The Essentials of British Afternoon Tea

British afternoon tea

I knew about British tradition of drinking tea even before I travelled there for the first time. What I didn’t know was that when somebody says ‘afternoon tea’, they have in mind something more rather than a cup of hot drink. It means the whole indulgent experience around 4pm, having scones, mini sandwiches and cakes with your cuppa.

The traditions

Afternoon tea, a tradition that is thought of being almost synonymous with the word “British” did not become established until the early 19th century. Anne, the Duchess of Bedford was feeling hungry between the two main meals of the day – breakfast and late dinner, so she requested her servants to bring in some tea and nibblies in the afternoon. The duchess started inviting some friends to join her for the tea and so the tradition began, spreading in aristocratic circles and soon among working class too.

These days afternoon tea is quite often mistakenly called high tea, thinking that it has something to do with high levels of society. In fact the term ‘high tea’ derived from working class meal that was eaten at high tables after hard labor day and it was a hearty meal rather then little cakes and sandwiches aristocrats used to snack on. Their afternoon tea experience was called low tea due to the snacking being done at low coffee-style tables.


There are a couple of components that are essential for the British afternoon tea and scones – biscuit like pastries – with clotted cream and jam are amongst those.

The name “skon” could have been derived from Dutch word schoonbrot, which means fine white bread or from Gaelic word termsgonn – a large mouthful or a shapeless mass.

Scones became popular in England when afternoon tea ritual got introduced, but the origins of them go back to much earlier days. At the beginning they were round bread loaves made with oats, baked on a griddle and then sliced into triangles. When ovens came into usage, the round piece of dough was cut into wedges and the scones baked individually.


These days scones are made of wheat flour, sugar, baking powder, butter, milk and eggs producing a hard, dry texture. Usually they are round, but they can be baked in wedge, square or diamond shapes.

If you are in Wales, you can find something similar in taste called Welsh cakes, that have a shape of flat pancakes and are baked on a bakestone or a griddle, just like in the old days.

Welsh cakes

While in general scones can be either savoury or sweet, usually the sweet version is served for the afternoon tea. Traditional English scones may include raisins or currants, but are often plain, relying on jam or sometimes lemon curd for added flavour. Occasionally you can come across some fancy variations of scones with dried fruit, nuts or chocolate.

It took me a while to get to like those little pastries and there can be a fair bit of variations in taste – some of them more dry and floury, and others – quite moist. However, regardless on the recipe, freshness is essential and it is the ultimate when they are served still warm straight from the oven.

Clotted cream

The other vital ingredient to your tea is clotted cream. It is thick yellow cream product that is made by heating unpasteurised cow’s milk and then leaving it in a shallow pan until the cream rises to the surface in ‘clots’. When scooped out it results in thick and soft butter that tastes like cream.

Clotted cream is not a British invention, in fact it has a wide cultural reach. The arrival of Phoenician traders around two thousand years ago may have introduced the tradition. In the cuisines of countries such as Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan local people make a rich clotted cream called kaymak from a buffalo milk. In England it is made from cow’s milk that is high in fat.

Clotted cream

Devon claims to produce the best clotted cream, often calling the whole tea drinking ritual Devonshire cream tea, but Cornwall and Yorkshire are also known for producing it.

Clotted cream is used for spreading it on fresh scones in combination with strawberry jam. There is an ongoing debate on what has to go first – cream or jam? Normally you’d think you spread clotted cream first and strawberry jam on the top, but Devon people would argue that it should be done the other way round – spreading jam on the scone and putting a dollop of clotted cream on the top of it.

Leaf tea

The first tea shop in London was opened by Thomas Twining in early 18 century and slowly tea shops began to appear throughout England making the drinking of teas increasingly popular. Whilst black leaf tea grown in India or Ceylon would be the most common choice, chamomile or mint tea may also be chosen to go with the afternoon tea fair. If you are offered Afternoon tea blend, it will either be a combination of Sri Lankan Orange Pekoe grade teas or a blend of Assam, Darjeeling and Ceylon. Earl Grey – a blend of black tea and oil of bergamot is also a very common option to choose from. Whatever kind of tea you prefer, make sure loose leaf tea is used and not tea bags nor tea powder.

The tea can be served in either metal or china teapot. It has to infuse for a few minutes (usually 3-4 min) before pouring it into fine china teacups.


The habit of pouring milk in tea came from the French. Originally milk was always added before the tea to prevent the hot tea from cracking the fine china cups, but these days according to the tea drinking etiquette milk should be poured last.

Menu options

When you go out for tea, you’d see two options on the menu: cream tea and afternoon tea.

If you choose to have cream tea, you will be presented with scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam. A scone meant to be sliced in half horizontally, then jam and clotted cream spread on it and eaten while the scone is still warm.

When you are served afternoon tea, you will get your munchies on a traditional three-tierred tray, that contains a selection of little sandwiches at the bottom with bread crust trimmed away, scones in the middle and two or three types of cakes and pastries at the top and everything meant to be eaten in that order. However, some places would serve scones on the top with a decorative cloche in order to keep them warm.

Where to go

If you want to have a real afternoon tea experience and especially if you haven’t had it before, I’d suggest choosing one of finest London’s hotels or visiting a tearoom in the west country.

My first proper encounter with this deep British tradition happened in Wolseley hotel in London. The restaurant of the hotel has this classic atmosphere, but it is not too pretentious and afternoon tea with all the fancy trimmings is truly indulgent. The scones served still hot simply melted in my mouth and little pastries and sandwiches went well with the tea too.

You can’t go wrong if you choose the Ritz or Claridge’s for the  afternoon tea and these two places are on my to-do list for some special occasions to come.


Photo credits: scones, clotted cream, tea

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