Afternoon tea has been a tradition in cultures for centuries. With changing social mores in the UK in the 1860s dinner was being held later in the evening, creating a long gap for nourishment between it and lunch. So afternoon tea became a necessity in historical times.
The UK’s High Tea Society says the 7th Duchess of Bedford has been credited as the first to adopt afternoon tea, which became a fashionable form of entertaining by 1865. Ladies met and discussed ‘tea business’, the female equivalent of men discussing politics, the society says, thereby giving women a social outlet to discuss topics such as politics, which was deemed unsuitable for them to discuss in mixed company.
While times have changed, many fine hotels keep the tradition going with high tea on a Sunday afternoon or as an annual speciality for Mother’s Day.
Traditional afternoon tea consists of dainty sandwiches, including thinly sliced cucumber sandwiches, scones served with clotted cream and preserves. Cakes and pastries are also served. Tea grown in India or Ceylon is poured from silver tea pots into delicate bone china cups.
Nowadays however, in most homes afternoon tea is likely to be just a biscuit or small cake and a mug of tea, usually produced using a teabag. While some may think this is sacrilege it’s more a reflection on today’s busy times.
For a special occasion it’s easy to celebrate afternoon tea with your own modern twist on tradition. And when the weather is cold and the days become shorter, hosting a high tea and having friends gather for afternoon cakes and treats is a great way to relax and entertain.
For a minimalist look, keep the tableware white and crisp with a touch of detail, allowing food to be the star of the show. Villeroy & Boch’s MaryAnne Fesq says a classic set can be used all year round and complements crystal stemware, napery and floral displays. Add a tiered stand for dramatic effect, layered with sweet and savoury foods.
If colour is the key to your high tea theme, MaryAnne suggests being confident with mixing colour and pattern.
“Don’t be afraid to mix patterns and utilise a range of crockery such as deep dishes, platters, plates and bowls to add depth to the table and, ultimately, create a feast for the eye,” she says.
Choose linen that will help set your theme - bold colours for a modern look, white or neutral for a classic style that can be lifted with pops of colour in crockery or layered with a crisp white setting with silver or gold trim.
“Ensure there are plenty of cups and plates for guests to properly enjoy the afternoon and brew a selection of teas including traditional black, lighter green or unique fruity combinations,” MaryAnne says.
Add warmth to the winter table using rich, colourful serving pieces. Place vases with florals, candles and other decorative elements on the table to further add character and warmth to the room. Consider a delicate centrepiece, like a cluster of mini vases in a range of shades, or display flowers along the table and around the room for colour. If choosing flowers with fragrance make sure their perfume won’t overpower the tea and food - the same can be said if you plan on lighting candles. You want the food and tea to shine.
If the weather is sunny and fine and the outdoors beckons then set your table in an area that will offer both sun and shade. Have a food cover net on hand to keep nasties off food and the table.
“Many like to approach high tea with a distinctly feminine touch, including using floral tableware as the dominant theme. Whatever your preference, from minimalist chic to clouds of colour, the right tableware will set the scene for a truly memorable event,” MaryAnne says.