Pour the tea, cut the cake, and enjoy Elaine Lemm’s account of the history and revival of the meal between lunch and dinner
Without wanting to harp on about it again, the hospitality industry in the UK is in a slump. Pubs, restaurants, cafés and hotels are all feeling the pinch. But help has come to one section of the business thanks to a duchess who has not trodden this earth for a couple of centuries.
Whizz back to the early 19th century and the usual time to serve dinner in polite society was as late as 9pm. With lunch at around midday, that left a long stretch to wait. So to stave off hunger, an inventive lady named Anna, 9th Duchess of Bedford, would order tea, bread, butter and cakes to be served in her room.
This was thought by many to be an excellent idea and quickly developed into the ‘At Home’, which involved inviting relatives and friends round for tea, sandwiches, cakes, conversation and idle gossip. Thus the quintessentially British afternoon tea was born.
This genteel custom thrived well until the mid-20th century. But as the British began their love affair with expensive, plush coffee chains, skinny mochas and brownies, afternoon tea became little more than a morsel of faded British tradition to dangle before tourists.
So how is it that afternoon tea at the Ritz is now one of the hardest-to-book dining experiences in London? And outside the famous Betty’s Tea Rooms in Yorkshire, queues circle the block. Come three o’clock, up and down the country, hotel dining rooms are full and tables groan under the weight of stands jam-packed with cakes and scones. Teas are back and in a big way.
Many hotels and cafés report that, without the surge of interest in afternoon tea, they would have closed their doors forever.
Bizarrely, like all things granny-chic that are currently in vogue (knitting and crochet being two), it is the recession and the straitened times we live in that has brought about this change. The return to more traditional values and homely pursuits is more prevalent when money is tight, it seems. You only have to look at the demand for allotments to confirm this.
There is one big difference, however. In the duchess’ time, tea neatly filled a gap in the day. Today, the afternoon repast tends both to replace lunch and diminish the need for a large dinner. Yummy mummies, less able to afford an over-priced salad, use afternoon tea as a way to meet and eat. And what better way to use up time on a wet, cold ‘staycation’ than a few hours lingering over tea and scones?
So fashionable is afternoon tea that brides on a budget are choosing to serve it instead of the formal sit-down meal.
The revival has also eased its way into the kitchen, as the sale of baking books and TV series bears witness. So much so that baking has almost become a national pastime. Also, thanks to the likes of Cath Kidston and her quirky, commercial designs, sales of tea sets are on the up.
Oh Duchess, what have you done?