“Tradition does not mean that the living are dead, but that the dead are living.” – GK Chesterton
The tradition of the “afternoon tea”
or “high tea”
is something that is essentially British and is still alive and well in Britain but also in most of the countries that once used to be British colonies and part of the British Empire, including Australia. It is a particularly civilised institution and elevates the simple act of satisfying one’s mid-afternoon hunger pangs to an art form. I am in Sydney today for work and after a full morning of meetings, which went through lunchtime and into the afternoon, it was very pleasant to be invited by my colleagues to partake of afternoon tea at one of the major hotels in Sydney, the Westin
in Martin Place, close to the Post Office.Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford
and lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria is often credited with the invention of the tradition of afternoon tea in the early 1840s. Traditionally dinner was not served until 8:30 or 9:00 pm and the Duchess often became hungry, especially in the summer when dinner was served even later. She ordered a small meal of bread, butter, and other niceties, such as cakes, tarts, and biscuits, to be brought secretly to her boudoir. When she was exposed she was not ridiculed, as she had feared, but her habit caught on and the concept of a small meal, of niceties and perhaps tea, became popular and eventually known as "afternoon tea". Obviously the origins of the well known British tradition of afternoon tea cannot be credited to only one woman, but evolved over a period of time, as many cultural customs do.
In 1819 the Tea Dance
started to become popular, and continued through World War II. Friends and acquaintances gathered between 5:00 and 6:30 pm, with table and chairs set up around a dance floor. Tea and snacks were served at the tables while couples danced. It was perhaps the Tea Dance, and not the Duchess of Bedford’s afternoon snacks, that were the direct precursor to the tradition of afternoon tea, although the Duchess may have been one of the first to hold afternoon teas in her home.
The “at home tea” was a common practice in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After deciding on a day of the week to hold “at home” hours, announcements to friends, relatives, and acquaintances were sent. On that particular day of the week one would remain at home all day and receive visitors. Some entertainment might be provided for the guests, but usually conversation, after the model of the French salon, was the primary entertainment. Tea and cakes, sandwiches, or other niceties were served. If sent an “at home” notice it was expected that unless regrets were sent that all who received a notice would attend. There was at least one person holding an “at home” day on any given day, and social ties were established as women saw each other almost every day at different houses.
A complex system of codes was followed during this rather formal social interaction. There were three types of social visits. The first type was to wish congratulations or condolences on the hostess when appropriate. A card was left with the message, and the visitor may or may not have been received. The ceremonial visit was brief, and when another visitor was announced the ceremonial guest, usually an acquaintance whose visit would increase the social standing of one of the parties involved, would excuse themselves and retreat. The third type of visit was that of friendship. A friend would only visit during the appointed at home hours, but the rules of behavior were less strict. For example, the friend was not expected to leave if another guest arrived, as one of the functions of the tea was to socialise with a group of friends.
When tea was served the hostess sat at one end of the table and supervised its pouring for her guests. The eldest daughter of the household, or the closest friend of the hostess, served coffee or chocolate if it was desired. The division of serving privileges was indicative of the varying importance of the three beverages served at this time. Tea was a valuable commodity, and stored in locked tea caddies for which only the woman of the household held the key. In allowing the eldest daughter, or friend, to serve the other beverages, and reserving the privilege of serving of tea to only herself, she set levels of social significance. This is an interesting parallel to the lord of the house serving the tea in China. In both cases it is the host with the most power who serves the tea, in spite of the gender differences. Men in nineteenth century Britain were higher on the public scale of social hierarchies, but the woman was in charge of the household, and creating the genteel atmosphere connected with formal social visits. As a result she was more powerful within the house than the man. Even when the British “lord of the manor” was present it was the woman's responsibility and privilege to serve tea.
The hostess also added the sugar, milk or lemon to the tea for the guests. By the 20th century, these substances were common and inexpensive enough to serve often and to many guests. However, the cultural legacy from when both tea and sugar were rare and expensive luxury goods, created a situation in which the hostess desired, or was expected, to be in control of the amount consumed. When sugar and tea were first introduced only the aristocracy were able to possess them. They displayed their power and wealth by consuming these rare, luxury goods. Tea and sugar were more common by the 1800's, but as consumable luxuries they still suggested power and wealth. The upper classes wealthy enough to hire servants had them serve the tea and guests were allowed to add their own sugar, milk or lemon to the tea. By releasing control over tea and sugar the upper classes demonstrated their wealth and ability to buy as much of these commodities as desired. This asserted their social standing through the careless consumption of luxury goods.
The menu for afternoon tea varied widely and depended very much on the status and wealth of the household involved. However, usually both savoury and sweet selections were available. A traditional menu of a wealthy household may have included the following:Freshly baked scones (currant or plain) served with clotted cream and homemade preservesBanbury buns served with sweet butter
Tea cake, Madeira cake, fruit cake (slices)
Assorted tea sandwiches including:
*Cucumber and watercress
*Smoked salmon pinwheels
*Rare roast beef
*Chicken salad with toasted walnuts
*Classic egg salad
*Thinly sliced cheddar and tomato
*Black Forest ham and Swiss cheese
Assorted bite-size sweets including:
Iced chocolate diamondsMiniature fruit tarts
Fairy cakes with whipped cream
Miniature cakes filled with a vanilla mousse
Handmade chocolate truffles
Cheese and crackers
Needless to say that the status of the household was not only reflected in the quality and variety of comestibles, but also on the quality of the china and silverware in use. The three-tiered silver small cake or sandwich stands are particularly associated with the British afternoon tea tradition.
One of the most celebrated afternoon tea parties in literature occurs in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”, where Alice meets the Mad Hatter, the Dormouse and the March Hare. Carroll sends up the Victorian tradition very nicely and pokes fun at what must have often been stuffy occasions designed to showcase nouveau-riche wealth.
Weather in Sydney today is delightful and Spring-like.Hope everyone has a great weekend!