As the author Henry James said: “There are few things in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”
Afternoon tea is indulgent, a treat, but defintely in the “naughty but nice” category where you can be certain that - provided the cake is good - everyone will go home happy, from teenager to grandma.
This lovely tradition was almost consigned to the history books though until the arrival of the Great British Bake Off eight years ago which reignited our love of baking and all things cake and patisserie related.
Since then, the popularity of afternoon tea has risen, well, like a good Victora sponge.
So how did it all start?
The invention of afternoon tea is credited to Anna Maria, the then Duchess of Bedford, who found herself a bit peckish around 4pm while visiting Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire. Dinner was served fashionably late at 8pm in the 1840s and then the tradition was for two meals a day, leaving a long gap between breakfast and dinner.
The hungry aristocrat, it was reported, requested a light snack in her room to bridge the gap. It hit the spot so much that when she returned to Woburn Abbey, her own stately pile, she began inviting friends to walk in the woods and enjoy tea and a light snack afterwards in her private rooms.
Wealthy society ladies of the 1880s embraced this new trend with enthusiasm and it became fashionable to “dress” for afternoon tea in floor length gowns, hats and gloves.
Dressing up for afternoon tea is one of the traditions that have survived; hats and gloves may not be de rigeur anymore but a 21st century afternoon tea gathering for many still involves dressing to impress in heels and a frock (including the currently in vogue tea dresses).
And, despite the passage of time, the afternoon tea table still consists of largely the same delights, excluding the recent trend of adding more sparkle to the occasion with glasses of fizz.
A good cup of tea is a given of course. But forget the tea bag; loose leaf tea and speciality teas are the beverage of choice now for many. Among THE places to take tea in London, The Ritz Hotel offers discerning diners a selection of 18 loose teas and Claridges boasts 24 teas.
Delicate savouries, pastries and cakes are still on the menu - but very definitely no biscuits! Sandwiches - no crusts, a tradition that endures - had light fillings such as cucumber and egg and cress in the 19th century, still staples now. Scones with jam and cream - or is it cream and jam?- were a feature then as now and the cake selection, though adapting to trends over the years, is still likely to feature evergreen favourites such as Victoria sandwich.
Anything more substantial and afternoon tea becomes “high tea” - which is a very different experience. High tea was enjoyed by the lower and middle classes and was more substantial, presumably, because they worked up an appetite through their labours - unlike the refined upper class lovers of afternoon tea . High tea involves a cooked savoury and is served at the dining table - hence the “high tea” label. High tea survives too , but not as an “occasion“ meal in the same way as its more up-market counterpart.
The doyenne of 19th century household management - Mrs Beeton - gave full instructions on the whole range of tea time experiences - from at-home tea to family tea - in her popular books of the time.
Today most hotels and cafes have grasped the opportunity that our love of tea and cakes has presented and offer afternoon tea at prices ranging from under a tenner to more than £50 a head at some of the capital’s iconic hotels.
To stand out in the crowd there’s a boom in “quirky” afternoon teas too ranging from afternoon tea with live opera at the Royal Albert Hall in London, to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory tea - no prizes for guessing what dominates the menu - and Mad Hatter’s teas.
And where was the UK’s best afternoon tea in last year’s Visit England Award for Excellence? Take a bow, the National Railway Museum in York where afternoon tea is served daily in the Countess of York, a restored 1956 Pullman style railway carriage. For £22.50 per person, visitors can enjoy an award-winning tea in opulent and atmospheric Edwardian surroundings.
Raise a China cup to Afternoon Tea Week from August 14-20.