The criminal history of the most British tea-related ritual, Afternoon Tea
Afternoon Tea, the most famous British tea-related ceremony. I can hardly think of anything representing this sophisticated country more accurately, aside from the Queen’s corgis, of course.
Finger sandwiches, scones, jams, tiny cakes and of course some tea. There is much more to this iconic British practice than just pure consumption of listed items sometime in the afternoon. It is embedded in an average day of millions of people fulfilling its unique purpose as a strangely but sensibly timed meal. The whole occasion has to be done performed precisely, elegantly and on time to be appropriately enjoyed.
Afternoon Tea makes people feel decadent, celebratory and mainly not guilty about eating an assortment of food between meals since the 1850s. The first hotel to serve Afternoon Tea in 1865 was The Langham Hotel in London. Its visitors can still enjoy the ritual in possibly the best Afternoon Tea venue there is.
The ritual was invented in Great Britain by the Duchess of Bedford, who always felt a little lethargic and without energy in the mid-afternoon. The Duchess requested a small plate of sandwiches and cakes to be sent to her room along with a cup of tea. And just like this, a brand new meal was added into a day. The plate also included scones, which originated in Scotland as a type of quickly-baked bread.
Victoria sponge sandwich can be considered a backbone of every Afternoon Tea cake stand. This delicious dessert, widely popular to this day, was invented in 1843, along with the invention of baking powder. Pre baking powder, all the cakes were, despite the effort, flat and mushy until one of the cooks whose back hurt from the endless egg beating discovered deer horn and its abilities. Powdered deer horn proved itself to be moderately useful in the egg rising process. After this grand invention, all the cakes were fluffy but inedible and slightly green in colour. I certainly am grateful to live in the baking soda era.
Victoria sponge is named after Queen Victoria, who had a famously sweet tooth. This dessert, essentially consisting of two parts of the cake and a jam in between was designed to suit her eating habits.
When it comes to the Afternoon Tea, the tea service is as important as the tea itself. Expensive, hand-painted china always served perfectly to impress the guests since the ritual was invented. In the 19th century the most important feature of the china was the whiteness of the porcelain because the hosts wanted to showcase the first-class quality of tea served to their guests.
In the 18th century, tea was heavily taxed, up to 119%, making tea more expensive than gold. The vast tea tax then caused various criminal activities surrounding the import and selling of the tea blends.
Criminal gangs were smuggling the tea into the country to avoid high taxes and added all sorts of ingredients to the tea blend to increase the profit. The various added ingredients included but weren’t limited to animal excrements and sand.
Most people, unfortunately, couldn’t tell that there was something wrong with the goods because most of them never had tea before in their lives. High taxes and inexperienced customers made tea smuggling in the 18th century a highly profitable venture. However, some of the ingredients added to bulk up the tea, for example, some dried herbs, actually made the tea taste better and different types of tea blends were born.
The last but not least component of the Afternoon Tea is sandwiches. This quick and easy food was invented in the 17th century, a century of gambling.
Gambling gentleman often did not have the time to eat away from the betting table, and if they used cutlery, it would only distract them from the game, so sandwiches were merely a solution to a problem of a hungry gambler. In the 20th century, Afternoon Tea became a commercial enterprise, and anyone who could afford it could treat themselves with this ritual. Centuries later the Afternoon Tea ceremony is still as popular as it was few hundred years back and top hotels are battling each other in Afternoon Tea mastery.