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Taking afternoon tea
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We have Anna, seventh Duchess of Bedford (1788-1861), to thank for the ritual of afternoon tea, for it was she who created this delightful break in the day. At the time, she was one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting, and the royal household would breakfast well, lunch lightly and serve a great dinner late in the evening. The large gap between the midday morsels and night-time feast meant the duchess often experienced a “sinking feeling” in the afternoon, so she asked one of her servants to bring her tea and cakes in her bodoir. She enjoyed it so much she called for it again and again. This custom is thought to have spread quickly through the grand houses surrounding St James’s Palace, and also to Fortnum & Mason’s Piccadilly store.

This new afternoon “meal” fashioned a delightful collection of accoutrements that were required to serve the tea and its accompanying savoury and sweet treats. A teapot and a separate metal pot containing hot water were essential (the latter kept the water hot for refilling the teapot), and with them a jug of milk would be brought to the table along with a bowl of lemon slices. Individual strainers and holders were used for each pot and there would also be china cups and saucers and silver teaspoons to stir the milk and tea together. A china bowl for tea drags was also on hand, so that each new cup could be enjoyed to the full. Sugar, despite not being everyone’s preference, would have been offered as cubes in a bowl with sugar tongs to pick them up. Butter dishes containing pats of butter were served alongside a bowl of clotted cream and a bowl of jam, which were needed for scones. This elegant occasion also called for napkins, side plates and small dainty knives and forks with which to enjoy the morsels.

In the eighteenth century tea was an expensive luxury, so it would have been locked away in a tea caddy and the mistress of the house or housekeeper would keep the key safely secured on her belt. Caddies were produced in different shapes and sizes, but the most simple would have been a wooden box lined with metal. Inside there were usually two chambers, each filled with a different tea. A glass bowl in the middle with a caddy spoon meant that the tea could be mixed to your own taste. More decorative caddies were also used to add to the sense of occasion of taking afternoon tea.

Caddies made wonderful wedding presents, with some of the most ornate being engraved with initials or impaled with coats of arms. By the Victorian era, tea had become much cheaper and so it was not so important to keep it locked away; however, the boxes continued to be used for many years to come as vessels in which to store and keep tea at its best.

Today, the art of tea combining has been has been revived, as discerning tea drinkers create their own favourite mixtures. The custom of taking afternoon tea - either by going out to do so or by enjoying it at home - has become popular again, with many different kinds of savouries, cakes and tea breads forming the basis of this delectable and indulgent occasion.


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