Henry James once wrote that “there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour devoted to the ceremony known as afternoon tea”. While this declaration was contingent on having a breezy summer afternoon and a charming country house in which to enjoy it in, it’s hard to argue with the charm and appeal involved in this quaint English ritual.
Afternoon tea is different from high tea, which has humbler origins.
Before we dive into the art of afternoon tea, it is first important to understand how it is different from “high tea”. Despite the connotations of nobility, high tea was historically a working class custom, only so called because the food and beverage was served at high tables — such as a dining table — with high-backed chairs. It was served in the early evening once work was done for the day, and the fare was considerably more substantial — think meat, fish, egg and bread dishes.
Afternoon tea began with a snack-craving Duchess.
Afternoon tea by contrast was a much more superfluous affair. Most sources agree that it was Anna Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, who first popularised the custom in the 1840s. Because dinner in those days could be served as late as 8 o’clock, the Duchess wanted tea and a small snack to tide her over between meals. Soon, she began inviting her friends to join her, and it quickly caught on as an upper class social sport where gossip was exchanged over dainty nibbles laid out on low coffee tables amid fancy porcelain tea ware. Today in Singapore, the term “afternoon tea” is often used interchangeably with “high tea”.
It typically involves dainty bites designed to be eaten using our hands.
Unlike high tea, afternoon tea is typically served around 4 o’clock, and usually includes three courses. It begins with crustless tea sandwiches and savouries, followed by scones with jam and clotted cream, and ends in sweet pastries. Everything is bite-sized and eaten with fingers, with knives used only for spreading condiments.
Interestingly, some hotels take creative license with their high tea service, offering unique dishes that go beyond the usual suspects.
The Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel, for instance, serves a truly locally-inspired Durian Afternoon High Tea (from $38++ per person or from $58++ per person with champagne). It pays homage to the King of Fruit – the sublimely bittersweet, creamy, almost wine-like Mao Shan Wang durian – in delectables such as Durian Coconut Tart, Durian Pandan cake with white-chocolate chantilly cream and Durian Swiss Roll, alongside more traditional afternoon tea pastries.
Today, the thought of being able to enjoy a dedicated snack time in the middle of the day is already a luxury in itself, which is why afternoon tea isn’t so much a daily given now as it is an occasional indulgence. But its elegance endured as hotels, restaurants and cafes continued to provide picturesque pastries and aromatic brews in opulent settings to those who need a respite from modern living.
It’s best to pair your tea with your food.
The best spots will offer a range of teas to choose from but the classics are earl grey, darjeeling and Assam. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to tea and pastry pairings, so go with whatever helps you to relax. However, only choose white teas if your dishes are very lightly flavoured so as not to overpower the delicacy of such teas.
No arched pinkie fingers please.
Seeing as afternoon tea has maintained its stately image throughout the years, there is etiquette to follow. None of these are strictly necessary anymore, but there might be some satisfaction in knowing you’re doing things in a deliciously proper manner. If you take sugar or lemon with your tea, these go into your teacup first, and it is only after the tea has been poured that milk is added. After that, it’s all about restraint. Stir the tea gently enough that your spoon never clinks against the cup, leave the saucer on the table when lifting the cup (no pinkies, please), and when you set it down, the handle should stay at 3 o’clock (9 o’clock if you’re left-handed). And though the food is small enough to pop whole into your mouth, don’t. Use your hands to tear the pastries into smaller pieces if necessary, and never lick your fingers.
You can’t go wrong with Singapore’s most iconic afternoon tea.
Arguably one of the best settings to enjoy this ritual here is none other than the Raffles Singapore hotel. “The Afternoon Tea ritual, much like Raffles Singapore, was fashioned in the 10th century. A cherished tradition since its founding in Great Britain, the experience journeyed to Asia during the golden age of travel,” explains Frederic Serol, the hotel’s executive assistant manager of food & beverage. “The founders of Raffles Singapore, the visionary Sarkies brothers, brought this elegant experience into the Grand Lobby. Since its introduction, the Raffles Afternoon Tea remains popular until this day,” adds Serol.
But if all you want to do is enjoy luxurious midday treats without having to worry about etiquette (or even other people), DayAway’s Afternoon Tea Suite (from $350) at Raffles Hotel offers the hotel’s legendary afternoon tea service in-suite for two.
Both guests will have access to the suite from 1 to 6pm, and will be treated to finger sandwiches, desserts and scones with homemade rose-petal jam courtesy of Executive Pastry Chef Tai Chien Lin. Nibbling on pistachio religieuse (a classic French patisserie) and coconut panna cotta while sipping tea from Mariage Freres or champagne from Billecart-Salmon, all while basking in the grandeur of a historic establishment — the Duchess of Bedford will surely approve.