A Guide to British Afternoon Tea in London

From high society to tea parlours, British afternoon tea is more than a feast, it's a symbol of culture.

 

If there’s one thing the British are famous for, it’s undoubtedly their love of tea. But while the consumption of tea has been widespread across the United Kingdom for centuries, the tradition of afternoon tea has found its most dedicated disciples in the capital. From how to brew the perfect cuppa to the correct way to eat English scones, follow this guide to everything you need to know before savouring a quintessentially British afternoon tea at Corinthia London.

 

A RICH HISTORY

When tea was first brought to England in the 1660s, it was an exclusive beverage enjoyed by the royal family and the most elite members of high society. Over the next two centuries, it became an integral part of daily life for all classes and in the 1840s, the concept of a ‘tea break’ took on a new meaning thanks to the invention of afternoon tea.

The person accredited with introducing the concept is Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford and friend of Queen Victoria. Legend has it that the Duchess, upon finding herself hungry between lunch and dinner, began ordering a pot of a tea and a light snack to her quarters at around 4pm each day. Soon thereafter, she started inviting her well-to-do friends to join and moved festivities to the drawing room where the ladies were served tea, cakes and sandwiches before taking a leisurely walk through the grounds of the estate. The trend took off in high society circles and inspired the launch of tea shops, where the middle classes could also indulge.

Nowadays, afternoon tea is seen as a treat rather than a daily ritual and is enjoyed at a leisurely pace at tea parlours around the country, including at Corinthia London.

 

TRADITIONS & CUSTOMS

Afternoon tea is not without its customs and formalities. While it’s no longer an experience reserved for the upper classes, most establishments insist on a smart-casual dress code to continue the aesthetics of the glamorous 1800s tea parties. For men, this could mean trousers and collared shirts while for women, it’s often seen as an excuse to dress up.

When done properly, afternoon tea is served in delicate china cups and plates, often covered in pretty patterns. The food is generally presented on silver tiered trays, with savoury items at the bottom and sweets at the top, from which guests can help themselves.

Afternoon tea shouldn’t be confused with cream tea or high tea. While afternoon tea is a decadent and indulgent late afternoon affair, cream tea usually just consists of a pot of tea and scones. High tea was traditionally a more substantial affair enjoyed by the middle and lower classes in place of their usual evening meal and served at the ‘high’ dinner table.

 

ENGLISH SCONES & OTHER DELICACIES

Warm, freshly baked scones with clotted cream and jam (usually strawberry) are the highlight of a British afternoon tea experience. A long-term conundrum, however, has been in the construction of the scone. The Devon way is to layer on the cream first, followed by a generous dollop of jam, while the Cornish manner is the reverse. If in doubt, look at the type of cream being served and follow suit accordingly.

Alongside scones, diners will be served a selection of light finger sandwiches, always without crusts. Cucumber sandwiches are the most famous variety, followed by smoked salmon and cream cheese, egg mayonnaise and cress, and coronation chicken. There will also always be a selection of sweet treats, cakes and pastries. Cakes will be served in small portions or slices which can be easily picked up, while pastries such as tarts and éclairs will be miniatures. Bite-sized sweets like macaroons and teacakes are also commonplace on the top of the silver tray.

Table set up with small desserts, tea cups and glasses of Champagne
Trolley of afternoon tea desserts
BRITISH TEA TIME

Naturally, a principle part of afternoon tea is the tea itself. Thirst-quenching and refreshing, tea is a natural pick-me-up and is perfect for washing down generous servings of cakes and sandwiches. The best parlours will offer a large variety of teas from all over the world, ranging from traditional blends and historical flavours to more modern herbal infusions. Some will also offer a glass of Champagne for special occasions.

Tea is served in teapots, which should stand to brew for a few minutes before pouring. Black teas should be accompanied by a splash of milk. 

Corinthia London’s afternoon tea offers a vast selection of grand and fine teas. Whether you opt for one of our bespoke blends, such as our 'Mellow' tea consisting of Earl Grey, Darjeeling and Assam, or choose a naturally caffeine-free herbal infusion, from our invigorating Triple Mint to our soft Lemon Verbena, there’s something to tempt every palette.

 

AFTERNOON TEA AT CORINTHIA LONDON

Afternoon Tea at Corinthia London is served in The Crystal Moon Lounge – an elegant yet modern space illuminated by the glow of our grand Baccarat crystal chandelier. Guests can choose from Traditional Afternoon Tea and Champagne Afternoon Tea, which comes with a glass of Laurent-Perrier Champagne.

The menu is updated seasonally and features a selection of fine finger sandwiches, homemade scones with the traditional accompaniments and an array of fresh pastries and desserts.

For extra special occasions or exclusive gatherings of up to 18 guests, afternoon tea can be served in the private dining room at The Northall. With stunning surroundings, flavoursome teas and delicious sweet delicacies, there’s a reason that our British afternoon tea experience repeatedly tops lists of the best afternoon teas in London.

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