Long Live the Victorian (and Albert) Afternoon Tea

Britain’s Victorian era, from 1837-1901, produced many great things. There was an industrial revolution, social reform, and advances in science, technology and culture. Art and design were heralded … but perhaps the best invention of those ‘golden’ years, was afternoon tea.

During this age of prosperity and, some might suggest, frivolity, the extra meal was introduced by the 7th Duchess of Bedford. Too hungry to wait for dinner at a fashionably late hour, she requested an assortment of biscuits and cakes be served. The Duchess quickly made afternoon tea a daily habit and began inviting friends to take part, including her husband, the Duke of Bedford. Historians in the know, say because of the Duke’s proclivity for ‘socialising’ without the Duchess, afternoon tea took hold as a way for her to spend time with him before his evening plans.

Queen Victoria's afternoon tea

By the 1840s Queen Victoria fell in love with the idea and adopted the afternoon tea as tradition, hosting daily tea parties.

In the ultimate nod to history, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), has recently added to their café offerings with a classic Victorian tea served by Benugo in the Morris room. The room itself is a living, working museum object. The V&A made history when it became the first museum in the world to provide a public restaurant. William Morris, one of the most famous designers of the Victorian period, and a leader in the Arts and Crafts movement, was commissioned for the interiors of one of the ‘refreshment’ rooms. It was his design firm’s first big job. Combined with dishes like Mrs. Beeton’s cucumber sandwich and Victoria sponge, the rooms, with their stained-glass windows, dark wood and deep green and gold painted panels, makes history experiential.

When the refreshment rooms first opened in the mid 19th century, visitors would come for breakfast, ordering from a long menu, split into two – one for labourers, another for the ‘other half.’ The first-class menu included items like jugged hare, sausage and mash, and cold chicken and ham. The ‘downstairs’ menu listed poached egg and spinach, a dish that would feel right at home on the menu of many a trendy, ‘clean-eating’ restaurant these days, stewed rabbit (not so much), and buns and sponge cakes (definitely not).

The makings of history

Food historian Natasha Marks created Benugo’s Victorian afternoon tea after much research and selected five sandwiches and five cakes, including fruit sconelets infused with Earl Grey tea. As one sits in the Morris room imagining life in the Victorian era, trays arrive filled with sandwiches of crayfish and mayonnaise with nutmeg and paprika – some of the spices traded by the East India Company. The influence of Britain’s ties to India can also be tasted in the ham hock sandwich with chutney. The provenance of the asparagus and parmesan tart is mysterious, given that it’s hard to imagine parmesan cheese making it’s way to England in 1901. But, it’s a welcome ingredient, more likely replacing a less savoury one and makes a nice change from bread with fillings, no matter how tasty.

Victoria sponge is presented with black currant jam and elderflower cream, but the favourites at our table are a gooseberry tart with compote and crème patissiere. Best of all, is a cake that appears, like the trend for high-waisted jeans, to have come full circle – an iced orange cake made with Clementine puree, orange zest, almonds and pistachios. The recipe dates back to 1891, but one could easily mistake it for one of the modern inventions to emerge from the Middle Eastern, fusion cuisine that seem limitless these days, blending Persian, Israeli, and other flavours together. Perhaps even more interesting than time travelling back to the Victorian period, is the chance to explore how much, or how little has actually changed.

The Victorian afternoon tea is served on Sundays from 3 – 5pm by reservation only.

http://www.vam.ac.uk/visit

Amy Hughes

Social Share

Related Posts

A valley of food and wine delights Premium

A valley of food and wine delights

As you hit the outskirts of the city of Melbourne and the shops are rapidly replaced by lush green fields and then perfectly manicured vines, it is easy to understand you have landed in one of Australia’s, if not the world’s, truly great wine regions - the Yarra Valley.  The Yarra Valley is not only …

A valley of food and wine delights Read More »

The Godfather of Grapes Premium

The Godfather of Grapes

With six Academy Awards to his name, Francis Ford Coppola has served up some of cinema’s greatest moments, now he’s helping today’s Oscar winners celebrate their night of nights. When the 2020 Academy Award winners tucked into their pre-Covid aware post-awards party fare back in March, they washed it down with Francis Ford Coppola wines …

The Godfather of Grapes Read More »

Italy almost forgot Famoso but now it’s nearly famous

Italy almost forgot Famoso but now it’s nearly famous

While Ferraris, food and wine make Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region one of the world’s favourite locales, a collection of local winemakers are passionate about adding the humble and almost forgotten Famoso grape to the list. Sitting in a farmhouse kitchen in Emilia-Romagna, Giovanna Randi pours me an espresso. I ask for milk and she waggles her …

Italy almost forgot Famoso but now it’s nearly famous Read More »

Bristol bubbles up near Bath

Bristol bubbles up near Bath

Visitors to England will, no doubt, have heard of - if not visited - the ancient Roman city of Bath, about three hours west of London. Yes, it’s lovely and charming, and oh-so-touristy. But, just a 20-minute ride, or about the same distance by train from London to Temple Meads station sits Bristol, a less …

Bristol bubbles up near Bath Read More »

Gabriel Kreuther's fine Alsatian pedigree graces New York

Gabriel Kreuther's fine Alsatian pedigree graces New York

French chef Gabriel Kreuther must have beat a record for the fastest Michelin star awarded to a new restaurant. Kreuther opened his eponymous restaurant in Manhattan just three months before inspectors from Michelin paid a visit. Whilst Michelin stars are often an indication of overly formal dining, or arrogant staff, Kreuther’s well-placed mid-town restaurant defies …

Gabriel Kreuther’s fine Alsatian pedigree graces New York Read More »

Newport still touched by America’s gilded age

Newport still touched by America’s gilded age

Newport, Rhode Island brings visions of sailboats bobbing in water the colour of dark sapphires, bright skies, and polo-clad, sun-tanned preppies. However, winter is a great time to visit this coastal New England city – one of the historic summer playgrounds for America’s wealthiest families. In December, three historic mansions are dressed for Christmas and …

Newport still touched by America’s gilded age Read More »