Afternoon Tea is the service that comes to mind when we think of a sophisticated British tea. It’s the elegant repast served at 4 or 5 pm, consisting of tea with scones, small sandwiches, cakes and other pastries.
A Cream Tea means that clotted cream is served as well. Clotted cream, also called Devonshire cream, is a thick cream made by heating milk until a layer of cream forms on its surface that is then cooled and skimmed off.
Afternoon tea was "invented" by Anna, Duchess of Bedford (1783 – 1857), wife of the 7th Duke, in 1840 as "a way to quell the inevitable hunger pangs between lunch and dinner". In other words, she “got too hungry for dinner at eight…”!
In the 19th century large meaty breakfasts were common and luncheon was a light sort of picnic with no servants present. Dinner was not served until 8 pm, so it is perfectly understandable that the duchess got a little hungry in the late afternoon.
Traditionally, a formal afternoon tea is performed according to certain rules of etiquette. At intimate gatherings the tea server (usually the hostess) pours the tea while seated with her guests.
The server first asks "Sugar?”, then “one lump or two?". The sugar, if requested, is placed in the cup using specially designed sugar tongs.
Then she asks, "Milk, or lemon?"
Milk and lemon should not be used together since lemon curdles the milk. Fresh milk is the best choice for Indian or African teas, and lemon for Ceylon or China teas.
The milk is poured before the tea.
(But see Tea Trivia below!!)
For the lemon-takers, a plate garnished with thinly sliced lemons is offered with a small fork. Most British think that the addition of lemon is pretentious/affected!
After handing the cup to the guest, hot water is offered for those who like their tea weaker.
Once everyone is served tea, the guests select traditional tea fare from the table or a tiered cake stand. The goodies can include crumpets slathered with butter, tea breads with fresh and dried fruits, dainty well-trimmed tea sandwiches, tall stand cakes, flaky scones, tart jams, lemon curds, small cookies, etc. Each guest takes a napkin, a small plate, and a butter knife for spreading jam, cream or sweet butter.
It takes some practice to balance a full cup, saucer, plate piled high with cakes and sandwiches, knife and napkin, but dropping crumbs and spilling tea are initiation rites and part of the enjoyment of the ceremony.
For Hotel restaurant or Tea Room service, wait staff serve customers at individual tables.