Some meals are just quintessentially, undeniably British. From Sunday roasts to fried breakfasts, beans on toast to fish and chips, these are staples that will always bring a nostalgic glow to anyone who identifies with British culture.
But none of these captures the ineffable, immutable essence of Britishness quite like afternoon tea. The great novelist and impeccable Anglophile Henry James put it best: “there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” 140 years since those words were written, and they remain as true as ever!
In acknowledgement of this great British tradition, August 9th-15th is National Afternoon Tea Week. Though many of us perhaps don’t find much time through the year to indulge, this is a great opportunity to make sure you and your friends get to enjoy a little bit of luxury.
But if you're feeling a bit out of practice when it comes to hosting an up-market afternoon tea party - or if you're considering planning your first - we've got you covered.
A history of afternoon tea
Firstly, a little bit of history for those who want to do things the traditional way – or if you just like a few facts to fill out your pub quiz knowledge!
You may be surprised to find out that afternoon tea isn’t quite as long-standing a tradition as you might think. Though tea has been consumed in East Asia for thousands of years and was introduced to Britain in the seventeenth century, afternoon tea as a specific meal – and social event! – is a Victorian invention.
It can even be attributed to a specific person: Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford. The Duchess found herself having a little slump in energy during the late afternoon – and understandably so, as the fashionable time for eating dinner was around 8 pm during this period. She decided the best solution was to have a little refreshment brought to her around 4 pm – some bread and butter, a bit of cake, and, of course, a nice pot of tea.
As this developed into a habit, she started inviting her friends to join her. It quickly spread among the other prominent hostesses of the aristocracy, and afternoon tea as we know it was born.
Planning the spread
Now you know where afternoon tea comes from. But you may feel even more intimidated about celebrating! After all, it’s not always easy to meet those upper-class standards…
Well, you may be surprised at how easy it is to emulate the aristocratic setup even on a budget – and whatever your level of baking experience!
Read on to find out how to get the perfect afternoon tea setup with minimal fuss.
Tea, of course!
Let’s start with the obvious: you can’t have a great afternoon tea without getting the tea right!
Fortunately, this is more about quantity than quality. Rather than investing in artisanal tea blends (though don’t let us stop you if you’re a connoisseur!), it’s more important to make sure all your guests can choose their favourite.
Obviously, you’ll need to offer a classic English breakfast tea. But we’d recommend having a range of other options too, including some without caffeine. Think peppermint, chamomile, and fruity options. You’ll find a huge range of choices at your local supermarket. And it’s always a good idea to offer people something they’ve never had before!
It’s also worth thinking about the weather. Another great British tradition, of course, is cold and rainy during the summer. But if you do get lucky with a hot day, you may want to offer iced tea.
Then again, research shows that hot drinks can have as much of a cooling effect as cold ones. And that's another little fact you can bring out to impress your guests!
If you’re going to be brewing up plenty of tea to order, you’ll want to make sure nobody has to be kept waiting. Why not take this opportunity to indulge in a new kettle? Our Swan 1.8L Dome Kettle not only has a large enough capacity to cater for the biggest of tea parties, but it’s classic vintage style will perfectly suit an old-fashioned occasion such as this! It also comes in a range of eye-catching colours suited to any kitchen décor.
It's not all just cucumber sandwiches...
Now the drinks are sorted, it’s time to think about food. To keep your afternoon tea nice and traditional, there are three essentials: sandwiches, scones, and cakes.
Sandwiches are, of course, the simplest of these. Get yourself some nice, thinly sliced white bread and choose your favourite fillings. You’ll probably want to have cucumber sandwiches as an option, just to make sure the old-fashioned favourites are taken care of.
Just be sure to cut them into triangles!
When it comes to scones and cakes, don’t be afraid to just buy them readymade. After all, it’s a social event, not a baking competition! But if you do feel a bit adventurous and fancy offering up some homemade goodies, we’ve got you covered.
Our Devonshire scones recipe is perfect for beginners, and we’ve got a classic Victoria sponge that will work perfectly every single time.
Setting the scene
Now you’ve got all your refreshments ready to go – but you can’t just put them on your everyday side plates and serve them up! Afternoon tea is about aristocratic indulgence, after all.
Ideally, you’ll have an old-fashioned tiered cake stand, plus some teacups and saucers and some fancy cutlery. If you don’t, why not use this as an excuse to trawl a few charity shops? You can often find some classic Chinaware for cheap.
Similarly, you’ll want to lay the table with your fanciest tablecloth. If you don’t have anything that quite fits the bill, head down to a fabric shop. They’ll sell a range of patterned material by the metre, often at a very good price.
If you’re looking to make things fancy on a budget, handmade nameplates go a long way. Just fold some small pieces of card in half and write everyone’s names in your best cursive. Your guests are bound to be impressed when you direct them to their own place around your dinner table!
Get the kettle on!
It’s time to get your fanciest teacups ready, set out the silverware, and throw open the patio doors. It's been a long year and a half, and we all need as many excuses as we can find to get together and celebrate.
Whether you're an afternoon tea aficionado or a total newbie, it's the perfect way to enjoy a bit of luxury while you reconnect with those closest to you.
And if all this sounds a bit much, don't worry. We're not traditionalists here. Your afternoon tea might just mean putting the kettle on and making a lovely brew for yourself and your nearest and dearest - and what could be wrong with that!
If you're taking part in National Afternoon Tea Week this year, share your pictures with us on social media tagging @SwanBrandUK!