Afternoon tea is a British food institution. The crustless cucumber sandwiches and tiny cakes arranged on gilded tiers, washed down with tea sipped from dainty bone china offers a rose-tinted vision of Britishness that few of our other dining experiences do. No wonder it has become the go-to Groupon deal birthday present for middle aged female relatives.
Arguably though, afternoon tea’s reputation isn’t inherent to the food itself. Your standard fare is scones with jam and cream, some cake (usually Victoria sponge, essentially the cake version of scones with jam and cream), a few finger sandwiches, and a pot of tea. Now, surely even the most impassioned fan of Battenberg cake and egg mayonnaise would admit that this array of items doesn’t exactly equate to 20 quid’s worth of food.
But afternoon tea adds up to more than the sum of its parts—often quite dramatically so.
I used to serve high-end afternoon teas at a now-defunct tea house near Carnaby Street in Central London. It was marketed as a special experience: only the best patisserie and rare loose leaf teas served to our guests with all the expected pomp and ceremony. However, though our teas looked the part, the kitchen was playing it pretty fast-and-loose with the quality of the food. By which I mean, there was a Tesco round the corner, and everything—from the smoked salmon, to the own-brand strawberry jam, to the plastic white bread, to the sandwich fillings—came from there.
It seems we weren't the only establishment serving sub-standard sandwiches under the guise of luxury. Max used to work as a waiter in the restaurant of a Grade I-listed stately home that also specialised in afternoon tea. Diners would often tell him that the tea they drank there was the best they’d ever tasted. Only Max and the rest of the staff knew that it came from an industrial-sized vat of tea bags and was heated out back in an ancient water boiler. “All of the cost was in the experience basically,” Max tells me. “You’d take your time and chat to the chef in the kitchen so the customer thought you were taking more care.”
There are other factors that determine how much we enjoy a meal, beyond the quality of what we’re actually eating.
But who’s to say that the teas Max served weren’t the best that the restaurant’s customers had ever had? It may not have been the finest lapsang souchong but there are other factors that determine how much we enjoy a meal, beyond the quality of what we’re actually eating. According to Canadian psychologist Qian Janice Wang’s research into “crossmodal interactions,” both the environment and our expectation of food can influence how it tastes. One of her experiments found that people enjoy chocolate more if they are told that it is Swiss, and less so if they think it comes from China. The cake stands and white table cloths we associate with afternoon tea are more than just smoke and mirrors, they’re integral to how we enjoy it.
Indeed, food as an experience may seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, propelled by our obsession with Instagramming the things we eat and the rise of experiential dining concepts like food festivals, but afternoon tea has always been about ceremony. The tradition is said to originate with the Duchess of Bedford, a lady-in-waiting of Queen Victoria who found herself hungry and in need of company between the hours of lunch and dinner, and created a new socialising trend for the middle classes. Today, eating cake between meals and drinking from cute tea cups still feels special.
The other thing that afternoon tea has going for it is time, which may also explain its high price point. Jess used to serve afternoon teas on Edinburgh’s Royal Yacht Britannia, and confirms that economically speaking, afternoon teas don’t add up.
“If we served afternoon tea, then people would be sat there for two hours, if they have soup and sandwich, they eat for one hour and then leave to continue their tour around the boat,” she tells me. “They are so expensive, because the customer stays for longer, meaning the turn over is slower, meaning they have to charge more to make a profit.”
While many restaurants are under pressure to turn tables, causing waitstaff to swoop around diners like vultures waiting to clear plates, maybe the luxury of knowing you can spend an hour or two in a nice place, without being interrupted, is worth the surcharge?
The author Henry James once declared, “there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” The ceremony may have changed but afternoon tea is still a much-loved treat. A place where arguments over the correct pronunciation of “scone” are played out ad infinitum and it is acceptable to supplement your builder’s tea with a flute of Moet. And for that alone, it might just be worth 20 quid.