Getting a Handle on Tea

"Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea."

--Henry Fielding

titleThe first tea cups in England were handless tea bowls imported from China. These tea sets were soon copied by potteries in England. The first saucers appeared around 1700, but took some time to come into common use. The standard globular form of teapot had replaced the tall oriental teapots by 1750. Robert Adam's Classically inspired designs for tea sets popularized handles and other Greek and Roman motifs.

Two Meals or Three

At first, tea was served in the drawing room after dinner and as one of several beverages offered callers. Tea in the afternoon served with other foods as a snack or meal is believed to have originated from Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, in the early 1800s. Prior to the introduction of tea into Britain, the English had only two main meals during a day: a breakfast of ale, bread, and beef and a long, massive dinner eaten at the end of the day, usually around 8 o'clock. With such a long period between meals, it was no wonder that Anna, the Duchess of Bedford (1788-1861) experienced a "sinking feeling" in the late afternoon. With tea figuring as England's favorite drink, it was the most likely choice as the beverage for this new meal. Given that Anna's brother Viscount Petersham was a great tea aficionado coffee and chocolate didn't stand a chance.

#Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, invited friends to join her for an additional afternoon meal at five o'clock in her rooms at Woburn Abbey. The menu consisted of small cakes, bread and butter sandwiches, assorted sweets, and, of course, tea. The Duchess continued this summer practice when she returned to London, sending invitations to her friends asking them to join her for "tea and a walking the fields." (At that time, large open meadows were still to be found in Mayfair.) Other social hostesses soon began to invite friends to afternoon tea.

High or Low

Traditionally, the upper classes served a "low" or "afternoon" tea around 4:00 pm just before the fashionable promenade in Hyde Park, at which one might find small sandwiches, biscuits, and cake. Middle and lower classes had a "high" tea later in the day, at 5:00 or 6:00. It is a more substantial meal, essentially it's dinner. A typical menu at high tea would consist of roast pork, stand pie, salmon and salad, trifle, jellies, lemon-cheese tarts, sponge cake, walnut cake, chocolate roll, pound cake, white and brown bread, currant teacake, curd tart and cheeses. The names derive from the height of the tables on which the meals are served. Low tea was not served at a dinner table but on low tables in the withdrawing room.
High tea was served on the dinner table.

A Hostess's Duties

The butler and footmen having brought her the necessary tools: tea caddy, teapot, hot water urn and heater, and teacups; the mistress of the house brewed the tea. First she unlocked the tea caddy; tea was very expensive so it was kept under lock and key so that the servants were not tempted to steal a spoonful of the precious dried leaves. Then she mixed her favorite blend of teas or selected a premixed blend. To brew tea, hot water was poured into the teapot and allowed to sit a few minutes to warm the pot. The water was then poured out into a waste bowl, tea placed into the pot, and boiling water poured over the tea. It was steeped five to eight minutes. The tea leaves were strained out with a tea strainer placed atop each china cup as the cup of fresh tea was poured. Only one round of tea was made at a time, as tea loses flavor rapidly. Each pot was made with fresh tea. Sugar imported from the plantations of Jamaica might also be added. English crumpets and Scottish scones quickly became associated with the snack. Crumpets might be toasted in the fireplace on the tongs of a long handled toasting fork, buttered, and placed on a plate on the hearth to keep warm.

By the 1840's these teas became grand enough for a buffet table to be set up with refreshments. Cakes, thin bread and butter, fancy biscuits, ices, fruits and sandwiches comprised the food, while big silver urns dispensed tea, coffee, wine claret cup, sherry and champagne-cup. In early Victorian days, sandwiches were made only of ham, tongue or beef. It wasn't until the 1870s that cucumber sandwiches were being served regularly with tea.

Tea Gardens

After experiencing the Dutch "tavern garden teas", the English developed the idea of the Tea Garden. Here ladies and gentlemen took their tea out of doors surrounded by entertainment such as orchestras, hidden arbors, flowered walks, bowling greens, concerts, gambling, or fireworks at night. The tea garden began in the reign of King Charles II. Diarists John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys recorded visits to the New Spring Garden (also called Vauxhall) on 2nd July 1661 and 29th May 1662, respectively. The tea garden reached the height of its popularity in the mid 18th Century. Some famous London tea gardens were Vauxhall and Ranelagh. The gardens were laid out to be a lovely place to stroll and be seen. They offered entertainment such as an orchestra and fireworks.

Tipping as a response to proper service began in the Tea Gardens of England. Small, locked wooden boxes were placed on the tables throughout the Garden. Inscribed on each were the letters "T.I.P.S." which meant "To Insure Prompt Service". If a guest wished the waiter to hurry (and so insure the tea arrived hot from the often distant kitchen), he dropped a coin into the box on being seated "to insure prompt service". This created the custom of tipping servers.

Types of Black Tea

Bohea - Cheapest tea. 80% of the tea imported by the East India Co. was of this type.

Pekoe - A fine-flavored variety made chiefly from young spring buds.

Congou - High quality tea made from the fifth and largest leaf gathered from a shoot tip of a tea plant. Often called English Breakfast Tea.

Souchong - High quality tea. Leaves are smoked slowly over fresh pine logs imparting its deep, rich flavor and smoky aroma. 3 times as expensive as Bohea.

Types of Medium Tea

Imperial - Can be used as a general term for medium teas.

Bing - Broad leafed tea processed with compression.

Types of Green Tea

Hyson - Each leaf is twisted. Light grassy flavor.

Gunpowder - Each tea leaf is rolled into a pellet. Smooth grassy flavor.