Henry James wrote in The Portrait of a Lady, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”
The term originated in the 1800s when the English were largely eating only two meals a day, breakfast and dinner, with a middling lunch. This time gap between the meals left Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford (1788-1861), with a “sinking feeling” by late afternoon. To ward off her low spirits she began ordering for tea and cakes to be served, a style that immediately caught on among her friends, the ladies of the aristocracy. Soon savouries like cucumber sandwiches were added as accompaniments to the cakes that accompanied the tea and afternoon tea, between three and five o’clock, became a symbol of high society style. Afternoon tea is sometimes called Low tea because it was served on low tables in the Withdrawing room. High tea, as opposed to afternoon tea, also called ‘meat tea’, is almost dinner.
The English penchant for tea resulted in breakfast tea, the elevenses, the four o'clock tea and the five o'clock tea but no later than that. Many world over do not follow a fixed time for tea. A sign board in Japan reads: Five o'clock Tea served at all hours.
The afternoon tea service
It was and remains largely a woman’s affair. Tea laid out on the table is stylish and served in either silverware or the best china. The English generally use a good black Assam or Ceylon. Milk and sugar are served separately in a creamer and a pot. Cakes, scones, crumpets and sandwiches make the traditional menu. Indianise it with pakodas and burfi.