Chinese texts dating back several centuries before the Common Era mention a drink made from bitter plants, presumably tea, which was reserved exclusively for the Imperial Court. By the second century of the Common Era, Buddhist monks had discovered tea’s stimulating properties and contributed to its cultivation and development. A few centuries later, tea had become a popular drink and was widely available. The art of preparing and drinking tea evolved to become a real ritual and teahouses began to appear. They would go on to play a key social role.
The reputation of this prestigious beverage gradually seeped beyond China’s borders. Tea was already being exported to Tibet in the 7th century and then to Korea. Around this time, Japan also discovered it, but it was only in the 12th century that the custom of drinking tea spread and gained wider acceptance. The tea ritual would go on to reach its peak in Japan.
Europeans had already heard about tea from missionaries returning from the Far East. However, it was the Dutch who were the first to bring some back at the beginning of the 17th century. A few decades later, it had seeped throughout the rest of Europe.
Tea had exotic charm and was credited with medicinal properties. However, its reception varied from country to country. It proved to be less popular in Latin countries. Coming from the Far East, it complemented the ornamental objects of Chinese origin or inspiration that were very much in fashion in the 18thcentury. It appealed particularly to the aristocracy and the privileged classes and soon became an integral part of society life. Later, it would become an elegant, refined beverage for upper middle class ladies. The rest of the population considered tea as ‘posh’ or as a medicinal drink, so it was rarely consumed.
By contrast, the Dutch and Germans adopted it immediately. The British developed a passion for tea and quickly became a tea-drinking nation. It was then Russia’s turn to succumb to its charms, with the samovar becoming the centerpiece in Russian homes.
The art of serving and drinking tea gradually developed all over Europe. Initially, it was seen as particularly exotic to drink it in Chinese porcelain cups that were brought back in the same ships as the tea. Then tea services started to be made in Europe and increasingly luxurious accessories were created. It is said that Louis XIV had his tea prepared in a teapot made of gold.
Furthermore, a new custom emerged in the second half of the 19thcentury. The tradition of afternoon tea, which originated in Great Britain, spread throughout Europe and tearooms opened in all major towns. These were places that women could frequent quite freely, unlike cafés, which were considered unbefitting.
For a very long time, Europeans only drank black tea, initially imported from China, then from India and Ceylon. Several perfumed teas were also enjoyed, with Earl Grey flavored with bergamot and jasmine the most popular. Contrary to oriental tradition and at the risk of altering the subtle flavors, sugar and a dash of milk were added.1
Afternoon tea, that most quintessential of English customs is, perhaps surprisingly, a relatively new tradition. Whilst the custom of drinking tea dates back to the third millennium BC in China and was popularized in England during the 1660s by King Charles II and his wife the Portuguese Infanta Catherine de Braganza, it was not until the mid-19th century that the concept of ‘afternoon tea’ first appeared.
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 in her household was served fashionably late at eight o’clock, thus leaving a long period of time between lunch and dinner. The Duchess asked that a tray of tea, bread and butter (some time earlier, the Earl of Sandwich had had the idea of putting a filling between two slices of bread) and cake be brought to her room during the late afternoon. This became a habit of hers and she began inviting friends to join her.
This pause for tea became a fashionable social event. During the 1880’s upper-class and society women would change into long gowns, gloves and hats for their afternoon tea which was usually served in the drawing room between four and five o’clock.
Traditional afternoon tea consists of a selection of dainty sandwiches (including of course thinly sliced cucumber sandwiches), scones served with clotted cream and preserves. Cakes and pastries are also served. Tea grown in India or Ceylon is poured from silver tea pots into delicate bone china cups.
Nowadays however, in the average suburban home, afternoon tea is likely to be just a biscuit or small cake and a mug of tea, usually produced using a teabag. Sacrilege!
To experience the best of the afternoon tea tradition, indulge yourself with a trip to one of London’s finest hotels or visit a quaint tearoom in the west country. The Devonshire Cream Tea is famous worldwide and consists of scones, strawberry jam and the vital ingredient, Devon clotted cream, as well as cups of hot sweet tea served in china teacups. Many of the other counties in England’s west country also claim the best cream teas: Dorset, Cornwall and Somerset.
There are a wide selection of hotels in London offering the quintessential afternoon tea experience. Hotels offering traditional afternoon tea include Claridges, the Dorchester, the Ritz and the Savoy, as well as Harrods and Fortnum and Mason.