Aspen Untucked: A Time for Tea
In Britain, afternoon tea is not only a celebrated tradition, it’s practically a way of life. Walk down a busy street in London at around 3:30 any day of the week, and many a place will be filled with thirsty visitors sipping on various kinds of tea, while snacking gingerly on tiny sandwiches, cubed sweets, and hefty-sized scones.
While there are parts of a British afternoon tea that can be found in American culture, the entirety of the tradition — a meal seamlessly squeezed in between lunch and dinner — doesn’t really exist — unless you count happy hour. Last week, I got the opportunity to discover what this hyped up teatime is all about when I was in London with my mom and aunt. We were visiting my cousin, who is in graduate school there.
The origin of drinking tea dates back thousands of years. However, the custom of afternoon tea is relatively modern. The tradition first came into existence in the 1840s. Most give credit for it to Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford. She experienced an unpleasant lull in energy and satiation in the late afternoon and began requesting that a tray of tea, bread, butter and cake be brought to her to solve the problem. She got used to this extra meal and started inviting her friends to join in, making it a social hour. As is typical with royal tendencies, afternoon tea became a trend among upper-class and society women. They would put on their fancy gowns, white gloves, and big hats and join their friends for “low tea.” Note: Many people today call it “high tea.” I’ve learned that this is not correct and makes the person who says it sound like a silly tourist. High tea refers to a late warm meal, also called “dinner.”
When we were in the U.K., we took an afternoon to try out this custom. However, we did it in a slightly nontraditional way. We booked a reservation at Sketch London, a multi-venue destination with a gastro-brasserie restaurant, a lecture room and library, cocktail bars, and a gallery that serves dinner and, perhaps most important, afternoon tea. The place is unlike any I’ve ever been into, with funky art, paint-drenched stairs, and striking colors everywhere. The room we were in for tea was completely pink, from the walls to the chairs, which made us all blush profusely, whether we wanted to or not. The art on the walls, and even the dishes, were designed by artist David Shrigley.
The food options at Sketch are preset, but each guest gets to choose their tea and a boozy side drink, if they so wish. There’s an option for a glass of Champagne, British sparkling wine, or some strange infusion of tea and wine. Sketch is not the only place that gives the option for a glass of bubbly — or possibly something stiffer — with afternoon tea. This was common just about everywhere that offered it, though the accompaniment probably isn’t a very historically accurate one. Most likely, it wouldn’t have given the Duchess of Bedford that extra bit of energy she was hoping for. Besides the tea and the bubbly, the meal also included several courses from salty and savory to sweet. By the end, we were so disgustingly full that I was quite certain we wouldn’t be able to get up from the table. As far as tradition is concerned, I’m not sure stuffing our bellies to the point of nearly bursting was the goal of afternoon tea when it started. But, what’s done is done.
For this afternoon of indulgence, we had the pleasure of the company of my cousin’s British friend, who is immensely well-versed in his country’s traditions and tendencies. He showed us the ropes as we experienced course after course. There are many rules when it comes to afternoon tea, and several of them are debated heavily among the country’s residents. Everyone has an expectation or a preference for how something should be served, prepared or devoured. For example, how one spreads clotted cream and jam on their scone can either be celebrated or ridiculed (my cousin’s friend prefers to apply the cream and then jam). Even the exact way to slice the round, puffy pastry is contested. There’s also some argument on whether one should place the lemon in the tea cup before or after the tea is poured. And don’t even get them started on crusts and the shape of the sandwiches.
However one takes their afternoon tea, I’ll continue to enjoy it as an eager and willing tourist, who knows next to nothing about the etiquette surrounding it. I don’t have much to offer in the way of opinions about how or why to do something. Just tell me where to go and I’ll be there with an empty stomach and eager tastebuds.
Barbara Platts would love to make afternoon tea a daily ritual but isn’t sure her waistline would find that agreeable. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet her on Twitter @BarbaraPlatts.
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