The 9 Best English Tea Sets
A Brief History Of Afternoon Tea In England
At these lavish affairs, they would indulge in a broad selection of delicate canapés, finger sandwiches, and pastries.
They would attend afternoon tea parties between 4 and 5 p.m., dressed in long, elegantly-detailed dresses, gloves, and elaborate hats.
England has long been a tea drinking nation. The first written mention of tea in English dates back to 1615, when Richard Wickham, the director of an East India Trading Company office in Japan, requested that merchants coming from Macau bring him a pot of their best tea. Another British merchant by the name of Peter Mundy wrote about Chinese Fujian tea in 1637. Tea first appeared in London in the mid 1700s, and within a decade or two it was served at nearly every coffeehouse, though mostly consumed by the upper class and those with means.
One of the most quintessentially British customs is that of afternoon tea, but this is actually a much more recent development in the English tea drinking culture than some might have expected. Anna Russell, the seventh Dutchess of Bedford, is credited with first introducing the concept of afternoon tea in 1840. She would often get rather hungry between 3 and 4 in the afternoon, but dinner was rarely served in her home until 8 p.m. or later. To tide herself, she began requesting her servants bring her some tea, bread and butter, and cake. Eventually she started to invite friends, and so the afternoon tea party was born.
By the late 1900s, afternoon tea had become a haute event for high society women. They would attend afternoon tea parties between 4 and 5 p.m., dressed in long, elegantly-detailed dresses, gloves, and elaborate hats. At these lavish affairs, they would indulge in a broad selection of delicate canapés, finger sandwiches, and pastries. Servants would pour them tea from silver teapots into fine china cups.
Afternoon tea in the modern English home is much less grand, with the average person consuming a simple mug or two of tea and some basic biscuits, or perhaps a scone and some jam. Many high-end hotels in England and former British colonies in Asia, like Singapore or Malaysia, do still hold luxurious afternoon tea events for their guests.
When To Add The Milk
The concept of adding milk to tea might be a strange and alien idea to the average American tea drinker, but it is actually the preferred method of drinking black tea in England. How this habit came about is under some debate. We know that it started in the 1720s, when black tea overtook green tea in popularity. Some believe that it stems from the fragile porcelain cups the English commoners used to consume their tea. It is said they were so delicate they could crack from excessive heat, hence they would add milk to the cup before adding the tea. This would instantly cool the tea as it entered the cup and prevent the cup from cracking.
We know that it started in the 1720s, when black tea overtook green tea in popularity.
Those of the upper class could afford better quality porcelain, and didn't have to worry about their cups cracking, which ties in with the next theory. Due to the high cost of tea at the time, lower class citizens couldn't afford to drink full cups of tea, instead they would fill their cups with milk, and then add just a dash of tea. Upper class citizens, would fill their cups with tea first, and then add a dash of milk. To this day, many English people believe that when you add milk to your tea is an indication of which class your family is from. A third theory states that is was simply a method to reduce the bitterness of black tea and make it more palatable.
It is anybody's guess as to which of the previous theories is true, but even in modern times there is still some debate over the best time to add milk to tea, and it has nothing to do with social class. Some feel the time at which you add tea distinctly alters its flavor. This is due to how temperatures above 167 degrees Fahrenheit cause denaturation in the lactalbumin and lactoglobulin proteins found in milk. Others add milk at a strategic time to help it cool to a drinkable temperature quicker. Surprisingly though, while adding milk to the cup first causes a drastic initial temperature drop, it actually slows down the cooling process, resulting in the tea staying at an enjoyable drinking temperature for longer. This is because lipids in milk slow down evaporation, which is the main process responsible for tea losing its heat.
Choosing Your Next Tea Set
Those who plan on hosting lavish afternoon tea parties with lots of friends will have much different needs from a tea set than someone who just wants to enjoy an afternoon cup by themselves or with their partner. Most high-end tea sets today are made from porcelain, just like they were in days past. Of course, the porcelain found in modern sets is much more resilient to heat, so you won't have to worry about them cracking, no matter whether you add your tea to your milk, or your milk to your tea.
In this case, you should also look for something with a bit more durability, since you will be using it on a regular basis.
If you are looking to host elaborate afternoon tea events with a lot of guests, you may want to purchase a large set that includes enough cups and saucers to serve six or 10 people. You will probably also want to look for a set that includes snack plates and one or more large serving plates for the scrumptious finger sandwiches and pastries that will no doubt accompany the tea. Since common fashion sensibilities no longer dictate that all of your china must match, another option is to buy a few small sets with patterns or colors that work well together. For a touch of whimsy, try providing each table with their own style of tea set.
If you just want an attractive English tea set to add a touch of sophistication to your daily tea drinking time, a small set will suffice. In this case, you should also look for something with a bit more durability, since you will be using it on a regular basis. Consider dishwasher- and microwave-safe sets that will make prep and clean up time easier.
Whatever type of set you choose to buy, make sure to compliment it with a high-quality English tea.