Much of the past year has been spent in the British Library for my research to answer a frequently asked question; “When did the ‘traditional, quintessentially British meal, Afternoon Tea’ commence”? I have used my words carefully here as these adjectives seem to be used everywhere to describe this meal.
What my journey has uncovered:
This quest has been far more circuitous than I anticipated and along the way I have found some fabulous curiosities, one of which is the series of Aunt Mavor educational books for children. These were published in the middle of the 19th century for children to practise their reading skills. I found, The Cat’s Tea Party a rather quaint delight.
Elderly Miss Tabitha Pusseycat invites her friends to a tea party. Her footman, Jackoo the monkey delivers the invitation cards (page 1 above). The guests are described in detail, gently reminding us of the English preoccupation with social standing (see page 2 above and 3 and 4 below).
What food was served? Miss Pusseycat had bought “six pennyworth of muffins, two twopenny tea-cakes, and three pennyworth of shrimps, by way of a savoury”. There is also mention of toast (made by Jackoo) and bread and butter (handed round by Captain Black) – see page 5 below.
In terms of drink, Miss Tabitha carries out her important duty as hostess of making and pouring the tea. Jackoo can be seen handing around some wine cup or similar alcoholic drink whilst Miss Velvet Purr is singing.
The main focus of the story is the description of the party and the protagonists therein. They all have an opportunity to dress up and demonstrate their social skills, their genteelness and their polite behaviour. Yet it is casual enough for Captain Black to say he would “just drop in too, and take a cup (of tea) with them”. The form of the party is described; eating first and then some singing, tricks and parlour games. As night falls they have all become very merry and the guests go off into the night having had a good time together (see pages 7 and 8 below).
What tea might Miss Tabitha be serving?
This book was published in the early 1860s at which time China teas still dominated sales in London (95.6% of tea sold in London in 1866 was from China). Miss Tabitha might have been very adventurous with her tea and could easily have offered “China or Indian?”.
This habit of serving two teas still continued very much into my lifetime. The China tea would be served in a porcelain or china tea pot and the Indian tea could be served in a silver pot.
These two teas provide an example of the distinctive regional contrasts: the characteristically lighter China tea (Camellia sinensis var: sinensis and the more full bodied Assam (Camelia sinsensis var: Assamica).
The Newby Assam is a revelation. It has a very strong rounded flavour in the mouth but, because the leaves are what I call early season leaves, they lack the tannic bitterness that has become so familiar with the bulk produced teas.
I think Miss Tabitha would have been very happy to offer these teas to her guests.
The term ‘Afternoon Tea’ is not mentioned in the story
The question arising in my mind is we might do well to clarify what we understand by the term ‘Afternoon Tea’ and how does this differ from a ‘Tea Party’?
Until the end of the 19th century, Breakfast and Dinner were the two important meals of the day. These were about sustenance with the focus being on the food. Any other form of private social gathering, however large or small, seemed to be called a Tea Party.
The focus of the tea party was to provide an arena of sociability to which guests were invited to drink tea. Alongside this social tea-drinking ceremony, food was served that complemented the drink and was in keeping with the delicate tea paraphernalia.
Even until the early 20th century it was regarded as injurious to health not to have something to eat alongside the tea. If you look closely at contemporary paintings of people grouped around the tea table from the early 1700s, a plate of bread and butter or hot buttered and toasted muffins will usually be displayed. The tea table was initially the public stage of the private home and where both domestic and business interaction would take place. It is the sociability of the tea drinking that has continued to be carried forward and embraced for any ‘light’ entertaining.
The tea party might be a small group invited to drink tea after dinner (served in the early afternoon) in the 18th century to a large reception or tea dance in the latter part of the 19th century. The food served was light and delicate and the intricacy depended on how much you wished to impress your guests. Liquid refreshments would include tea, coffee, wines etc.
What ‘Tea’ means to me…
For me, ‘Tea’ is a fairly fluid meal that embraces a number of different incarnations that have evolved for various occasions . For example the descriptions ‘Cream Tea’ or ‘High Tea’ provide a distinction to the food served or a Tea Dance tells you about the type of entertainment. It goes without saying, if you are English that these are all served in the afternoon – there is no need for the prefix ‘Afternoon’ as there is never any question that this would be served at any time other except after noon.
My view of the term ‘Afternoon Tea’
In my view, what we know as ‘Afternoon Tea’ is a (late) 20th century creation that has evolved out of hotels and tea rooms. The three tier cake stand has become its symbol and embraces both a Cream Tea (a rustic farmhouse meal) and the delicate finger food of a Tea Party. The prefix has been attached to clarify what is being offered and the focus has been transferred from the tea-making paraphernalia to the food being presented by the pastry chef.
It is a modern luxury meal served outside the home (much like in the picture of me above at the Intercontinental Hotel reviewing one of their Afternoon Teas).
It is a wonderful experience and a far cry from Miss Tabitha’s tea party. For me, her tea party, held in the afternoon really is ‘traditional’ and ‘quintessentially English’.
Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Ward Locke. Various editions published 1870s to 1890s.
The Making of the Modern British Diet, Derek J Oddy, Derek J Miller, Croom Helm London, 1976
Aunt Mavor’s picture books for little readers, George Routledge, London
The Gentleman’s daughter, Women’s Lives in Georgian England, Amanda Vickery, Yale University Press, 1999