The Changing Tradition of Afternoon Tea
I’ve been thinking a lot about cake lately and in particular afternoon tea. Afternoon tea has a long and interesting history and over the past few years it has become fashionable once more to raise a tea cup and spend a few indulgent hours taking afternoon tea.
Afternoon tea wouldn’t be tea without a good selection of cakes and over the years the selection of cakes has become more elaborate. No longer does a good slice of cherry cake or plain sponge cut the grade, today’s cake stand is often a masterpiece with carefully iced cakes of rainbow colours, miniature puddings and beautifully crafted and wonderfully flavoured cake art.
From humble beginnings
Cakes are one of the most familiar and extraordinary objects of the Western world. There is nothing quite like cake – indeed no wedding or children’s party would be complete without it. Cake can come in many shapes and sizes and indeed there is heated debate over what constitutes a cake, for example are Jaffa Cakes a cake? How about pancakes or cheesecakes? Or even chocolate covered teacakes? Well the way to tell if a cake is indeed a cake and not a biscuit is that cakes dry as they stale and biscuits soften and this was the defining culinary principle that won McVities their legal battle in 1991 and saw the orange centered delights crowned a cake not a biscuit.
Cakes carry with them tradition and memories and they hold a fascinating history from the Ancient Greeks and Romans, through to the Medieval feasting tables and Victorian parlours to our modern day creations that are as fanciful as our imaginations and ingredients allow. When we talk about cakes today we think of the sweet, soft and spongy creations where lightness is heralded as a virtue, these types of cakes though have the shortest of histories when it comes to the story of cake, because they only really came into existence in the mid-eighteenth century.
The earliest form of cakes would not fit our modern day expectations of cake, indeed were really an ancient version of our modern day oatcake, being flat rounds of crushed, moistened and compacted grains. Indeed we still use the word cake to refer to compacted grains think of rice cakes or even cattle cakes and the compacted cake survived in Britain well into the Medieval period in the form of gingerbread which was again nothing like our modern day equivalent, instead it was made by combining fine breadcrumbs with honey and flavoured with exotic spices such as grains of paradise, ginger and cinnamon. The mixture was often coloured with red wine or liquorice before being pressed into moulds and decorated. It is certain that these ancient compressed cakes served the same purpose of being a treat and centre piece of celebrations, but our modern cakes have two other ancestors porridge, pancakes and bread. The ancient batter of the pancake is not so very different from our raised batter cakes, whilst the enriched fruit pottage of the Middle ages is the precursor to our plum pudding a relative of the Christmas cake.
The dawn of baking powder
For a long time the history of bread and cakes is intertwined and cake does not become separated from bread until quite late in history. Today in Britain yeast raised bakes are no longer categorised as cake, but as late as 1861 a yeast raised cake can be found in a copy of Mrs. Beeton’s ‘Book of Household Management’. It is true to say that the most significant progression in the history of cake baking was the removal of yeast as a raising agent and this is the point at which the modern cake emerged but it’s hard to tie this down to an exact date, but in 1700’s recipes for cakes being raised with eggs were emerging and yeast raised cakes were beginning to be designated as plainer and for economy.
Birth of the modern cake
The modern cake is finally born when chemical raising agents come into play with the first one being pearl ash a derivative from wood ash which was used in American baking from the 1790’s but sadly it gave a soapy flavour, so it was swiftly replaced with bicarbonate of soda, but we have to wait until 1850 for ‘true’ baking powder to come along. Baking powder is in my opinion the hero of the light and fluffy sponge because it allows for the making of soft and spongy cakes without the need for high proportions of eggs and lengthy beating.
The Bride and Groom will now cut the cup cake doesn’t really cut it at a wedding in my opinion, but it seems that whilst baking and vintage are both very much in vogue and that many of the ‘old fashioned’ bakes are experiencing a revival sadly the wedding cake is in decline.
The wedding cake – that elaborate rococo fairytale centerpiece of filigree royal icing and densely textured fruit, which has previously been the grand set-piece of receptions – has fallen so far out of favour that fewer than one in five couples now choose it.
Instead, there has been a vogue for towers of American-style cupcakes, chocolate confections and even that most commonplace of teatime treats, sponge cake, all of which have found themselves elevated to the top table, albeit in a titivated form.
The demise of the wedding cake has been attributed to a combination of economics – a made-to-order, three-tiered cake decorated with icing roses can cost £1,000 coupled with a sweet-toothed desire for ultra-modernity.
In modern traditional weddings, the cake is often not eaten at the event, but packaged into small boxes for the guests to take home with them; this too is a throwback to a previous era, when wedding cake was used as a divination device.
“Girls would sleep with it under their pillow to dream of a future husband,”
“In the late 18th century, a variation of this was the passing of morsels of the cake through the wedding ring before distributing them to the bride’s unmarried friends, which is depicted in John Everett Millais’s 1851 painting, The Bridesmaid.
In medieval times, cakes made of wheat were thrown at the bride in order to promote her fertility. Later, all baked goods at the wedding breakfast would be piled into a mound, and the bride and groom would attempt to kiss each other over the summit; if they succeeded, they would be blessed with a lifetime of prosperity.
By the 17th century, “bridal pie” made from meat products – sweet breads or mutton – was baked with a glass ring inside; in a forerunner of today’s bouquet-throwing, the woman who found the ring would be the next to marry.
Then in the 18th century, so legend has it, the tiered wedding cake that we know today was devised by a lovelorn baker’s apprentice, William Rich, who lived in the Ludgate area of London.
Having fallen in love with his master’s daughter, Rich set about impressing her (or, more likely, her father) with a wondrous cake, the inspiration for which came from the Spire of St Bride’s Church
Old and new traditions
We all have classic baking recipes that our families love – traditional cakes we create again and again, and recipes that have been passed down through generations.
Sometimes, however, it’s nice to play about with a classic and cake lovers are now demanding a little something different from their bake and traditional cakes with a twist are very much on trend. The cake serves two purposes today: a feast for eyes and the pallet. Everything from lemon Bakewell’s, chocolate and coffee Battenburg to carrot cake with candied parsnip.
The history of afternoon tea
The custom of afternoon tea was once an essential daily undertaking. It came about during the Georgian period sometime from 1714 to 1830 and was initially nothing more than a small meal between breakfast and dinner. The story goes that the Duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria Russel, began a daily afternoon ritual of taking tea and a snack. She lived during a time when it was common to eat only two main meals a day, with breakfast being served early in the morning and dinner occurring late in the evening. Struck by hunger pangs each afternoon the duchess used to complain of a ‘sinking feeling’ and so took a nibble in the afternoon, this private routine was firstly done surreptitiously in her bed chamber, but over time she began inviting friends to join her between 3pm and 5pm and so the tradition of afternoon tea was born.
Over the next few decades, the custom of afternoon tea became firmly established as a part of the British culture and enjoyed great popularity, but as lifestyles became faster paced the popularity of taking afternoon tea declined and became the remit of those with more leisurely lifestyles. Today afternoon tea is back in fashion and I for one am glad to see its return in popularity. Now special occasions are regularly celebrated by booking an afternoon tea and it is undoubtedly a good excuse for a social gathering that appeals across the generations.
“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea,” concurred the Victorian novelist Henry James in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’, a sentiment I whole heartedly share. I can think of nothing better than taking time over good tea, cake and sandwiches. If you do partake in afternoon tea you’ll be in good company as Her Majesty the Queen takes tea at 5pm, each day, rigidly observing a tradition that goes back centuries.
There is some evidence that 10th century monks invented afternoon tea. Indeed the now ruinous Benedictine Abbey at Tavistock in Devon from which manuscripts originated indicate that Monks served bread with clotted cream and strawberry preserves to local workers who helped rebuild the Abbey after it was damaged in a Viking raid in 997AD.
It was an instant hit among the locals, and the monks started serving it to passing travelers.
The Devonshire cream tea was born.
Though today everything from Guinness flavoured muffins to miniature cup cakes and champagne jellies are probably more likely to be showing up on an afternoon tea menu than the humble scone, although the scone itself is a newcomer in the long history of afternoon tea. Indeed the scone was a replacement for the warm English muffins that once sat at the top of the cake stand.
Prim and proper afternoon tea
If the age old ritual of taking afternoon tea still conjures up images of polite, white-gloved ladies engaging in polite chit-chat over cups of fragrant tea then you might want to reconsider your opinion, as afternoon tea has an altogether naughtier side. Indeed what started in the Regency period as a secret boudoir snack progressed throughout the century as cosmopolitan and aristocratic circles enthusiastically embraced the ritual of the afternoon tea and it wasn’t long before the prim and proper afternoon tea started to be associated with more erotic elements, in the guise of the tea dress.
The tea dress is also known as a “tea gown”, “robe d’interieur”, or as fashionable Edwardian women christened it the, “teagie”. Essentially tea gowns were an indoor dress and a close cousin to the dressing gown and the peignoir, they were created in the 1870s, when both day and evening dresses were tight fitting affairs that did not lend themselves to comfortable lounging. The tea gown offered the period lady a chance to relax from the bustles and corsets of the day in the company of her female companions.
So when dressing to take tea disregard fitted dresses and stop thinking about hemline lengths, because historically dressing for afternoon tea was all about trend setting and new found freedom in women’s attire. Remember lots of soft, free-flowing fabrics that flow across your feminine form and give the promise of easy undressing are the key to correct tea apparel
In a bid to create the world’s best afternoon tea, Cliveden House, in Berkshire, designed a spread costing an astonishing £550 per couple.
Executive Head Chef Carlos Martinez used some of the most expensive produce in the world.
The indulgent menu starts off with a quintessentially English cream tea, but is soon spiced up by Cognac preserve and the rare Da Hong Pao Tea. Harvested from 1000-year-old plants, the exquisite leaves used to create the tea cost more than £2,000 per kilogram. Even more expensive is the Beluga Caviar, which graces the second course, and sells for £4,000 per kilogram.
The Platinum Club Sandwich previously marked von Essen’s ‘world’s most expensive…’ menu item, and now holds pride of place in the tea’s third course. The delicacy appears as a mini canapé version, and is made from 30-month air-cured Iberico ham, which the Spanish describe as the ‘fourth gastronomic wonder of the world’.
The menu also included ‘white truffles at a £2,500 per kilogram
It also came with ‘Cliveden House Chocolate Cake with Gold Leaf’ paired with Kopi Luwak, the world’s most expensive coffee.
The future of afternoon tea
Though we all love the afternoon tea now we are looking for an afternoon tea that is a bit more interesting than the regular cucumber sandwiches and Victoria sponge? Themed afternoon teas and whimsical treats are the way forward it seems.
When looking to put together a crowd gathering afternoon tea bear in mind that covers today expect to be taken down the proverbial rabbit hole: think macaroons served on magnifying glasses, tea-infused punch cocktails and Stella McCartney shoes re-imagined as cake. Plus, when there are Oompa Loompa cupcakes to be eaten, who needs scones
Think of murder mystery themes and fictional detectives a themes and cigars made with smoked caramel mousse and a stout beer cupcake topped with ‘Watson’s moustache’. Rarely for a London afternoon tea and sandwiches named Hound of Baskerville with roast beef and English mustard
The afternoon tea is now as much about imagination as it is tea and scones.