The Anglophile’s Guide to Afternoon Tea

What was the reason for the start of the American Revolution? What eased the queasiness of the 7th Duchess of Bedford? What substance brought together the distanced English classes because of  its tangy, sweet flavor? Tea. For over two millennia, this steaming liquid infused with herbs and flowers, served plain or or with lemon or milk or sweetened with honey or sugar has brought people together from Japan to the United States.

Often the sharing a cup of tea is a highly ritualized ritual governed by traditions.

Tea was invented in 2737 B.C. in Southwest China, perhaps by a man named Shennong, although the story varies. Soon the taste for tea and the art of cultivating  the tea plant spread to Japan and eventually, after millenia to England, India and many other countries. All types of tea–black, white, green, oolong and puerh—are grown from the same plant, the Camellia sinensis. The tea plant grows in warm climates with lots of rainfall. Tea leaves are harvested every seven to fourteen days. The leaves are left outside to dry and wither. The tea leaves are then hand-rolled and oxidized—the longer the period of oxidation, the darker the tea becomes. Finally, the tea leaves are dried in large ovens to stop oxidation and create the finished product.

Tea was at first considered medicinal. The Chinese soon developed their own tea ceremony, which occurs mainly on wedding days, for family gatherings or out of a sign of respect. Tea is meant to bring people together and is regarded as one of the seven daily necessities.

In Japan, the tea craze blossomed centuries after tea drinking began in China.  The traditions of drinking tea became a staple of Japanese culture. Their tea ceremony is supposed to bring awareness to the wealthy of their privilege and give inner spirituality to the participants. Though tea was originally meant for the upper class, by the 16th century, it spread throughout the Japanese caste system . The Japanese tea ceremony is still practiced today.

Tea was picked up by Europeans soon after it reached Japan, taken to the West by the East India Company and tried by Catherine of Braganza, the wife of King Charles II of England. However, tea did not become s a popular beverage in the United Kingdom until the 18th century. At first, the aromatic drink was seen as only for the upper class and was taxed heavily. The taxes caused tea smuggling to flourish, which brought the drink to the lower class. However, tea was enjoyed only at special occasions and celebrations, until the tariff was lifted and the masses were allowed to drink the beverage.

Tea was also used as a method of rebellion: in 1773, the Sons of Liberty threw English tea overboard in an event later coined the Boston Tea Party. This was one of the key events that stimulated the American Revolution.

In 1848, England launched a successful secret mission to steal the tea plant and transport it across the Himalayas to grow it in India. The English introduced tea into India in order to gain an advantage with the Chinese, with whom they were at odds. The plan was unsuccessful until the English started using Chinese techniques to cultivate. Within the next hundred years, the cultivation of tea boomed in India, but the British had seized the tea monopoly away from China long before that.

An English social staple grew out of the tea drinking movement: afternoon tea. Anna Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, complained of the ache in her belly in the late noon, since only two meals were served during the 17th century. Thereupon, afternoon tea was born. Afternoon tea consists of loose-leaf tea steeped in a teapot and served with milk and sugar; sandwiches, scones and cakes are consumed at afternoon tea by the more leisured middle and upper classes; and by laborers, a small sandwich or baked snack.

Different levels of tea rituals sprang from the new meal: old-fashioned tea, at-home tea, family tea, and high tea. Afternoon tea, is served about 4 p.m. High tea or “meat” tea is served between five o’clock and seven o’clock in the evening.  High tea includes a hot dish followed by cakes, bread, butter and jam. There may be salad or cold cuts on the menu, as well. High tea was eaten by the working class and the name refers to the lateness at which they eat it.

Today, a festive afternoon tea may be taken in a hotel or tea shop or by invitation in a home. Taking tea as a social occasion spread to the United States over the last century, although drinking tea, as evidenced by the American colonists’ furor over the tea tax in 1773, had long been popular in the English controlled colonies. Tea drinking rose during the Gilded Age and was encouraged by the revival of relations between the U.S. and China in the late 20th century. A tea party was common in high class households during the late 1800s and early 1900s. In 2015, Anglophilia, the love of all things British, is again on the rise and hundreds of boys and girls, men and women are setting up their own tea parties for birthdays, anniversaries, book clubs or just to have fun. In San Francisco, tea rooms like Lovejoy’s, Secret Garden and Darjeeling Lounge celebrate and encourage Americans love for all things British.

Continuing that trend, seniors Danya Rubenstein-Markiewicz ’15 and Joyce Wu ’15 host their own tea party. Herewith are their instructions for having a truly English tea.

Necessary materials for a successful tea party drawing by Danya Rubenstein-Markiewicz

Necessary materials for a successful tea party
drawing by Danya Rubenstein-Markiewicz

Tea Recommendations

1. Earl Grey: Earl Grey is a black tea, perfect for the tea goer who wants a hint of citrus that comes from the essential oil of bergamot (orange-like fruit).

2. Lady Grey: Lady Grey is a variation of the Earl Grey tea. The only difference between the two teas is that Lady Grey also contains orange and lemon peel oil.

3. Darjeeling: Darjeeling is also a black tea that hails from Darjeeling, India, a high altitude region that provides the perfect cool and moist environment to grow tea trees. Darjeeling is known as the champagne of teas for its light almond and wildflower flavors.    

4. Assam: Assam tea is a black tea produced in Assam, India. Unlike Darjeeling which is grown in high altitude regions, Assam is grown at sea level, which gives the tea its heavy malty flavor and vibrant bright color. There are many variations of Assam tea, many of which fall under the category of English breakfast teas.

5. English Breakfast: Contrary to its name, English Breakfast Tea was actually invented in Edinburgh, Scotland by a tea master named Drysdale. Breakfast Tea is delightful for its dichotomous taste, a robust base and light floral undertones. When it is blended with milk, it produces a great aroma similar to warm toast and honey.

Proper Etiquette

1. The Great Pinky Debate: The first porcelain cups, which had no handles, were made in China around 620 A.D. The proper way of holding this cup was to place one’s thumb at the six o’clock position and one’s index and middle fingers at the twelve o’clock position. The pinky was gently raised for balance. In 1710, the Meissen Porcelain Company introduced the teacup handle to Europe. The proper way of holding this cup was to place one’s fingers to the front and back of the handle. The pinky was extended downward or to the side for balance.

2. The Proper Way to Eat a Scone: Contrary to common behavior, do not slice a scone. The proper way of eating this delectable item is by breaking off bite size pieces, placing it on a plate, and then applying jam and cream.

3. The Value of Milk: Should I add the milk before or after my tea? Prior to 1710, when the Meissen Porcelain Company introduced paste porcelain, all tea cups in Europe were made from soft paste porcelain. Thus, milk was added before the tea to temper the cups from cracking. However, after 1710, this cautionary measure was no longer necessary, and thus, milk was and is now added after the tea is brewed.

4. The Lemon: Lemons add the perfect touch of tang to tea; however, you have to be very particular with their presentation. At an afternoon tea, lemons should always be thinly sliced, never wedged! Never press the lemon slice after it has been placed in your cup, for oil from the peel and juice from the fruit will infuse itself.

5. Napkin Placement: If you need to leave the table, place your napkin on your chair, not on the table. At the end of the tea, the napkin is not refolded but placed loosely to the left of the plate. Placing a used napkin back on the table before the meal is over is considered a huge faux pas!

Traditional Tea Menu

1. Battenberg Cake: This pink and white checkered sponge cake is covered in marzipan and a delicious treat for an afternoon tea. Its origins date back to the 19th century; the cake is named after the town in Germany — for Princess Victoria married Prince Louis of Battenberg.

2. Scones: This delicacy comes in hundreds of different flavors, from plain cream, to currant, to racy, complex concoctions such as date and walnut, pecan-pumpkin and chai-spiced. Of course, currant scones are most traditional. The original scone originated before baking powder, so they were round and flat and made into cakes with oats.

3. Tea Sandwiches: Tea sandwiches for afternoon tea. There are a few basic rules to making the perfect tea sandwich: use thinly sliced, tight grained bread, apply a thin layer of butter, and always cut away the crusts. Tea sandwiches can come in multiple shapes, but they are most commonly found as long, narrow rectangles or triangular-half sandwiches. Just keep in mind: each tea sandwich should be able to be eaten in two bites.

4. Digestives: Originally created in 1839 to improve digestion, digestives have come a long way since their humble bran and whole grain beginnings. Today, the biscuit can be coated in chocolate and have flavors like orange or caramel. The chocolate digestive has been referred to as “a British masterpiece” by American travel writer Bill Bryson.

5. Victoria Sponge Cake: Eponymously named after the English queen, this delicacy consists of raspberry jam and whipped vanilla cream sandwiched between two sponge cakes. The Victoria Sponge has also inspired many spin-off deserts, like Eve’s pudding and cupcakes. Queen Victoria herself spawned a craze for tea parties during the 1850s and demanded a sponge cake to go with her tea.

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