The drinking of tea has long been a cultural stereotype of the British people. Of course these days your average Brit is just as likely to drink coffee as tea, but this is a very recent development. As with other nations, the English developed several culturally-specific rituals for the consumption of tea. The most iconic and long lasting is the traditional Afternoon Tea. It is a British tradition that we at the Varsity Hotel Cambridge are proud to continue.
At first glance the concept of an English or British tea seems like a contradiction in terms. There may be a great deal of picturesque beauty in the English countryside, but no tea grows there. In this way, “English” tea is a bit like “Italian” coffee – a serving style and preparation method rather than a matter of geographical origin.
But unlike the Italian love of coffee, the British love of tea helped to shape the modern world. It’s easy to forget now, but for better or worse Britain once stood at the centre of a global empire upon which the sun never set. And it was the combination of English demand for tea and the immense profits from the tea trade that drove this expansion. So lucrative was this trade that in the early 19th century, 10% of the entire government revenue came from import duty on tea!
But as with all trade in commodities, increasing supply can lead to a surplus and then to a crash in price. A scenario that every merchant wishes to avoid. So as we approach the US Independence Day it’s worth remembering that it was an attempt to offload just such a surplus by selling it to the (then) American Colonies that caused them to develop their own tea-related cultural tradition. The Boston Tea Party: spark of the American War of Independence and a method of making tea the British definitely did not approve of.
So, given the centuries long relationship between Britain and tea, it may come as a surprise that the quintessential Afternoon Tea is a relatively new institution. By British standards, that is…
When it was first developed is unclear, but by the 1880s it had become the fashion among the aristocracy to pause during the late afternoon. Ladies would change into long gowns, don gloves and prepare for tea, served between 4pm and 5pm. This original iteration of Afternoon Tea consisted of a selection of dainty sandwiches, delicate cakes and scones with clotted cream. All served with tea from the plantations of India or Ceylon, prepared in silver pots and poured into exquisite bone china tea cups.
Afternoon tea has changed with the times, of course. What was once a preserve of the wealthy is now available to all. And, in our Six Panoramic Restaurant, available anytime after noon rather than in that exclusive late afternoon slot. We maintain the tradition of offering sandwiches, cakes and scones, though with considerably more variety than our 19th century ancestors might expect. And nor are we as limited in our tea selection either, offering many exciting blends and brews from across the world.