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English Tea: Its History and Preparation

Catherine enjoys preparing and presenting food. Fresh ingredients prepared from scratch are wholesome, delicious, and fun to make.


The Origins of English Tea

Tea was brought to Britain in the 17th century by Dutch and Portuguese merchants. In 1662 on her betrothal, the daughter of Portugal's King John IV traveled to England with many chests of personal luxury items. Among them was tea, a personal favorite and a staple of the Portuguese Court. Her marriage to King Charles II introduced it to the English royals, and it soon followed as a popular drink among the British nobility.

It provides pleasure to people from all walks of life. It is revered for its ability to both relax and refresh, and sharing it is often the foundation of social visits.

In the United Kingdom and within the British Commonwealth Nations, it is a daily ritual taken at different times of the day. Morning tea, often referred to as "elevenses," might be a cup of tea with toast. Afternoon tea, served between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., is accompanied by sweet pastries or shortbread, scones, clotted cream, jams and occasionally finger sandwiches. High tea is an evening tea served with more substantial fare like meat, shepherd's pie, and fish. It is taken between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.

In Victorian times, it was common for the upper class to have luncheon at noon and dinner at 8 pm or later. The lower class lunched at 11 a.m. and supped by 7 p.m. This practice left a wide hunger gap by mid-afternoon. In 1840, Lady Bedford aka Anna Maria Stanhope, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, purportedly began the tradition of serving afternoon tea to her lady friends of similar social position when she felt the need to pull herself from the 3 p.m. doldrums and get a second wind before her evening obligations. Taking this afternoon tea as a pick-me-up has become an integral part of British custom to this day; however, it is done in a more casual way for everyday purposes, and often workers can't break away as in days past.

Typically afternoon tea is served on a low coffee table, whereas high tea (more of a meat or meal tea for the working class) is served on a dining table. The table height brings the name "high" tea—not the social status. In the United States, we often think of high tea as served mid-afternoon for ladies of high-society with dainty cups, lace, hats, and gloves. How misinformed we are of British customs!

The Serving of Formal Tea

Modern formal tea is usually served from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. It is typically set up on a higher dining or service table and accompanied by an assortment of finger foods such as tea sandwiches made from egg or chicken salad, and cream cheese with watercress or cucumber as well as various cookies, scones, and small teacakes with jam. Strawberries, grapes, vegetable crudites, and nuts are sometimes added to the mix. The most important thing, however, is the tea service.

A formal tea service should have 2 teapots: one for brewed tea and a second for boiling water. Also on a tray with them should be a a waste bowl, a creamer, and a sugar bowl. A plate of sliced lemon is served alongside. The host should always serve the tea to the guests. If a party is quite large, and the host is needed to circulate among guests, someone else should be appointed to pour tea. The server will pour to the guest's preference, diluting the stronger tea with the boiling water and adding sugar and lemon or cream as desired.

an afternoon tea table

an afternoon tea table

The Popularity of the Formal Afternoon Tea

As we have moved into a global society, international customs have become more the norm for luxury hotels, and we see more private businesses catering to the cultures of those from abroad. Afternoon tea has become part of many hotels' daily fare, and reservations are often required due to its popularity. English-styled tea shoppes host women's gatherings for many occasions such as bridal and baby showers and Mother's Day celebrations.

Even children's birthday parties have tea themes with teddy bears and dolls. In the home, many of us choose to offer afternoon tea in place of a luncheon. These settings are often more elaborate than everyday presentations. Vintage shops are perfect places to find teacups, pots, and beautiful table linens at great prices. Start a collection and a tradition to pass on down.

How to Brew and Serve Tea

Fresh boiling water is the key to good tea. The teapot should be pre-warmed with hot water, then dumped, before the tea is brewed. This keeps the tea from cooling too quickly. Add one teaspoon of loose leaf tea per person to the boiling water and steep for 3 to 5 minutes according to personal taste. Letting the tea infuse longer can make it bitter due to the tannin content. Fine bone china cups with smooth sides help to prevent a build-up of tannin in the cup and make the experience of tasting more enjoyable

There are so many wonderful blends from which to choose. The traditional teas derived from Camellia sinensis like black, green, and white teas are best served in wider brimmed cups where the tea cools a little faster, and the flavors can flood the tongue. Fruit and herbal teas are better suited to taller tulip cups where the aroma can gather, and the subtle infusions sipped.

If there is going to be a large group, a bigger pot or covered pan can be kept in the kitchen for refilling the tea service pot. The kettle should always have boiling water handy. Rewarming in the microwave doesn't offer the same freshness.

How to Make Tea Sandwiches

  1. Remove crusts and butter lightly to keep the bread moist.
  2. Apply favorite fillings: egg salad, chicken salad, tuna salad, deviled ham, chopped olive, peanut butter & jelly, cream cheese and pimento, cream cheese and cucumber or watercress, etc.
  3. Quarter sandwiches crosswise or cut into squares or rectangles. Cookie cutters can be used for special shapes.
  4. Wrap the sandwiches in a dampened flour-sack tea towel or cover w/ damp paper towels and place inside plastic bags or plastic wrap in the refrigerator over-night. This will guarantee soft and moist flavorful tea sandwiches.
  5. Shortly before expecting guests, arrange on a tray with paper doilies or attractive greens like parsley, escarole, or curly blue kale. A display on a tiered tray gives visual height to a tea table and adds elegance.

Tea sandwiches are delicious and easy to prepare. Thinly sliced varieties of bread work best, and there are many types from which to choose. Date nut and banana bread are nice additions with cream cheese and do not need advance preparation.

Coconut-Banana Balls

One of my favorite tea table treats is a plate of coconut-rolled banana balls surrounded by fresh strawberries.


  • One banana
  • Vanilla yogurt
  • Unsweetened, shredded coconut
  • Ripe Strawberries


  1. Peel and cut a banana into squarish chunks.
  2. Roll the pieces in vanilla yogurt, then in unsweetened shredded coconut.
  3. Place in the center of a round plate on a paper doily.
  4. Surround with fresh ripe organic strawberries.
  5. Serve immediately.

Tradition and Pleasure

Whether served from a buffet table or enjoyed as a sit-down tea at the dining table, tea should be a leisurely meal to be savored by guests. See to the freshening of the cups by adding more tea and hot water as needed. This tradition is embraced by men, women, and children alike as each is welcomed to pick and choose favorite foods from the table.

Formal tea does not have to be a straight-laced affair. It is simply the table-setting that gives it its name. Who can resist a beautifully draped table dressed with freshly arranged flowers, wondrous assortments of goodies on silver trays and tiered plates, lovely napkins and china cups with saucers? It is a timeless tradition that gives us a wonderful opportunity to use our family heirlooms for the pleasure of our friends, and it continues to gain new devotees every day.


The London Ritz Book of Afternoon Tea Helen Simpson,1986, Morrow

Questions & Answers

Question: In Britain, do you put the cream in before the tea?

Answer: This is sometimes the custom that goes back a long time. Porcelain teacups were so thin and fragile that there was a fear the hot tea would crack them. Milk was added first to cool the tea. I guess the tradition has been handed down through many generations.

© 2012 Catherine Tally


Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on February 08, 2015:

Hello peachy,

It sounds like that tea set brought good childhood memories! A pot of tea is such a simple thing, yet it has brought all kinds of people together to share comfort and companionship for centuries. I love that!

Thanks for dropping by to read and comment- Cat:)

peachy from Home Sweet Home on February 07, 2015:

when i was young, my mom bought an english tea set for me and my brother to play, we followed the TV show, brewing real tea and MILO

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on October 26, 2013:


I appreciate your reading and commenting.! Snuggling up with a pot of tea and a good book on a lazy afternoon when the weather turns cool is the best- have to admit though that I start my day w/ coffee and cream now. Glad you learned a little history about the ritual. Thank you for teaching me some new terminology. Be well, Cat :)

Andrew Spacey from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK on October 24, 2013:

It's great to learn some history about a ritual I take for granted!!

I've just made the first brew of the day - tea in bed is such a nice way to start - and the Yorkshire tea is mashing in the pot. Mashing is a north of England word which means infusing.

Thank you and cheers!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on January 16, 2013:

Hi Helen,

Thank you for the very nice comments! It sounds like you have some wonderful memories from your childhood, and it makes me happy to know that this hub brought them to mind. I am delighted that the tea tradition has grown in popularity worldwide for more people to enjoy. I appreciate your dropping by to read and comment.

My best,

Cat :)

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on September 26, 2012:

Hello Break of Dawn:) I am so glad that you enjoyed my hub on tea. It is my pleasure to share both facts about the history and my enthusiasm for the custom. Thank you for your lovely comments!

Break of Dawn on September 26, 2012:

I feel like a kid in a candy store reading this lovely hub. I'm a big tea drinker -loose leaf tea, that is - and find the subject and the world of tea to be endless, so this hub is such a treat for my eyes and mind. Thank you for a well-researched and interesting hub.

epigramman on September 25, 2012:

I will be looking forward to that one , my friend.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on September 25, 2012:

Good afternoon, Colin:) You and I must be on the same wavelength today as I have been thinking of doing that very thing! I have just finished compiling my Top 10 LPs of all time, and THAT is no easy feat for a music lover as you know. Thank you for your great suggestions and kind support. Cheers!

epigramman on September 25, 2012:

...well I always love a good cuppa tea myself (no doubt an old country tradition as my mum and dad are from Scotland) and currently as I write to you I am having a nice cuppa of honey lemon ginseng tea after my walk as I always do at this time of lake erie 3:54pm .....and I will send one of the greatest tea drinkers in the world to you in order to discover your beautiful hub presentation here - guess who that is?

I would love to see you put together a music hub of some of your favorite concert going moments or a list of your favorite albums (vinyl) as we both hail from that era - lol

sending you warm wishes and good energy from lake erie time ontario canada 3:54pm and how was your summer - it is fall here now by the lake but I am still going into the water until October.

p.s. - will post this essential tea hub to our FB group -Let's just talk music or cinema

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on May 01, 2012:

Thanks, Molly! Yes, tea is delicious with all of the tasty finger foods, but it's only as civilized as you make it:) Hope you try it soon.

Mary Strain from The Shire on May 01, 2012:

Mm, this sounds so...civilized and delicious! I'll have to go to a restaurant soon that serves afternoon tea. Fun hub, Cat!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on April 21, 2012:

Hi Michelle! I am so glad that you found my hub full of new information. One of the things I enjoy at tea besides sampling goodies and sharing with friends is thinking that I am part of a long-standing tradition. I feel connected with all those before me. Thank you for stopping by and leaving such a thoughtful comment. Cheers!

Michelle Taylor from New Jersey on April 21, 2012:

I absolutely love tea but I have never really given much thought as to its origins. This was a very informative and concise article about the history of English tea and it makes me want to have company just to enjoy it properly!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on April 14, 2012:

Hi cherriquinn. It sounds like had a happy childhood filled with fun traditions and love. I am really glad that you enjoyed my hub. Thank you for sharing the bit about the hidden treats in the scones. I appreciate your comments!

cherriquinn from UK. England. Newcastle upon Tyne on April 13, 2012:

Hello there again.I loved this hub as I'm so familiar with afternoon tea and I must admitt there is nothing like a good 'cuppa' first thing. In my part of the world a cuppa is often an hourly activity! My great grandmother always entertained afternoon tea and she would bake scones and put a penny (sterling) in each, wrapped in a little greeseproof paper. As young children, my sisters and I would be very excited at the prospect of having the scones not only for the taste but for the treats inside. Great hub!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on February 12, 2012:

Good to see you here, robie.

I totally agree with you about the morning coffee- I'm lost w/o it! On a dreary, drizzly day, however, when the fire is crackling, I like a steeping pot of tea and my favorite cup. Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

Roberta Kyle from Central New Jersey on February 12, 2012:

REally enjoyed this hub, especially the history and the origin of " high tea" I need my coffee in the morning, but in the afternoon, it is always tea that I want. Voted up and interesting.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on February 11, 2012:

Drjacki, I'm delighted that you enjoyed my hub and learned from it. My research on it also straightened out some of my own misconceptions! Tea is great no matter how you take it, but I love a beautiful tea table and all the small treats! Thanks for stopping by.

Drjacki from North Carolina on February 11, 2012:

This was such an informative Hub regarding tea, and I will need to read it a couple of times to get it all straight. Thanks for the wonderful history lesson and a great Hub!

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