As fans of Paddington will know, he is London’s most well-mannered bear…
When Paddington Bear arrived in England, he encountered many new things, from escalators to London landmarks. As a polite bear, with a notable sweet tooth and fondness for cakes and buns, we think he must have been very pleased indeed to discover the British custom of afternoon tea.
Now an iconic part of British food culture, the practice of taking afternoon tea was introduced during the nineteenth century by Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford and a close friend of Queen Victoria. She is reportedly said to have suffered ‘a sinking feeling’ caused by hunger during the long hours between a light luncheon and dinner at around 8pm and asked for a small, light meal, accompanied by a pot of tea, to be served to her during the afternoon. She introduced the idea to her fashionable, aristocratic friends and it caught on, becoming popular.
In 1861, Mrs Beeton, author of the bestselling Victorian cookbook The Art of Domestic Management, distinguishing between a more substantial high tea and afternoon tea, wrote: ‘The afternoon tea signifies little more than tea and bread-and-butter, and a few elegant trifles in the way of cake and fruit.’ It was traditionally viewed as a predominantly feminine activity, graced with the use of fine china and offering the ladies who partook a pause during the day in which to enjoy reviving refreshment and courteous conversation.
Nestled in the picturesque Georgian village of Woburn, on the historic Woburn Estate, owned by the 15th Duke of Bedford, one finds The Woburn Hotel. Nearby, on the estate, the magnificent Woburn Abbey has been the family home of the Earls and Dukes of Bedford for nearly five centuries. Given this connection to the Bedford family, it is not surprising that The Woburn Hotel is well-known for its afternoon teas. “It is very traditional,” says the hotel’s acclaimed head chef Olivier Bertho.
“We offer freshly-made finger sandwiches.” Next come plain and fruit scones – “freshly baked which is very important” – then the repast is rounded off in dainty style with tarts, shortbread, pavlovas and cakes.
While The Woburn Hotel’s afternoon tea follows a classic structure, the kitchen here is sensitive to the needs of ‘free from’ diners. “It is very important to us that all of our guests have an enjoyable experience which should not be restricted by their dietary requirements,” Bertho explains, “we have gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian and vegan options. People are much more aware about what they eat now.”
The demand for the afternoon tea experience at The Woburn Hotel is increasing: “It has grown in popularity,” says Bertho. “It’s a very busy time for us. In fact, people want to have it from lunchtime onwards!”
In this hectic age, the gracious leisureliness of the afternoon tea ritual – the pattern of having one’s cup of tea topped up, the teapot taken away to be replenished, the carefully timed offerings of good things to eat – make it stand out as a special experience. The chance to sit and talk together also makes it a very sociable occasion, a chance to catch up with family or friends, which is part of its appeal.
Sitting down for a luxurious afternoon tea, where everything from the quality of the food and drink, to the attentive service, come together to make you feel looked after is a treat. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Bertho explains that many guests use afternoon tea at the hotel as a way to celebrate events, from birthdays to wedding anniversaries.
The afternoon tea format also allows Bertho scope to express his creativity as a chef, as the hotel also offers special themed teas, inspired by authors such as Roald Dahl or Dr Seuss, or events such as the royal wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. “For these we use our imagination,” he says. A chocolate-themed tea saw him breaking with tradition: “One of our twists was chocolate chip scones, so we offered marmalade instead of strawberry jam, as citrus goes well with chocolate.” An afternoon tea that Paddington would have enjoyed no doubt!
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