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There is nothing more quintessentially English than a good cup of tea. In fact, along with bulldogs, bowler hats and red telephone boxes, tea drinking has come to symbolize the very essence of the British experience. When traveling to London you may want to indulge yourself in this genteel ritual, here are a few tips to ensure that you will have a memorable tea drinking experience.

First a bit of history about the English Tea trade:

Tea came to Britain in the 16th century when Dutch merchants first imported this Asian beverage from China. The Chinese had been drinking tea for centuries (with limited supplies of clean water, boiling it with aromatic leaves was a good way to ensure a safe and tasty drink).

By the 17th century, tea drinking was in fashion throughout Europe and British entrepreneurs were quick to capitalize on the trend. The famous Twinings company established a warehouse in London in 1706 and is still in business today.

Twinings: London’s oldest Tea shop

The distinctive clipper ships are a product of the British tea trade. Built for speed, these sailing vessels would stock up on Chinese tea and race home to be the first with the new harvest.

The most famous clipper of all, the Cutty Sark, has been preserved and can be visited in Greenwich just east of London.

Fortnum and Mason is another institution which opened just a year after Twinings, in 1707, selling to the royal household and the local gentry. When in London, visit “Fortnums”, as they are known, and see the liveried shop assistants.

In fact, one of London’s best-loved institutions also has it roots in the tea trade. In 1834, Henry Charles Harrod opened a tea wholesaler in the East End. Today Harrod’s in London’s Knightsbridge is one of the world’s most famous department stores.

The world’s taste for tea made many men rich and helped establish Britain as an international commercial powerhouse. And, of course, where there is money to be made there is money to be taxed: it was Britain’s taxation of tea in the 1700’s that helped fuel the American independence movement!

English tea times:

In Britain there are different tea drinking occasions associated with different times of day.

  • For instance, elevenses is a morning tea comparable to a coffee break. Low tea is an afternoon meal that may include sandwiches and scones (the name originates from the habit of enjoying the meal in low armchairs!) The famous English cream tea may feature scones and clotted cream, marmalade and lemon curd. Royale Tea is a social occasion that includes champagne or sherry served before the tea. Perhaps the most well known tea drinking occasion High Tea. It started as an evening meal for laborers and typically might include meat and potatoes (really more of a dinner than tea). These days, you may enjoy High Tea at two in the afternoon. It is a fairly elaborate meal with cake, biscuits and pastries.

Tea etiquette:

Mostly followed during Victorian days, it still has its importance in some Etiquette and English Schools and circles, here are a few light hearted tips.

London’s Ritz serves one of the best London Afternoon tea

When sitting down to tea, place your purse on your lap or behind you on the back of your chair. Unfold your napkin and place it in your lap (should you need to leave the table, place your napkin on your chair). Put sugar in your cup first, then a lemon slice if you wish. Milk goes in after the tea is poured. Lemon and milk are never used together and cream is never added to tea. Do not stir in a circular motion – gently move the tea back and forth with your spoon. Never leave your spoon in your teacup – leave it on the saucer behind the cup. Split scones horizontally with your knife and add cream and lemon curds to you plate. Spread the cream and curds on your scone before each bite.

It is a misconception that polite tea drinkers extend their little fingers when holding a cup (although it is a good practice to handle food with only three fingers).

Enjoying tea in London

First be aware that no self-respecting tearoom will use tea bags, always loose leaves.

When in London you may want to indulge in the tradition of tea at the Ritz – the world famous hotel that overlooks Green Park and Buckingham Palace in the distance. It gained popularity in English society in the early 20th century as a place where ladies could enjoy a meal without a chaperon. These days the Ritz welcomes everybody. The tea sandwiches and cakes are world famous!

Served in the spectacular Palm Court, Ritz Traditional Afternoon Tea offers a choice of several varieties of tea, finely cut sandwiches, freshly baked scones, jam and clotted cream and a range of delicate pastries, combine to make for an unforgettable afternoon. Although there are five sittings every day, booking at least twelve weeks in advance is absolutely essential, especially for weekend bookings. There is a formal dress code in its public areas. Ritz London

The English Tea Room of Brown’s Hotel in Albemarle Street, Mayfair serves an excellent Afternoon tea. This fine, traditional hotel was founded in 1837 by James Brown, butler to Lord Byron and his wife, who was Lady Byron’s maid. Their hotel quickly became a meeting place for the local nobility and today is frequented by a wide clientele carrying on the tradition of enjoying English afternoon tea.

Curious about tea?

When in London visit the Bramah Museum of Tea and Coffee, 1 Maguire Street, Butler’s Wharf

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