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English Tea: Its History and Preparation

It's not a tea break without snacks!

It's not a tea break without snacks!

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 p.m. 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, 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 rather than social status gives us the name "high tea." 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. Fresh fruit, vegetable crudites, and nuts are sometimes added to the offerings. The most important thing, however, is the tea service.

A formal tea service should have two teapots: one for brewed tea and a second for boiling water. Also, on a tray with them should be 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. Quaint English-style tea shops 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 three to five 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 wide-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.
  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 with damp paper towels and place inside plastic bags or plastic wrap in the refrigerator overnight. This will guarantee soft, moist, and 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 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 seated 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 welcome 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