Afternoon tea is a peculiarly British ritual that developed around the 1840s as a way to fill the sometimes rather long gap between lunch and a dinner that would usually be held at around 8pm.
An initial popularity among the social climbing ladies of the day took on a greater significance when Queen Victoria took up the habit, heralding the fashion for large, fairly formal occasions that became known as ‘tea receptions’.
These were no small affairs, taking place between 4-7pm and with up to two hundred guests, a trend that is being revived today for tea-party themed weddings, birthdays and baby showers. However a smaller event, carefully planned, could have just as much impact.
Sugar tongs and cake stands
When hosting an afternoon tea, the style is as important as the content. Make sure you’ve got the loose-leaf tea and the home-made sweet treats by all means, but don’t neglect the traditional tea strainer, flowered porcelain, cake stand, sugar tongs and cake forks with which to serve. Not everyone has a handy grandparent with a hoarding fetish from whom to inherit heirlooms such as silver sugar tongs, but fortunately the current fashion for all things nostalgic means modern versions of these old classics are easy to find in the shops. Above all you’ll need a pretty tea dress to suit the occasion!
The afternoon tea menu:
- A selection of finger sandwiches – choose from the classic fillings of cucumber, egg mayonnaise with cress, smoked salmon with cream cheese, coronation chicken, ham and mustard.
- A selection of cakes – Battenbergs, Bakewell tarts, fairy cakes and other bite-sized versions look cute but you can’t beat a good Victoria sponge for traditional value.
- Scones, jam and clotted cream are optional, as is a glass of champagne.
- A selection of real, loose-leaf teas – Assam, Darjeeling, Earl Grey and Lapsang Souchong for example.
- Enough matching cups and saucers to serve everyone present
- A matching set of small serving plates
- Elegant matching teaspoons and cake forks, ideally real silver
- A teapot or two
- Tea strainer
- Milk jug and sugar pot
- Sugar tongs
- A good table linen set including a table cloth and real napkins
- A cake stand or two
- A cake slice
Set the tone with some fresh flowers, some classical music and make sure you keep plenty of milk, sugar cubes and lemon quarters to hand so that everyone can take their tea as they like it and plenty of boiling water ready for top ups. You don’t have to spend a fortune but some attention to detail such as silver teaspoons and sugar tongs will make for a really special occasion.