Life Is Short. Use the Good China

The Brooklyn Teacup’s Guide to Afternoon Tea

When it comes to enjoying vintage china, we like to break the rules. We say “Life is short, use the good china” to mean that like all things that add joy and beauty to our lives, china should be used and enjoyed, not just tucked away for special occasions.

To honor the traditions most often associated with our marquee product, the 3-tiered tray, let's go over some common terms and definitions, explore the history of this delightful pastime and review classic afternoon tea experiences and offerings which remain popular today.

What is afternoon tea?

Afternoon tea refers to the custom of taking a light afternoon snack with one’s tea. Also known as 'low tea,' this custom of having a small meal in between breakfast and dinnertime grew popular in the mid-1830s among members of England’s upper classes. The popularity of this beloved pastime coincided with the introduction of kerosene lamps, which extended the workday beyond sundown and increased the gap between mealtimes. In other words, this delightful tradition was born out of peckishness—or hangry-ness, as we prefer to call it.

While proper etiquette and fashionable attire are considered prerequisites for enjoying the experience, afternoon tea is generally thought of as a relaxing time to sit back and savor tea, bite-sized treats, and good company. Though the menu can vary considerably depending on where you go, the custom of afternoon tea typically involves taking tea with three courses: savories (a.k.a. tea sandwiches cut into 'fingers'), scones, usually with clotted cream and jam, and sweets in the form of cakes and pastries. The menu of finger-sized delicacies is usually served on one's fine china, a nod to the status of those who historically enjoyed the tradition. A three-tier server is typically used to present the meal and separate the three different courses. Visually, the 3-Tier also serves as the dining table's centerpiece.

Why is it sometimes called low tea?

In the UK, afternoon tea is often referred to as low tea because it’s typically enjoyed at low tables in less formal areas of the home like the drawing room or sitting room. Low tables, such as coffee tables and side tables, were traditionally viewed as being more conducive to socializing.

So what is high tea, then?

Unlike low tea, high tea was traditionally a hearty meal served shortly after the conclusion of the workday, around 5 PM, to replenish laborers following a hard day of physical exertion. Sometimes referred to as meat tea—not exactly the most appetizing name, if you ask us—the high tea meal consisted of heavier items including meats (e.g., roast beef, steak and kidney pie), fish (e.g., pickled salmon), vegetables (potatoes, onion cakes), beans, baked goods (e.g., crumpets, pastries, custards), and tea.
3 Tier Afternoon Tea Party Tray Blue and White Tranferware with Tea Sandwiches, Scones and Sweets - Served with Tea - mismatched cups, saucers and teapot

Anna Russell, Seventh Duchess of Bedford

Bridal shower tea party with mismatched china, 3-Tier tray stand piled high with tea sandiwches, scones and sweets, and vintage china and linens coordinated by Two Hosts in NYC
Blue and white 3-Tier Transferware Tray - Ariel Davis, Founder of The Brooklyn Teacup playing berry tarts. Tea party picnic menu planning preparations.

A little Afternoon Tea History

Since it was popularized by King Charles II and his Portuguese wife Catherine de Braganza in the 1660s, drinking tea has been associated with sophistication and refinement. Because it was rare and expensive, tea was primarily considered to be a luxury enjoyed exclusively by members of the aristocracy. In many instances, tea was actually kept under lock and key by the lady of the house.

At the time, it had been customary for aristocratic English families to have just two main meals a day: a substantial breakfast and an evening meal. By 1840, with the advent of kerosene lamp lighting, dinner was eaten fashionably late at around 8 PM after the men would return home from work. Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, was having a hard time accepting this reality. After complaining of a “sinking feeling” around 4pm, Anna began routinely ordering a tray of tea, bread and butter, and cake to her bedroom around mid-afternoon. Over time, she started to invite friends to accompany her for this afternoon ritual—and her friends were equally enthused.

As the story goes, when Anna visited London, she brought the new custom with her and introduced it to her friend, Queen Victoria. As soon as the Queen gave her endorsement and began to enjoy afternoon tea herself, involving light cake with buttercream and raspberries along with her cup of tea, the practice skyrocketed in popularity. Biscuits, petite finger sandwiches and “tea cakes” became staples of the afternoon tea menu as they allowed ladies to enjoy their light meal while maintaining the option of wearing gloves (and not getting them dirty).

Types of Afternoon Tea

Afternoon tea, also referred to as low tea, can be enjoyed in countless ways, from the simple and classic to the elaborate and over-the-top. For clarity’s sake, here are a few terms commonly used to describe the types of afternoon tea.

🥛 Cream Tea: the simplest form of tea, consisting of tea, scones, and cream—and by cream, they mean clotted cream, which is like a dense and fluffy butter!

🍓 Strawberry Tea: when you add fresh strawberries to the cream tea offering.

🍰 Light Tea: by adding a few more sweets to cream tea, you’ve got yourself what’s known as light tea.

🥪 Full Tea: the most elaborate form of afternoon tea, where you add foods like tea sandwiches and other bite-sized savory delicacies to light tea. If you’re invited to a full tea, you can expect to leave the meal very satiated (and caffeinated, depending on how much tea you drink 😊).

🥂 Champagne Tea: afternoon tea of any variety served with champagne.

🧸 Teddy Bear Tea: a children's afternoon tea party with fruit and herbal teas and sweets, featuring dolls and teddy bears.

Do people still enjoy afternoon tea?

Yes! Though no longer an everyday event, Brits still make time to sit and enjoy this quaint and pleasurable dining custom, typically between the hours of 3:00 and 5:00 PM. As in other parts of the world, afternoon tea is more often enjoyed on special, milestone occasions. It is also a popular activity for tourists, with many hotels booking up far in advance to partake in this classic English tradition.

What's a typical afternoon tea menu?

Is there a set menu for Afternoon Tea?

These days, people take a lot of creative license when it comes to their afternoon tea menu. Some enjoy it pure and simple; others make it elaborate with many courses. That said, this festive and leisurely ritual tends to be a visually delightful, light meal consisting of a meticulously prepared assortment of petite cakes, pastries & petit-fours, scones, tea sandwiches, and tea, of course!

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