History books would have us believe that the Victorians spent most of their time acquiring other countries left, right and centre. But it seems that they still made time for cake and a sit down – for it was in the nineteenth century that this gloriously indulgent tradition was born. In honour of last week’s Afternoon Tea Week, here are five fascinating facts about the nation’s favourite culinary pastime.
1 A very hungry Duchess
Anna Maria Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, can be credited with the accidental invention of afternoon tea. It was normal for the Victorians to take only two meals a day – breakfast and dinner. But the introduction of the gas lamp meant that dinner was being served increasingly late, and Anna complained of “having that sinking feeling” during the late afternoon. In 1840, fed up of the daily tummy rumblings, she began taking a pot of tea and a light snack in her bedroom. Keen to share the wondrousness of her idea, she soon began inviting friends to her home at Woburn Abbey to partake in this tea drinking ritual.
2 A class divide
Before it became more affordable, afternoon tea (or ‘low’ tea) was originally confined to the upper classes. By the mid-ninenteenth century, it had become a daily fixture in the diaries of London’s high society hostesses. Around 4 o’clock, they’d sit down to tea in the drawing room dressed in all of their finery – elegant hats, gloves and long gowns were the order of the day. Then they’d set off to Hyde Park for an afternoon stroll, to walk off all of that butter, cream and sugar. The middle and lower classes had a more substantial but less showy ‘high’ tea later in the day, at five or six o’clock, in place of a late dinner.
3 A cake fit for a queen
Queen Victoria wasn’t allowed sweet treats very often as a child. But she made up for lost time on the throne. Each week Buckingham Palace would deliver a huge batch of sugary delights to Victoria’s royal residencies – from chocolate sponges to fondant biscuits and rice cakes. But it was the humble sponge that really tickled the Queen’s taste buds. And so the popular marriage of buttercream and fresh raspberries or jam was re-named the Victoria Sponge cake. If it’s good enough for royalty, it’s good enough for us.
4 A slice of feminism
Just as the afternoon tea craze was taking off in Britain, so too was the first movement of feminism. But whilst women began to campaign for equal rights, venturing out without the watchful gaze of an older married woman or widow was still frowned upon. When tea rooms began to pop up in cities all over the country in the late nineteenth century, they offered a respectable place for women to meet without a chaperone. The perfect place to gossip and plot a feminist revolution, with a cuppa in hand.
5 A hefty price tag
Cliveden House Hotel in Berkshire served up Britain’s most expensive afternoon tea. Priced at £550 for two, it was created by head chef Carlos Martinez and used some of the world’s most expensive ingredients. The menu featured white truffles, caviar and chocolate cake adorned with gold leaf (made with the world’s priciest chocolate, Amedi Porcelena), along with the Platinum Club Sandwich, made from 30-month air-cured Iberico ham and quail eggs. Guests could wash all of this down with Da Hong Pao Tea, which costs over £2000 per kilogram.