmine, Oolong or a classic Earl Grey.

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High Tea, however, is a completely different game. There is nothing elegant about High Tea and it is in fact a common practice of the working class. It is served around 5PM – 6PM when the workday has ended and the workers have built up an appetite for a hearty sandwich, a side of bacon and kippers or even potted shrimp and crusty bread with a big cup of tea. Sometimes it was substantial enough that dinner was unnecessary. The names are derived from the height of the table the tea was served on, with High Tea generally being served on the dinner table.

Fast forward to 2018. Tea no longer has to be dainty and delectable, but instead can be sexy and sultry. Enter the Rock Star Service, featuring a black, white and burgundy color scheme. Imagine skull-shaped sugar cubes, black porcelain teacups, caviar sandwiches, beggars’ purses and a pyramid of ombré’d macaroons. To drink besides the tea: a Black Russian cocktail and of course, champagne. When it comes to flowers, there is nothing sexier than black magic roses or burgundy/black miniature Calla lilies. Always playing to the senses, for music add an edgy playlist you found on Spotify or, if you want to make a statement, how about a DJ accompanied by an electronic harp?

Traditions such as these that develop over time are always in need of an upgrade or a reinterpretation; the idea is to take the tradition and turn it into your own. So, what will the tea of tomorrow be?

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