All branches will be closed on Sunday, May 27, and Monday, May 28 for Memorial Day. eBooks, eAudio, and eMagazines are available 24/7!

Time for Tea

Tea can be the centerpiece of a formal party or simply everyday hospitality among friends. Whether you prefer herbal, green, or black varieties, when you sip a cup of tea, you are joining a rich, historical tradition.

The Queen's Gift

Although black teas and green teas are not native to Europe, they quickly became adopted by the nobility as explorers shared their discoveries with their patrons.

Charles II's queen, Catherine of Braganza, brought the tea habit, along with Bombay and Tangier, with her from her native Portugal in 1662 and so set the fashion for tea drinking in English society. In 1669, the East India Company brought back tea as a cargo for the first time. In the beginning, it was treated as a novelty, but Twinings coffee house had so increased its trade in tea that by 1717 it had opened another establishment, The Golden Lyon. Tea houses, like coffee houses, were places where politics and business were discussed.

Tea Gardens

As the 18th century progressed, tea gardens became the place to see and be seen. For a fixed entry price, evening revelers could consume as much tea, cakes, and sandwiches as they wished. Musicians would often play. Handel was known to conduct his own works, and a very young Mozart made an appearance as well. The most famous ones were Vauxhall, Ranelagh, and Marylebone. Fashionable society came to see and be seen. Other entertainments might have included fireworks and jugglers.

Afternoon Tea

What with luncheon served at midday, and dinner not served until 8:30 or 9 at night, a person of gentle breeding could get a bit nippish in the meantime. Anna, Seventh Duchess of Bedford, is credited with inventing the custom of afternoon tea. The Duchess arranged for tea and a selection of dainties to be sent to her rooms to combat the "sinking feeling" she experienced around four o'clock.

So delightful did she find the custom that she shared her small luxury with her society friends. They were soon were imitating her and providing refreshment to their friends. A person would declare herself "At Home" on a particular day and time when dropping off visiting cards at other friends' homes. On the "At Home" day, visitors would be treated to afternoon tea, a custom which also became popular in middle and upper-middle class homes. A typical menu during the height of its popularity might include finger sandwiches, sausage rolls, small iced cakes, and a more elaborate "cutting cakes."

Public tea rooms also became a mainstay of British culture. And, although they waned a bit in the 20th century, the immensely popular BBC program, Upstairs, Downstairs, led to their revival in the 1970s.

Today, the tradition continues. The London Ritz Hotel has five sittings for afternoon tea in its Palm Court, culminating in the 7:30 Champagne Afternoon Tea. Several other luxury hotels maintain the custom. More locally, Keswick Hall near Charlottesville provides visitors as well as guests with a traditional afternoon tea in gracious surroundings. In Fredericksburg, Tea Tyme and What Nots provides a large number of teas as well as sweet and savory delights and free lessons in etiquette for young people. Pinkadilly Tea at the Smythe's Cottage is the latest place downtown to try for tea.

Planning a road trip, preferably one punctuated by the occasional scone and sip of Darjeeling? An excellent guide for tea rooms nearby and far afield is TeaGuide: The Original Online Tea Directory.

Tea Dances

Tea and dancing was popular on the European continent before crossing the Channel. Tea dances, especially tango teas, became a hit during the afternoons of the 1890s, both along the Riviera, and later in England. The Carlton Hotel was also popular spot.

During the 1930s and 40s, World War II brought Allied support to teas, held during daylight hours to avoid violating blackout conditions. American big bands such as Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller, would fly across the Atlantic to play for the troops and civilians in England at their tea dances. They might be held on a factory floor, an air-raid shelter, or a church hall.

Tidbits about Tea


  • Tea bags are handy, but purists prefer loose tea, either captured in a tea ball in the pot or passed through a special strainer afterwards.


  • If you've never really tried tea before, consider getting a sampler which will probably include English Breakfast (hearty, good with milk) and Earl Grey (fragrant and nice with either lemon or milk, but never both).


  • When you're ready to branch out, try Lapsang Souchong (smoky!) and Jasmine, which is also popular in Chinese restaurants.


  • Although many swear it simply doesn't matter, tea drinkers who mind their p's and q's always add milk -not cream- before the tea if it's wanted at all.


  • Brewing the tea to be very strong and having a separate container with boiling water for adjusting to individual preferences is one way of guaranteeing that everyone gets a cup to his or her taste.


  • High tea is traditionally the last meal of the day in a working household. It will probably include a hearty meat entrée and vegetables in addition to tea.


  • Afternoon tea, on the other hand, is a delicate repast of finger sandwiches, dainty cakes, perhaps scones, and tea.


Recipes for a Light Afternoon Tea:

Cucumber Sandwiches
Always a classic

Peel a cucumber and slice it into transparencies on the slicing side of a grater, or by adroit use of a potato peeler. Sprinkle these see-through discs with a little vinegar and salt. After half an hour, drain away the excess cucumber juice by shuffling the slices in a sieve. Cover a slice of lightly-buttered paper-thin brown bread with two layers of cucumber, and top with another slice of bread. Apply firm but delicate pressure with the palm of the hand. Slice off the crusts, and cut into three rectangles. Pile these neatly on a porcelain serving plate, and cover with a lightly dampened cloth until tea is served.

From The London Ritz Book of Afternoon Tea by Helen Simpson.

These delightful tea cakes have a pedigree stretching to 13th-century Venice.

1 2/3 cups ground almonds
1 cup confectioners' sugar
Scant ½ cup egg whites
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
½ cup plus 2 tbsp granulated sugar
1/3 cup orange marmalade

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Sift the almonds and confectioners' sugar into a bowl. Add half of the egg whites and the vanilla extract, and mix to a smooth paste. Combine the remaining egg whites and granulated sugar in a heatproof bowl. Warm over a pan of hot water, stirring constantly, until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the hot water, and beat with an electric mixer to a stiff meringue. Add the almond paste, stirring gently but thoroughly.

Pipe the mixture in blobs about 2 inches wide on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper or baking parchment. Allow a skin to form (about 5 minutes). Bake for 5-7 minutes. Turn the tray during the baking in order to obtain evenly coloured macaroons. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

When cooled, sandwich together pairs of macaroons with orange marmalade.

From Taking Tea at the Savoy by Anton Edelmann.

Sponge Layer Cake
Sandwich this cake together with sugarless fruit preserves.

4 eggs
½ cup superfine sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
¼ cup sugarless fruit preserves

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat 2 round 8-inch cake pans with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. In a large bowl, beat eggs and sugar until thick and creamy. Fold in flour. Divide batter between pans. Bake about 20 minutes or until the top of the cake springs back when lightly touched. Cool layers in pans a few minutes, then turn out onto wire racks to cool completely. Sandwich layers together with preserves.

From The Pleasures of Afternoon Tea by Angela Hines.

More Books on Tea in the British Tradition


The Afternoon Tea Book by Michael Smith.
A gifted English chef shares his knowledge, recipes, and personal memories of that most quintessential of British customs.


Having Tea: Recipes & Table Settings by Tricia Foley.
The author takes tea to another level. Try her menus for a Christmas Eve tea, a proper children's tea, a holiday tea, and, in warmer weather, tea on the lawn, a strawberry cream tea, and a summer harvest picnic. Lovely photographs throughout.


The Tea Companion: A Connoisseur's Guide by Jane Pettigrew.
As the title declares, this is a tea book for those who want to know the difference between a first flush and second flush Darjeeling. Gives an introduction to each type, characteristics, brewing hints, photographs of the tea leaves--both brewed and unbrewed--as well as the beverage itself. Practically a Fodors of teas, it examines each type by region, giving a lot of history, and recommends varieties from specific tea gardens (plantations).


Tea Time on the Web


Biscuits and Scones Recipes
Scones are the perfect accompaniment to afternoon tea. These recipes are served at American bed & breakfast inns.


Emily Post: Teas and Other Afternoon Parties
This chatty etiquette primer from the Roaring 20s tells the ins and outs of both formal and informal tea.


TeaGuide: The Original Online Tea Directory
Discover a quiet spot for tea, either on the road or near your neighborhood. Includes reviews.


The History of Tea
A quick history of tea, from its Chinese origins to American tea rooms.


World of Twinings: Tea Glossary
Don't know your Darjeeling from your Assam? Learn the varieties, history, and discover what to look for in a good quality cup of tea.