Drinking tea is not just for cold weather. It’s something we enjoy during all seasons, even when it’s hot outside. The ritual of afternoon tea is deeply rooted in our culture. There are probably very few among us who have not partaken in one version or another of this ritual. Today, we will take a look at the history, the tradition, and some of the best places for afternoon tea.

The History and Tradition

The tradition of drinking tea plays a large role in British culture. But did you know that this tradition actually began thanks to Portugal? In 1662, Charles II married the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza. They were both accustomed to drinking tea, a scarce luxury good at that time. It is said that she arrived in England with copious amounts of tea, and she became known as the first English tea-drinking queen. The drink soon became popular amongst all who could afford this luxury.

While the tradition of drinking tea may have stemmed from the Portuguese, the tradition of afternoon tea, however, is indeed very British. In the 18th and 19th centuries, dinner was eaten quite late amongst the middle and upper classes, hours after the light luncheon meal. In the early 19th century, Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, took to drinking tea and having a light snack in the afternoon to keep up off her hunger between meals. The tradition caught on by Anna inviting guests to join her. By the 1860s, the ritual had become widespread.

There are several variations on the tradition of afternoon tea. Traditionally, tea with milk and sugar provided strength in the afternoon for the 19th and early 20th century English working poor. Labour workers often accompanied the tea with a small sandwich or scone. The more privileged drank their tea with luxury ingredient sandwiches (such as the customary cucumber), scones with clotted cream and jam, and sweets and pastries. The latter is what most people today think of when they think of afternoon tea and is, in fact, the closest to Anna’s rituals. As she and her circle were the highest of classes, afternoon tea was surrounded by etiquette, fashion, and elegance.

Following this custom is what is known as “At Home”, which involved a woman inviting over and receiving her friends, serving them tea, sandwiches, and cakes. Usually, there was one every day in a given circle, allowing women to establish close social ties. While the “At Home” is a thing of the past, many hotels, restaurants, and tea shops still serve Afternoon Tea in the afternoon hours, normally between 3 and 5pm.

Where to Enjoy Afternoon Tea in London

Whether a regular afternoon tea participant or looking to partake for the first time, here are a few places to try for a special occasion you won’t soon forget:

  • Claridge’s - Quite possibly the best place in London for traditional afternoon tea. It’s quintessentially English, with numerous tea choices and dainty sandwiches. Be sure to book in advance as space fills up quickly.
  • The Lanesborough - Their London Afternoon Tea has won awards! Not only do they have many tea choices, but they also have a tea sommelier that can help you choose the perfect tea for your liking.
  • The Ritz - If you’re looking for a luxurious setting for a special occasion, there is no place better. Afternoon Tea here is an institution in itself. The traditional menu offers you a three-tier stand filled with sandwiches, scones, and tea cakes and pastries.
  • The Goring - Serving afternoon tea since 1910, it was the 2013 winner for the Top London Afternoon Tea Award. In the summer, tea and delicious treats can be taken in the sun on the terrace. While in the winter, they can be enjoyed next to a cozy fire.
  • The Tea Rooms - A homey atmosphere will make you feel welcome immediately. It is also a more affordable option. Everything is handmade and home-made by the experienced owners. They are also committed to using local, free-range, and Fairtrade ingredients when possible.

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