When planning a traditional afternoon tea, majestic visions of iconic London tearooms — at Claridge’s, Harrod’s, Fortnum & Mason and the Ritz — come to mind. Serving high quality teas that have been enjoyed in England for hundreds of years will help recreate the refinement of these renowned British tea services.
The range of teas enjoyed at a traditional English afternoon tea is deeply rooted in the story of Great Britain’s trade, social trends, war and colonization history throughout Asia and Africa. A proper tea menu for a British afternoon tea will source teas that reflect the British tea journey, from China, Taiwan and Japan to India, Sri Lanka and Kenya.
England’s love of tea kicked off in 1662, when King Charles II married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, who naturally brought along chests of her favorite drink. Though many new methods of processing and flavoring tea have been invented in the centuries that followed, today’s British tea-goers still sip on traditionally English teas that have been popular for a century or more. Indeed several of today’s globally popular teas were developed to appeal to the British tea drinker, such as Earl Grey, Darjeeling and English Breakfast, all created in the 19th century, along with the advent of afternoon tea.
The Unadulterated Leaf
Though teas from green to black can now be found in a multitude of creative, delicious flavors, at the time tea became popular in England, it was the unadulterated tea leaf that was most highly prized. Why? Through the 18th century, tea and china teasets imported from China were so expensive that only the wealthy could afford to be tea purists. Determined to emulate the aristocracy, the middle and lower classes settled for cheaper tea knock-offs, like reused tea leaves or “smouch”: tea leaves secretly blended with fillers such as dried tree leaves, sawdust, gypsum and sheep’s dung.
Some of the most sought-after teas have been esteemed for centuries because they grow in special conditions (elevation, rainfall, cloud cover, sun exposure, etc.) and are processed to create a wide variety of brews from the same plant. For the early British tea drinker, the closely guarded trade secrets of the Chinese were part of the allure of this specialty product.
Honor the Past
After centuries of buying costly tea from China, the British established their own tea supply to control tea prices, though they did so by exploiting local workers throughout the British Empire. In the 19th century, they founded their own tea plantations in British colonies from India to East Africa, whose teas would be named after the region where they grew. Take English Breakfast as an example: the popular tea blend sources black teas from estates in three former British colonies: Assam (a state in India), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Kenya.
Keep it Real
The oldest method of flavoring teas was to blend the processed tea leaves with flowers, spices or fruits, and then let the mixture rest to naturally absorb the botanical’s aroma. While many teas today are artificially flavored, you can select naturally flavored teas for your British afternoon tea to honor tradition. Jasmine, Masala Chai and Earl Grey teas will be scented by jasmine flowers; cardamom pods, and perhaps ginger root, cinnamon sticks, cloves, peppercorns; and the Bergamot orange or its essential oil, respectively.
Made in England
If you want to serve truly English teas at your afternoon tea, you could choose a black, green or peppermint tea produced on the Tregothnan estate in Cornwall – the first tea estate on English soil. Their first crop went to market in 2005.
You may also choose bone china teapots and teacups for your afternoon tea table, as this porcelain formula was developed by Englishman Josiah Spode. Visit this Stoke-on-Trent tourism website to discover English potteries still producing beautiful teasets for your British teatime.
A Tea Menu for an English Afternoon Tea
For menu and decor inspiration, please visit Destination Tea’s Traditional English Afternoon Tea Party Guide.
- Sencha: This green tea from Japan is considered the purest of green teas because the leaves are rolled and steam-dried immediately after picking. The resulting flavor is earthy and grassy, slightly astringent and sweet.
- Jasmine Green: From the Fujian province in China, this specialty green tea is mixed with fresh jasmine flowers daily and left to sit overnight for one week, resulting in a fragrant perfume and floral, slightly vegetal taste.
- Silver Needle – Made from the silvery tips of leaves at the end of each branch, this precious white tea is only picked for a few days at the start of the harvest season. The young leaves are steamed dry, rather than fermented or rolled, giving a mild, smooth and delicate taste.
- Oolong Formosa: Grown in the high mountains of Taiwan (formerly the Republic of Formosa), larger tea leaves are harvested that will hold up through the multi-step process that creates an oolong tea. Each oolong tea maker chooses how much oxidation, rolling, drying and roasting their tea leaves will undergo, which creates a wide range of colors, flavors and appearance amongst oolong teas. They are shaped into the trademark ball form of Taiwanese oolong tea makers and typically have a floral, vegetal taste.
- Earl Grey: Named for a 19th-century Englishman whose household enjoyed black tea blended with oil from the rind of the bergamot orange grown in Italy, this tea has a lovely, fragrant and strong liquor.
- English Breakfast: Traditionally a blend of Keemums (a fine grade of black tea from China), today the full-bodied, robust brew has evolved to include Ceylon and India teas in the blend.
- Ceylon Orange Pekoe: A misleading name that does not indicate orange flavor, COP is actually a tea grading term, which signals the highest grade of whole leaf black tea. the “Orange” label may have been bestowed by the Dutch East India Company to help them market black teas in the 1600s when the largest royal Dutch house was the House of Orange-Nassau.
- Darjeeling: This renowned, premium black tea from the small-leaf camellia sinensis grows in the foothills of the Himalayas. Picked during 5 seasonal harvests or “flushes” (the 1st and 2nd are most sought-after), it produces a light, fragrant tea known as “the champagne of teas.”
- Masala Chai: Commonly enjoyed in India for thousands of years, the recipe for this spiced drink had tea added to it during British colonization. Today, this blend of black Assam or Darjeeling tea is customarily mixed with milk, sweetener and spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, fennel seeds, nutmeg, cloves and pepper. The blend of Ayurvedic spices produces a warming, soothing effect and acts as a natural digestive aid.
- Mint: This refreshing, hydrating and slightly sweet herbal “tea” is a favorite of caffeine-free tea-goers, and is a gentle complement to the richness of the afternoon tea menu.
Angela is the founder of Destination Tea, the U.S. Afternoon Tea Directory. Angela writes and speaks about afternoon tea history, etiquette and customs, in celebration and promotion of this beautiful tradition. Having reviewed more than 100 tearooms at home and abroad, Angela develops content for afternoon tea newcomers and aficionados alike, including pictorial tearoom reviews, resources for hosting a tea party at home, virtual tea party activity sets and afternoon tea basics for beginners.