Henry James wrote in The Portrait of a Lady, “…there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” Anyone who has spent some time sipping a hot cup with scones while engaging in pleasant conversation will likely aver. But unlike in James’s day, taking afternoon tea is now more of a special event and less of a daily ritual—a way to connect with a more genteel past.
The ceremony as we know it began in England in the 1840s, when the invention of gas lighting made it possible to push supper later into the evening, leaving a gap between the two main daily meals. As the story goes, the Duchess of Bedford began requesting a light meal of cakes or sandwiches with tea in the late afternoon to tide her over, and invited her friends to join. It quickly turned “low tea,” as it was called then, into an important society gathering. (“High tea,” thought of now as an exceptionally elegant tea service, was originally a hearty servants meal taken at a high kitchen table after the ladies of the house enjoyed their dainty fare on low parlor tables.)
Elements of the ritual have evolved since the Duchess of Bedford’s day, and that includes the tea. At the Park Hyatt in Washington, D.C., tea experts curate a tasting list of rare, limited-edition teas, like a vintage 1949 private-reserve cave-aged pu-erh from China—one of the oldest teas of its kind to come to America. True enthusiasts also have the option of going straight to the source. At the Glenburn Tea Estate near Darjeeling, India, guests can hike out into the tea fields and learn about cultivation and harvesting, tour the plantation’s factory and enjoy a guided tasting.
The elegant ceremony so beloved by James is still alive and well, of course. At the Hotel Windsor in Melbourne, Australia, the afternoon tea service is similar to how it was at its inception in 1883. A flute of champagne arrives at the table, followed by an array of traditional tea blends (like a locally grown Darjeeling or an aromatic Ceylon and orange pekoe blend) and a classic three-tiered silver stand laden with scones and cream, savory pies, finger sandwiches and delicate pastries.
Whether the goal is to connect with tradition or to try something new, there is an unforgettable afternoon tea that fits the bill. The only question left is: Cream or sugar?