“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”   Henry James

The curtain opens in Oscar Wilde’s 1895 tea parlor comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest, on the fashionable London flat of Algernon Moncrief, a young bachelor enjoying a lavish lifestyle.  Champagne and cucumber sandwiches, symbols of his overindulgence and excess, are the main subjects of dialogue.   He’s asked his butler to prepare tea service for Lady Bracknell (aka aunt Augusta) and her daughter, Gwendolyn Fairfax, but he cannot stop absentmindedly eating his Aunt’s favorite cucumber sandwiches;  They’re all devoured before she arrives.

Algernon’s eccentricity and flamboyance take a swipe at the strict code of behavior that governed almost everything in Victorian England, including the ritual of afternoon tea.  Tea arrived in England in the 17th century, and became fashionable, especially among women, after Charles II wed Portuguese princess and tea addict Catherine of Braganza.  By 1750, tea was the British national drink, occasionally mellowed with a little milk and accompanied by bread and butter.  As the 18th century progressed, and stylish dinner hours fell later into the evening, afternoon tea, padded out with light refreshments, bridged the gap between meals. The cucumber sandwich, not filling enough to be a meal, but too heavy for a snack, came to define the quintessential tea sandwich.

A tea sandwich (sometimes called a finger sandwich) is expected to be easily eaten in two or three bites by hand without soiling fingers.  Thinly sliced, densely textured white bread is original, but nowadays wheat, pumpernickel, rye or other breads are accepted.  The bread often is lightly buttered and then spread with a delicate filling which could be cream cheese mixtures, paper thin slices of vegetables (cucumber, radish, or watercress), dainty slices of beef or ham, or purees of salmon, curried chicken or egg salad, to name just a few.  Once filled, the crust is cut cleanly away from the bread and discarded and the sandwich is cut into strips, triangles, squares or any other shapes your cookie cutters provide.

The tradition of a formal afternoon tea service is said to have been initiated by Anna Maria Stanhope (1783-1857), seventh Duchess of Bedford, who began the practice of serving tea at four in the afternoon to stave off hunger pangs until dinner was served at eight.  Soon she invited her friends and relatives to tea at Belvoir Castle and, by the 1880s, afternoon tea was the norm.  Society women changed into long gowns, gloves and hats (those castles were drafty) for afternoon tea served in the drawing room. 

Tea shops soon came into vogue, and tea cakes and pastries joined sandwiches as accompaniments.   A formal tea now consists of three courses:  tea sandwiches are served first, followed by hot baked items like crumpets or scones served with jam and cream, and finally, sweet pastries like cookies and tea cakes. Earl Grey, Orange Pekoe or Darjeeling teas are provided alongside all three courses.