Afternoon tea is a quintessentially British event and meal that has made its way across the pond through novels and cinema. It remains a favorite pastime for mothers and young daughters thanks to more novels and movies - and thanks to boutique experiences at various tea shops and hotels around the country where you can celebrate birthdays, bridal showers, and other special events with an afternoon of tea, dainty sandwiches, and small cakes.
What is Afternoon Tea?
Afternoon tea as we know it today is actually of relatively recent origin (relative to the entire history of tea, that is). Anna, Duchess of Bedford is often credited with the "invention" of afternoon tea in the 1840's. As industry advanced and gas lights were installed in more homes, the dinner times of the wealthy crept later and later. Since it was the tradition of the aristocracy at the time to eat a large breakfast, very light luncheon, and large dinner, the Duchess understandably found herself having a "sinking feeling" around 4 o'clock in the afternoon (who hasn't?). So one day she ordered a tray of tea, buttered bread, and cake to her room and the rest is history! (Of course this, like many of our tea histories, is a romantic founding myth that is probably less attributable to one single person than a whole culture who found themselves a little rumbly in the tumbly mid-afternoon, but it does make a great story!)
Over time, afternoon teas became more elaborate with the thin cucumber sandwiches, egg salad sandwiches, and petit fours we associate with them today. Afternoon teas became so popular, that they were offered at large Victorian restaurants and hotels like Fortnum and Mason or the Savoy - and still are today!
Afternoon Tea vs. High Tea
Sometimes in the US we use afternoon tea and high tea interchangeably, but this is incorrect! High tea is actually a heavier meal that was served mostly in working-class households around 4 or 5 in the afternoon with meats, cheeses, vegetables, and bread.
Afternoon tea, on the other hand, was much lighter fare meant only to be a sustaining snack before the more extravagant dinner at 8 or even 9 in the evening.
Afternoon Tea vs. Cream Tea
Today in the US, we also often conflate afternoon tea and cream tea. Perhaps the most famous cream tea tradition hails from Devonshire (of the famous Devonshire cream), where they traditionally serve tea in the afternoon with a sweet scone, sweet clotted cream, and jam for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up. (Note: Much like the milk-first or tea-first debate, there is also a great debate over cream or jam first. If you are in Devon, it is cream first. For visits to Cornwall, we advise spreading your jam first and adding a dollop of cream.)
Which Teas to Serve for Afternoon Tea
Afternoon tea in Victorian England likely would have featured one of three or four teas:
By the mid-1800s, when afternoon teas were popularized, the British Empire had worked very hard to lessen its dependence on Chinese teas. For this reason, the most authentic teas to serve for your afternoon tea would be those hailing from India and Sri Lanka (where, by the 1840s, the British had established tea plantations).
Of course, there is no such thing as an authentic afternoon tea (since what we think of as afternoon tea today is really an amalgamation of many traditions), so if black tea from India isn't your favorite cup, serve what you like!
What Food to Serve for Afternoon Tea
Afternoon tea as we think of it now is usually served on a three tier platter. Many restaurants and hotels will fill the tiers with tarts, finger sandwiches, and small iced cakes. They may even serve soup and salad on the side, along with a scone and cream.
The beauty of afternoon tea, of course, is not in the variety or lavishness of your mini sandwiches and petit fours - nor even in the teas you serve - but in the quality time you spend with friends and family lingering over cups of cooling tea and your best attempt at Mary Berry's Victoria Sponge.
Read on for a suggested menu and a few collected recipes from the archives to create your ideal afternoon tea!
Made with crustless white bread and sliced into individual fingers consumable in a bite or two. Choose one or two combinations from the list:
- Thin-sliced cucumber sandwiches (traditionally with butter, but we also enjoy our cucumber sandwiches with a homemade chive or spring onion cream cheese)
- Egg salad
- Ham and butter
- Roasted red pepper and cream cheese
Scones and Devonshire Cream
Scones can take many shapes and forms, be sweet or savory, and be made with or without added ingredients like dried fruits (or tea!). We have linked to our favorite scone recipe below, but we encourage you to experiment with your own! (P.S. Don't forget the jam when you set the table!)
Cakes & Other Sweets
You can go all out with iced petit fours or try your hand at a Victoria Sponge, but some of our favorite tea sweets are actually cookies and coffee cakes! Cookies are a great option, especially if you're planning to make afternoon tea a regular ritual in your schedule or you're hosting a crowd. Check out some of our favorite tea and honey cake and cookie recipes below!
Collected Tea & Honey Recipes for Afternoon Tea
A delightful twist on the classic scones and cream of a Cream Tea, these lavender and Earl Grey scones are sweet and savory and sure to be a hit with all the tea lovers at your party.
Another British classic, shortbread is a delectable addition to any afternoon tea - loud and lavish or quiet and solitary.
Sweet and tart with refreshing notes of mint and lavender, these lemon bars are just unexpected enough to be the talk of your tea.
Perfect for a winter tea, this cake also pairs well with coffee for guests who prefer beans to leaves.
Easier than attempting a Victoria Sponge, this Strawberry Shortcake recipe is a favorite go-to among staff at the shop.
Afternoon Tea at Saratoga Tea & Honey
We serve a very light version of the afternoon tea at our tea bar with service of a hot pot of tea and a selection of cookies and other goodies available on a first-come, first-served basis.