Vintage View: English tradition of afternoon tea won't exit with Brexit

Vintage View: English tradition of afternoon tea won't exit with Brexit

Kya deLongchamps detects a hint of rebellion behind the ritual of afternoon tea.

Afternoon tea, the most exquisite of English traditional customs – won’t exit with Brexit.

Tea was known to western Europe’s upper classes from the 1660s when the extravagant, pleasure-loving CharlesII and his queen, Catherine de Braganza, celebrated a refreshing return to the throne with dishes of precious Chinese cha.

Two centuries later, a peckish aristocrat made afternoon tea (termed low tea) the thing in drawing-rooms across London, Dublin, Belfast and other fashionable cities and towns of the British Empire.

Around 1840, Anna Maria Russell, duchess of Bedford, was having trouble holding out until 8pm each evening for dinner at Belvoir Castle.

Sensibly, she requested that the staff serve Indian or Ceylon tea, small savoury sandwiches and perhaps a little cakemid-afternoon.

Travelling up to her London house, Anna brought her afternoon delight with her. Her circle, including Queen Victoria (who refers to tea 7,000 times in her personal diaries), were amused, taking up the revolutionary habit.

Such a petit repas following on the light lunches of the period, needed to be large enough to punt away any chance of fainting during this hunger gap, but small enough to not strain the stays.

It was an intimate ritual swathed in mannerly behaviour from the start and afforded women an acceptable platform for delicious gossip and introductions along with the Earl Grey and kittenish nibbles at minced cucumber.

In the whirl of home visiting that punctuated the dullness of a lady’s year, winkling through embroidery, milady’s naughty little indulgence with its display of refined feminine posturing — might be staged in the garden or conservatory in the warmer months.

Afternoon tea time also offered the chance to showcase one’s conversation,interiors, fashion, deportment, fine porcelain, silver and matrimonial booty.

Vintage View: English tradition of afternoon tea won't exit with Brexit

High Victorians were showoffs and highly materialistic at a time when the middle classes (new money from the IndustrialRevolution, gasp!) were trying to insert themselves into the ranks of the old ruling classes. An understanding of etiquette at afternoon tea was closely scrutinised in the endless hunt for ‘outsiders’ without old money or a page of pedigree in Debretts.

For a society impostor, clambering up the ranks, a copy of something like The Ladies Book Of Etiquette And Manual Of Politeness by Florence Hartley (1860) was indispensible to avoid a damning, public faux pas with an unpeeled prawn and cup of Oolong.

The old expression ‘low tea’ has largely been replaced by afternoon tea (high tea was a five o’clock meal for the working classes). Low tea was derived from the relatively low tables moved into position or flipped open to accommodate the trays, plates, cups and saucers, required of tea time.

High tea was taken after work at the communal dining table, the high table, hence – the high tea. The term ‘cream tea’ came from the popularity of small scones dressed in clotted cream and a dab of preserve as part of this daily ritual.

In the 1860s ‘tea dresses’ became popular for afternoon teas, strictly at home. They were distinctly different than the gowns upholstered to the body in stiff layers expected at dinner.

Decidedly French, informal and sensual with drapes and pleated falls of drifting material, some women went as far as to dispense with corsets altogether with their loosely flowing tea gown set over a conventional foundation layer (only atrue strumpet would throw those off!).

Henry Fielding wrote in 1727 that “love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea.”

Rumours abounded of daring society ladies frolicking around in their tea gowns, using the cover of afternoon or low tea for romantic trysts when her husband might be out working (or supping someone else’s tea).

Early tea gowns were for greeting close friends and family not for wandering the park — they had a more personal, adventurous, relaxed quality to their design.

Bohemian takes on the tea dress included the Japanese kimono and Indian sari influences in fine silks closer to what was expected in the boudoir than the reception room. An outer ‘wrapper’, a long open layer, was useful to add warmth in the winter.

There are countless illustrations and paintings of ladies enjoying tea ‘plein-air’ right into the 1930s, displaying like lovely tropical birds, the sunshine distilled through parasols to protect their fair complexions, lace nipped onto the edge of gloves and protecting the decolletage. By day the neckline was high, in the evening the bosom came into view if a tea gown was allowable.

Tea being served in an engraving of a scene from Charles Dickens’s ‘Dombey and Son. Photo: iStock.
Tea being served in an engraving of a scene from Charles Dickens’s ‘Dombey and Son. Photo: iStock.

The late Victorian and Edwardian white voile tea dress seen in Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde plays, dispensed with draperies and bows, and was a staple of a lady’s wardrobe — a simple shift-style dress rising to just below the knee, sometimes veiled in a top layer of lace with pearl buttons.

The woman’s primary role was still to be as delightful as possible at every moment and taking afternoon tea, correctly attired signalled you were performing that essential daily round without suspicion of too much intelligence or progressive thought.

You could of course make your own low tea, and invite friends around to tinkle with some vintage china — stick to a perfectly baked Victorian sponge cake and a few sandwiches and put out some real linen — simple. Still, how much nicer to go out and have someone else serve you and infuse your leaves twice.

Various hotels specialise in a dash of grandeur after lunch, which of course comes at a premium for a nice-plated cake stand and a selection of freshly made delicacies with tea, or more recently —coffee or champagne.

Tea at Claridges in London, is still a gracious occasion celebrated for 150 years with what Mrs Beeton dictated as “dainty eatables and drinkables” washed down with white silver tip and other fine tea blends.

The current menu for about €85 a head includes smoked Scottish salmon with brown shrimp, horseradish, juniper and caraway on rye, Dorrington ham with caramelised apple, Clarence Court duck egg with crisp shallot, and English cucumber with lemon and watercress cream.

That’s before you even sip at a hand-picked tea or hit the pastry and chocolate course.

In Dublin, the Shelbourne has are putation in excellence and serves its teas under Georgian stucco work and Waterford glass chandeliers surrounded by artwork on loan from the National Gallery around the corner. Classic afternoon tea for two in The Lord Mayor’s Lounge comes in at a choking €110.

Many good Cork county and city hotels and restaurants offer elegant teas in the afternoon — a true cut above between 2pm and 5pm.

The Metropole is a steal for a full afternoon tea with patisserie favourites and a glass of prosecco at €30 per person. Hayfield Manor’s treats start at €30 -- about right for our Venice of the south. Look for recommendations and experiences online.

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