Thursday, July 08, 2010

Tea with the Ladies

By Jess Hodges

Lady Anna Maria Russell Duchess of Bedford was in all respects a very important woman. Daughter of the 3rd Earl of Harrington, Sister in law to the Prime Minister of England and close friend of Queen Victoria, society ladies didn't come more well to do than this. When it comes to Western tea drinking she is a pivotal figure, being the pioneer of the afternoon tea.

Afternoon tea is usually served around 4pm and consists of a pot of tea and a selection of light refreshments, often served on a stand. Foods served are dainty sandwiches and cakes or scones, usually a small selection of each.

The beginnings of afternoon tea can be found in the eighteenth century when the largest meal was migrating backwards through the day from noon to early evening. This left a long time since breakfast and a new meal, luncheon, was introduced to fill the gap. The new lunch was usually a very light meal and so a lot of people found they were still getting hungry in the afternoon. People began to have a snack to tide them over until dinner but it was Lady Anna Maria who formalised the tradition.

She got into the habit of taking afternoon tea in her rooms and soon became such a fan that she started inviting her friends to join her. It was a huge success and a new kind of social gathering was formed. On the face of it the height of sophistication and refinement, it was really about gossip. Scandals were made and dissected over a pot of Darjeeling and a selection of finger foods. It was the seventeenth century equivalent of cocktails with the girls!

The upper classes being the celebrities of the time a new trend was set. Afternoon tea became a staple of the British tea drinking tradition and has remained basically unchanged until this day. So if you feel the need for a spot of historical re-enactment but don't fancy going this far then next time you're peckish mid afternoon why not follow in the footsteps of Lady Anna Maria?