The History of Afternoon Tea

What is it about this quintessential British habit? I’ve lived in the USA for 28 years but I still find myself wandering absent mindedly into the kitchen between 3 and 4 PM each day thinking that now would be a really good time to have a cup of tea. Friends and colleagues snigger and tell me that it’s because I’m British. I’ve always eschewed the idea. For one, I haven’t drunk milk in years so I’m more likely to be looking for a cup of ginger tea rather than Assam. Secondly, I tend not to have cakes and cookies with it because nutrition school scared me out of that habit.

Could it be that the great British tea habit is so second nature to me that even though I consider myself to be a Floridian, my tea habit is as ingrained as the English accent that I haven’t managed to shake? Could I be so genetically programmed that I head for the tea kettle at the same hour every day like a Stepford Wife about to pop her pills?

I decided to trace the history of the afternoon tea , or cream tea as it is commonly known. Research indicates that the cream tea originated in Tavistock, Devon, about 1,000 years ago when Benedictine Abbey monks fed workers with bread, clotted cream and strawberry preserves. The trend grew as passing travelers stayed at the abbey and partook of the tasty repast.

House made clotted cream is served at Sealantro’s Afternoon Teas.

According to the Cream Tea Society (yes, there really is one), in 1662 King Charles II married the Portuguese Catherine de Braganza who imported her court’s custom of drinking tea. The first tearoom was opened in London in 1706 by Thomas Twining. It wasn’t long before a slew of tearooms spread across the city and proved to be popular with ladies (apparently coffee houses were more male-oriented).

The timing of the afternoon tea is attributed to the seventh Duchess of Bedford who felt that the wait between lunch and dinner was too long. She started a habit of having tea and treats delivered to her quarters when she felt peckish. Apparently she felt lonely too because before long, she would invite friends to join her for tea at her country house and this social affair evolved into an everyday occurrence replete with sandwiches, cakes, scones, cream and jam.  The jam was invariably strawberry. And the cream was always clotted.

The habit of cream rather than butter on the scone spread (pardon the pun) following the tourism boom in England’s “Westcountry” (the counties of Devon and Cornwall) in the 1850’s that was propelled by the opening of the railway.

Is it High Tea or Afternoon Tea?

Although the two are often confused, there is a distinction between Afternoon Tea and High Tea. The former is typically a dainty 3-course affair with sandwiches and savories; scones, preserves and clotted cream; and pastries and cake. High Tea originated as a more substantial meal partaken by the lower classes in the 19th century after a hard day’s work. The meal would be served at a “high” table around 6 PM with a pot of strong tea. Afternoon tea was always a more delicate affair that would not satisfy a manual worker, and could be taken at a “low” or coffee table.

Does Scone Rhyme with Gone or Bone?

I’m from the north of England so we typically pronounce scone to rhyme with gone. Actually, we assume that the pronunciation that rhymes with bone is for posh folk, namely from the South.  Uttering “scown” instead of “scon” would merit a beating in the school  yard when I was a kid.

I was delighted to learn therefore that the northern pronunciation is more correct as the word “scone” is believed to be Scottish in origin. Lexicologists believe that the word may come from the Scots Gaelic “sgonn” (“shapeless mass” or “large mouthful”), while others think it may relate to the ancient capital of Scotland, Scone. (History buffs will appreciate that Scottish monarchs were crowned at Scone even after the capital moved to Edinburgh.  Monarchs of the United Kingdom are still crowned on Scone Stone which is enough to make you want to pronounce it “scown” simply for the purpose of alliteration).

The Great British Dilemma: Cream or Jam First?

For a nation of people who are renowned for being polite to each other even when they want to kill you, things can get really heated when it comes to the great debate of whether one should apply cream or jam to the scone first.

The matter is quite simply geographic. Devon does it one way; Cornwall another.  Both split the scone horizontally (always by hand; never with a knife). The traditional Devonshire way of doing things is to apply cream first then jam. Cornwall does the opposite, spreading jam first and topping the scone with cream.  According to the Cream Tea Society, etiquette expert Debrett’s states jam before cream.  Quite honestly, you should do whatever is your preference.

Afternoon Tea at Sealantro

We serve authentic (of course!) afternoon tea at Sealantro Cafe and Wine Bar in Vero Beach, including finger sandwiches, freshly made scones, preserves and house made clotted cream. Once a month or so, we dress up and do the full tea, adding mini desserts and petits fours to the scones and sandwiches.

Jayne Withers is the author of “Mile High and Healthy: The Frequent Traveler’s Roadmap to Eating, Energy, Exercise and a Balanced Life.”  She has been featured as a travel wellness expert in, the New York Post and Entrepreneur magazine, and regularly appears on regional affiliates of ABC, Fox News, and CBS. Nationally, she has appeared as a guest on Fox News Channel’s “A Healthy You and Carol Alt.”

Jayne is a graduate of Cambridge University and the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. She is currently a Functional Diagnostic Practitioner in training. Jayne is Sealantro LLC’s CEO and nutritional consultant. Additionally, she has a private practice as an integrative nutrition health coach serving the Treasure Coast and travelers on four continents.

6 thoughts on “The History of Afternoon Tea

  1. Ardelle K Rehbein

    The article was so fun and entertaining. We Americans love to hear all these different things about our countries, which make us different.
    I am very impressed with your history and education. It is wonderful to have a celebrity in our
    midist. Thank you for sharing.


  2. SudsEats

    Great post. I live in Manchester and I say scone as in bone. I’m not posh although I do come from India which is quite far south. Your AT looks lovely. A visit to the garden and then tea would be a fantastic day I think.


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