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A Guide to the Etiquette of British Afternoon Tea—and Where in London to Enjoy It

Tracing its roots to a 19th-century duchess, afternoon tea is moving into the present with contemporary remixes while retaining the historic charm that makes it a favorite among visitors.
A Guide to the Etiquette of British Afternoon Tea—and Where in London to Enjoy It

Even if you know very little about England, you’re likely aware that teatime is a long-standing and cherished tradition, as synonymous with British culture as the Royals and pints at the pub. In my early 20s, I lived in West Kensington while working in the photo archive at a British fashion magazine. With little disposable income but a determination to embrace local culture, I often treated myself to afternoon tea. Sometimes, especially when visitors were in town, I booked a table at Fortnum & Mason or Claridge’s or the Savoy to partake in the highly civilized parade of delicate sandwiches, glossy pastries, and scones served alongside clouds of clotted cream and preserves and fat pots of tea.

But way more often I just popped into the Café in the Crypt at St. Martin-in-the-Fields church where, for a few pounds, I could sit in the subterranean space sipping English breakfast tea atop the ancient gravestones. Since moving back to the USA, I’ve returned to London dozens of times, and on every visit I engage in the quintessential tradition of afternoon tea.

Where did the afternoon tea ritual originate?

Tea is one of the world’s oldest beverages—beginning in China around 2700 B.C.E., according to legend—but England’s afternoon tea tradition only dates back to about 1840. Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford and one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting, is widely credited as the creator. By the mid-19th century in England, gas lighting was ubiquitous in urban areas and in wealthier households, which inspired later evening meal times. The gap, then, between the midday meal and dinner had stretched too far for some, including the Duchess, who allegedly requested a cup of tea and some cake, bread, and butter in the late afternoon to quell her hunger. The request became a ritual, and throughout the Victorian era, its popularity spread throughout the drawing rooms and parlors of England’s high society.

From the 19th to the 20th century, there was a democratization of afternoon tea in England, transitioning from a purely upper-class custom to one more widely embraced across social classes. Contributing to the mass appeal: more leisure time and discretionary income in the middle class thanks to industrialization, and a proliferation of tea rooms and cafés in urban areas making afternoon tea more accessible and affordable to the general public.

Nowadays, you will also see “high tea” listed on menus, but it’s not synonymous with afternoon tea. With origins in working-class homes, it’s more of a meal—typically meat, vegetables, bread, and, of course, tea, served between 5 and 6 p.m.

What is an afternoon tea experience like today?

In tea rooms, swish hotels, and restaurants across the country, afternoon tea remains popular among tourists and locals alike. “People often have afternoon tea to celebrate occasions or catch up with friends,” says Piero Sottile, executive pastry chef at Shangri-La the Shard, London. “It’s considered a classic British experience that continues to be well loved.”

The food menu is usually a set selection of scones with clotted cream and jam, bite-size pastries, and savory finger sandwiches filled with ingredients like egg salad or smoked salmon. The sandwiches are customarily crust free and always made with precision.

“At the Dorchester, for nearly 100 years, we’ve celebrated the national tradition of serving afternoon tea,” says Martyn Nail, culinary director at the Mayfair luxury hotel. “We believe the perfect finger sandwich relies on two key elements: high-quality ingredients and expertly cut bread, with a two-thirds bread to one-third filling ratio.”

In addition to their regular menus, restaurants and hotels often serve seasonal and themed teas to celebrate events like Mother’s Day or a Royal wedding. At Ting inside Shangri-La the Shard, the hotel’s 10th anniversary tea comes with Instagrammable bites like Big Ben–shaped pastries and a mousse-filled replica of the Shard (the 72-story, Renzo Piano–designed skyscraper in which the hotel is located) fashioned from delicately painted chocolate. Panoramic views of the Tower Bridge are the icing on the experience.

“Afternoon tea today is very popular on social media, so there is an emphasis on what looks great on camera these days,” Sottile says. There’s also more attention to variety, such as vegetarian options and, as Sottile notes, “an increased inclusion of international flavors and dishes into the menu.”

At the Nobu Hotel London Portman Square, for example, afternoon tea is infused with traditional Japanese ingredients, like wasabi and miso, while Indian-inspired afternoon teas abound in the city. At Colonel Saab in Covent Garden, the set menu includes dhokla sandwiches with mint chutney and cardamom-spiced saffron and rose macarons, alongside a choice of teas like turmeric citrus and spiced chai.

But prior to any multi-tiered platter of treats, you must select your drink of choice. Tea menus have expanded over the years, with many offering a signature blend and some offering dozens of options among black, green, oolong, and herbal teas, or tisanes. If the list feels overwhelming, an on-staff tea expert can help guide you.

What are the etiquette rules to know about drinking tea?

In keeping with the country’s reputation for honoring tradition, teatime comes with its own set of rules and customs. Some are the same you’d follow in any fine dining setting: unfold your napkin on your lap, be careful not to clink the sides of the teacup when stirring milk and sugar into your tea. Some, though, might surprise you. For instance, keep your pinkie down—raising it while sipping is considered bad manners. And add milk after pouring your tea. You might be surprised to hear that this rule has to be stated, but a small (passionate) faction insists on pouring milk into the cup first; it’s a holdover of early days when milk would be poured in first to protect cheaper ceramic dishware from cracking under the intense heat of the tea.

But the most eyebrow-raising rules involve the scones. “When enjoying scones, break them apart rather than cutting them with a knife,” says Sottile. “Use the accompanying jam and clotted cream generously, but there is a big debate on which goes first.”

In the good-natured but hotly contested regional fight on how to layer the clotted cream and preserves, the Devonshire method calls for cream first and the Cornish method calls for jam first. Whichever you choose, it’s all part of the time-honored English ritual of afternoon tea.

Regan Stephens

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