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The history of afternoon tea


The season of baked goods is blooming like a ballooning genoise sponge. 

The smell of dough, fruity scones and boozy desserts is a welcome aroma at a time when we could all do with a comforting cookie or five. 

Our indulgence of sweet treats is not a new occurrence though; it dates back beyond the Middle Ages and has evolved from basic sweet breads into delicate pastries, tarts and cakes. 

And at the centre of our love affair with baked goods is afternoon tea, a quintessential national tradition, created to satiate the lavish appetites of the upper classes and now enjoyed by the masses. 

But how was this custom cooked up and in what ways does the original afternoon tea differ from the variations that we savour today? 

History of tea drinking 

Central to the perfect afternoon tea is the perfect brew, a practice which is soaked into our national identity. 

Drinking tea is not something we can claim as our own though as China is widely credited with founding the practice. 

The first whisperings of this are suggested in Chinese and Vietnamese folk religion, through a legend about Emperor Shennong, a mythological deity who allegedly ordered his subjects to boil his water before he drank it. 

According to Julia Skinner’s book Afternoon tea: a history, this was done to prevent the emperor from falling ill and led to the creation of tea when leaves were blown into his cup, forming a delicious drink. 

However, hard evidence of tea-drinking was not unearthed until the excavation of Emperor Jing of Han’s tomb in the late 1990s. 

Inside the Han Yang Lin Mausoleum, archaeologists came across plant matter which was later realised to be 2,000-year-old tea leaves.

It is therefore China we have to thank for the drink’s presence in the first afternoon tea almost two millennia later. 

History of afternoon tea 

People have been enjoying cakes since the time of Ancient Egypt, long before a certain duchess whisked up the nation’s love of eating them post-lunch. 

Early cakes certainly weren’t the creations of the Great British Bake Off though. 

No, these would have been much closer to a bread sweetened with honey, the kind which Alfred the Great is famously rumoured to have burnt as he hid from rampaging Vikings in a peasant’s home. 

At least the density of poor Alfred’s blundered bakes would have satiated the hungry belly of the Duchess of Bedford, whose rumbling stomach is credited with the creation of afternoon tea. 

The ‘sinking feeling’ she described was a common experience among the wealthier classes who were consuming their evening meal much later in the day because of increased industrialisation and urbanisation in the 19th century. 

To appease her hunger, the duchess requested cakes, bread and butter and tea to keep her going – unknowingly forging a custom which would go on to be loved by Queen Victoria, Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter and hundreds of Brits to this day. 

High tea vs afternoon tea

Unlike its posher compatriot, high tea was a meal enjoyed by the working classes in the evening and was allegedly given the name because it was eaten at a table with high-backed chairs.  

From vegetables, bread and pies to meat, cheese and of course, a cup of tea, high tea was a much less fancy affair than the cakes and luxuries of afternoon tea. 

According to the author of A History of English Food, Clarissa Dickson Wright, afternoon tea was primarily an occasion enjoyed by the rich and upper classes and high tea was something undertaken by everyone else. 

Reflecting on the latter, Wright said: “A high tea served in Yorkshire in the 1860s, might consist of seed cake, bread and butter, ham sandwiches, a salad, tea cakes and muffins, all washed down with tea laced with rum.”

Just Good Food’s afternoon tea 

Afternoon tea

Two centuries have passed since the Duchess of Bedford was guzzling cakes and afternoon tea has become more of a treat than a daily indulgence. 

The menus of this British favourite have been reformed too, expanding and refining to match the spectacular array of ingredients we now have access to. 

Take our afternoon tea menus for example – a balance of many savoury and sweet treats to cater to any palate. 

From a crunchy crostini of brie, fig chutney and serrano ham and sweet potato and ginger filo dipping triangles to raspberry and almond tartlets, rich chocolate brownie and lemon meringue pie, we can offer you the very best afternoon tea experience. 

All served with a steaming cup of the finest tea – or coffee, if you wish to break from tradition. 

Explore the delicious delights we can offer you in our afternoon tea selection