We lucky few then got on a plane bound for England. All of us immediately fell in love with the College, the British students, and Cambridge itself.
But a small number of us still needed to economize. So, in the dweeb fashion typical of my Alma Mater, William and Mary, we did some research on how best to save British pounds and soon targeted Afternoon Tea - the British staple with a delightful “all you can eat” feature.
And that summer we tried every form of Afternoon Tea we could find - from Cream Teas in the charming Cotswolds to High Tea at the Palm Court of London’s very ritzy Ritz Hotel.
Of course, we inhaled the first tea tray brought to us (I'm sure it was delicious, but it's hard to say). We immediately called for more, and after inhaling the second round, we looked about and realized the servers had disappeared from our room.
And they stayed gone.
As the old joke goes, All you can eat? Yeah, THAT’S all you can eat.
And while I'd learned a lesson in English manners, I had a lot more to learn about English tea.
When back at Cambridge a few days later, the adorable college student who was courting me at the time told me I had not truly experienced afternoon tea until I'd visited the Orchard Tea Garden at Grantchester. So, on the next beautiful English day, he and I walked five miles from Cambridge to Grantchester along the lazy Cam River to have a cup of tea.
Time stood still there. No plans had been made, there were no errands to run, no second courses would be ordered for an early dinner. No. Just gentle conversation over a pot of perfectly brewed tea, a tray of finger sandwiches, perfect scones and sweets. No wonder The Famous love to visit here. This is where you go to be refreshed and fall in love again.
Six-hundred years later, the abundant sea trade between the British Empire and China caused the British to adopt tea as their very own, renaming it after the genus of the evergreen Camelia shrub whose leaves were used to make it: thea sinensis or… tea.
Until that moment, coffee was the most popular drink in England (closely followed by beer and hot chocolate), and male-only Coffee Houses were all the rage.
Word spread, and, as the tea business grew, tea prices came down. Soon tea was available at men's coffee shops everywhere.
Yes, it’s true: what we often think of as ladies’ establishments - tea rooms and tea gardens - were actually created to support men’s lust for tea.
And soon the most famous Tea Garden of all was Vauxhall, a place where Handel might perform one day, acrobats and jugglers the next, and on the third day, fireworks. Vauxhall is where fashionable men went to see and be seen, and one fixed price enabled the entrant to as much tea and goodies as they liked (sans nasty looks).
Oh, but I should note there were women at Vauxhall — just no ladies. Proper English ladies did not dine in public - a societal rule that held sway until the late 19th century.
And, at first, proper English ladies didn't know what to make of tea. One poor woman boiled a pound of leaves and served it to her guests with butter and salt!
But in the grander scheme, American political parties began to fight England over the high tax on tea: they encouraged their fellow Americans to switch to coffee… and start a Revolution.
And in 1773, a group of Bostonians dressed as Indians, raided Boston Harbor, and in what they sarcastically called a “Tea Party", dumped 342 boxes of East India Company tea into the fetid waters. The Crown reacted by closing Boston Harbor and demanding Americans pay the East India Company for their losses. The America responded by creating the first Continental Congress.
We all know what happened next, so I’ll skip forward to when the Twinings Tea family reached out to the new people of America (After all, Twinings hadn’t had their tea dumped in the harbor), and in 1796, Thomas Twinings, son of Richard, traveled to America to pay a courtesy call on George Washington. Soon tea was back on track.
Meanwhile, back in England a certain Lady decided to stage a Revolution of her own.
By 1840, English lunch was still served at noon, but dinner was being held later and later in the evening.
Anna soon decided this way a fine way to spend every afternoon, and one day some friends dropped by unexpectedly.
And so was born Afternoon Tea.
Most of the English Tea Etiquette known today was created shortly thereafter – particularly during Queen Victoria’s reign. While the Queen did a lot of good in her lifetime, her favorite hobby was creating rules of behavior, and she often went to excess (Can we all agree covering piano legs because they looked suggestive was a bit much?).
Many of those English Victorian Tea rules remain in place, but they vary from place to place:
Speaking of etiquette, we mustn’t forget 19th century Tea Dress. By 1877, tea parties were such an established entity that proper dress was required. Called a tea gown, the outfit usually involved more lace than any other outfit she owned. And by the 1890s, outdoor teas also required a large hat flooded with ribbons, feathers, silk flowers, and a host of other furbelows.
In addition to various forms of etiquette, we can also thank Queen Victoria for all the many forms of Afternoon Tea:
And my personal favorite...
So, does something in your life deserve the royal treatment? Be sure to add a little pitcher of rum, if the occasion warrants!
By the way, clotted cream (also known as Devonshire cream) is available at gourmet shops but is easily made at home with milk, heavy cream, a good liquid thermometer and a recipe (But it’s much easier to purchase).
And every tea worth its leaves must begin with a good scone. This is my favorite recipe:
By the way, traditionally tea fare is presented on a 2 or 3-tiered serving rack, with the 3-level rack the most popular. On this grand display you’ll generally find:
- finger sandwiches on the lowest plate,
- scones on the middle tier, and
- sweets on top.
And if I haven't made you fall head-over-heels in love with Afternoon Tea (and to show that we college students held no hard feelings) I will close by highly recommending The London Ritz Book of Afternoon Tea by Helen Simpson. - Meredith
Meredith Bean McMath is a prize-winning playwright, award-winning historian, stage director, speaker and the Managing Director of Run Rabbit Run Productions, Inc.