Rich history of a classic afternoon tea

Of recent years, afternoon tea has made a bit of a revival and we even have’ Afternoon Tea Week’ at the moment.

Thursday, 8th August 2019, 11:08 am
Updated Thursday, 15th August 2019, 12:24 pm
Joanne Smith with a tray of Fat Rascal at the Betty's Cafe Tea Rooms. Betty's turned 100 this year. Picture: Chris Etchells

Here in Sheffield there are a number of establishments offering a return to a bygone age of elegance with three tiered cake stands, delicate sandwiches and scones with cream and jam.

It’s a new slant on ‘ladies who lunch’ and possibly a bit more sophisticated than just meeting up for a drink in a bar!

It’s also become the ‘in’ thing for celebrating birthdays or anniversaries for people of ‘a certain age’ as it seems that having an afternoon tea party can mean that you get home before its dark. A real consideration for pensioners.

Henry James said ‘There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea’. The popular author famous for books like ‘Portrait of a Lady’ was certainly there at the start of its popularity.

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Although tea drinking something enjoyed by King Charles II in the 1600s, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that afternoon tea was introduced in England amongst the upper classes.

Ann, the seventh Duchess of Bedford was said to have got hungry around four o’clock in the afternoon. Given that evening dinner was some four hours away, she asked if she could have bread, butter and cake brought to her room. Eventually she began to ask friends to join her. Afternoon tea became a smart social occasion in elite circles with women changing into long dresses, gloves and hats for afternoon tea which was served in the drawing room.

London’s café society soon embraced the idea with establishments like the ‘Café Royal’ welcoming guest like Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Noel Coward and DH Lawrence.

Traditional afternoon tea consists of a selection of dainty sandwiches with no crusts. These include of course, thinly sliced cucumber sandwiches, scones served with clotted cream and preserves, cakes and pastries and quality tea which should be served into bone china cups.

Sorry, builder’s tea or mugs simply do not fit the elegant image. There has always been an afternoon tea etiquette and extending the little finger when drinking from the cup is actually not permissible in the best of circles, although you may have seen it done in old films!

It seems also that it is best to put milk first into the cup as if you were, heavens above, using a bone china cup of inferior quality, the hot water could crack it. So now you know. The argument of milk first or last sorted!

Possibly the best known purveyor of the elegant meal in between meals, certainly in the UK, has been Bettys Tearooms at Harrogate which has just celebrated the centenary of its opening.

As much a Yorkshire institution as Harry Ramsdens fish and chip restaurants, it was actually opened in 1919 by a young Swiss confectioner called Frederick Belmont who arrived in Harrogate quite by accident knowing very little about England.

In 1922 he opened his own bakery and eventually branches in other towns to include York, Leeds and Bradford.

However it is for the quintessentially British branch at Harrogate that Bettys is best known, with its elegant Belmont Room offering a selection of fine teas, traditional and inventive savouries and cakes served on a silver three tiered stand and accompanied by delicate Royal Crown Derby china.

The touch of opulence is accentuated by the classical pianist in a corner of the room.

The business is still family owned although in partnership now with Taylors of Harrogate, famous for our own Yorkshire Tea.

I believe that it is best to book an afternoon tea at Bettys in advance and it certainly seems to be the ‘must do’ attraction on the list of coach parties visiting Yorkshire. As with anything deemed to be elitist, it does come with a price!

You can book many afternoon teas with a difference mostly if visiting London. Travel through the British countryside on the Northern Belle, sister train to the Orient Express, enjoying the elegance of a bygone age.

Enjoy a dino themed afternoon tea with dinosaurs hidden in chocolate soil, have a Salon Couture High Tea at the Savoy Hotel whilst watching a fashion show.

Enjoy a ‘Hound of the Baskerville’ sandwich with roast beef and mustard and a cigar made from caramel mousse at a Sherlock Holmes afternoon tea, or an art themed event with delicacies based on works by famous modern artists!

If visiting the West Country you will find afternoon teas in abundance with every part of Dorset, Cornwall and Somerset all claiming to provide the best cream teas.

Today there is so much choice, but I don’t think you can beat the experience recently enjoyed by my niece Catherine and her husband when they celebrated their wedding anniversary and her birthday with afternoon tea at the Dorchester Hotel in London.

Elegant surroundings, amazing vases of flowers, selection of rare flavoured teas, tasty and plentiful sandwiches and cakes all made in house. There was even a special birthday cake!

The plates were constantly refilled and the best thing was, they were provided with a doggie bag.

However at £65 a head, I think I would have expected a large Tupperware container.