It’s in the name of my business & the drink that powers me through my days, so it’s not surprising that I finally got round to writing about a perfect cuppa, which was published as an article for FOCUS in their recent refreshed-look magazine. Best enjoyed with a cuppa, so go get the kettle on & read all my tips for a perfect cuppa English tea.
English Afternoon Tea traditions
We all know it doesn’t get more English than an afternoon tea & a lot is written about this very English tradition with countless guides about where to go in London to experience the best. Although we were not the first to bring the tradition of the cuppa to Europe (that was the Dutch), and the USA had tea before the UK, drinking tea is still an important part of our lives. In fact, Samuel Pepys first wrote about taking tea in his diary all the way back in 1660, at a time when tea was extremely expensive due to the 120% tax. Today we drink 165 million cups or mugs of tea every single day (still way more than the British daily consumption of 95 million cups of coffee) and we even have an annual celebration, National Tea Day on 21st April.
What is afternoon tea?
Sometimes, I get asked by my clients to explain the differences between cream tea, afternoon tea & high tea. So, when we think of going out for a special occasion to enjoy a full meal of sandwiches, scones, cakes & a cup of tea, this is called afternoon tea. Cream tea is an abbreviated version of this, just serving the scones & a drink. Finally high tea is a completely different meal, which is light & eaten in the late afternoon or early evening, including cooked food & cakes.
History of afternoon tea
Many aspects of afternoon tea have fascinating stories in history. For example, the sandwich has always been a very popular snack, and the first person to eat one was the Earl of Sandwich (1718 – 1792). He was a dedicated gambler and refused to leave the gaming tables to eat. During one of these lengthy gambling games, he didn’t want to stop so he ordered his lunch to be brought to him between two pieces of bread. In this way he invented the sandwich & we now eat 4 billion sandwiches a year in the UK.
Likewise, Earl Grey tea is named after a person. It is a tea blend flavoured with bergamot, and the story goes that Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey & British Prime Minister in the 1830s, asked Twinings to re-create a tea he had been given as a gift & so this distinctive brew was born.
How to eat scones
Scones amazingly create quite a bit of debate! Devon and Cornwall in the South West of the UK are famous for their afternoon teas, including the scone. However, they have very different views on the best way to eat. Devon claims you should split the scone in two, cover each half with clotted cream, and then add strawberry jam. Cornwall says you should split the scone in two, spread with strawberry jam first, and finally top with clotted cream. Whichever way you do it, eat the halves separately & don’t try to make a scone sandwich with the filling, it will be very messy to eat!
Posh tea drinking?
Some people ask me why drinking tea with a little finger (pinkie) sticking out is considered posh (smart). So the original china cups were made in China and European hands were generally bigger and couldn’t hold the cups properly, so they had to stick their fingers out to hold the cup physically. Plus they wanted to show off their beautifully decorated cups, as a status symbol, to demonstrate they could afford this exotic, new drink. Even when the cups became bigger & more adapted to European hands, the tradition remained to show that you were rich.
How to make the perfect cup of tea
So how do you make a perfect cuppa? Well, tea experts say the water should be 80-90°, not boiling, so turn off the kettle when you see the first bubbles in the kettle or wait 2 minutes after boiling. Whatever you do, never re-boil the water. Then pour the water into your mug with the tea bag, and brew (leave it to develop) for 3-4 minutes for black tea. Importantly you shouldn’t stir or squeeze the teabag, as this transfers the bitterness into your tea. Originally the British tradition was to put milk in first to cool the cup before pouring in hot tea, at a time when cheap British cups would crack with the heat. However, these days milk should go in last so you can get the perfect colour for your tea.
Where are the best places for afternoon tea in London
Well, new places & specially themed menus are launched all the time, so I thought I would share some of my favourites, which I have visited over the years. These may not be the most popular options, but I hope you enjoy some insights into my perfect cuppas!
- Claridge’s Hotel: this has to be the ultimate luxury occasion for me with its decadent art deco interior, I feel like I’m in a glamorous 1920s film when I come here for afternoon tea. They do a traditional tea, as well as seasonal menus, plus a children’s menu. Just remember you will need to book several months ahead to get a reservation.
- The Wallace Collection: this small museum just near Selfridges is a mansion house with a great collection of Victorian paintings & furnishings, but also happens to house a beautiful conservatory restaurant, where they serve delicious afternoon tea amongst the palm trees. Below you can see our Perfect Cuppa English trainer team at an afternoon tea get-together.
- Biscuiteers: for a slightly different, creative twist on the afternoon tea, why not try the Biscuiteers in Notting Hill, who specialise in beautifully crafted, artistic biscuits for their afternoon tea, as well as the traditional scones & cakes.
- Fortnum & Mason: has sold tea for more than 300 years & their Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon is a famous location for a very English afternoon tea. I also love wandering around the store afterwards looking at their lovely food gifts & hampers, which make perfect gifts.
- Hotel Café Royal: a little gem on Regent Street, experience afternoon tea in the 19th Century mirrored lounge which has been visited by Oscar Wilde, David Bowie & Mick Jagger, amongst other celebrities.
Learn more about English afternoon tea
If you want to find out more about different tea traditions, then I highly recommend a visit to Twinings. This fascinating shop, museum and tasting school at 216 Strand was originally a coffee house, but changed to selling tea to attract women customers, who could feel comfortable entering a more respectable meeting place. Twinings provide tea to the Queen (she has her own secret blend, which you unfortunately can’t buy!), and they regularly run masterclasses.
Of course if you want to talk to me about tea, traditions, or anything else to do with British English or culture, then get in touch & let’s meet for a cuppa.
Victoria Rennoldson, Founder of Perfect Cuppa English
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