Traditional Afternoon Tea Recipes

English afternoon tea

Afternoon tea; it’s a British tradition. And a real treat. If you want to create your own, here are some traditional afternoon tea recipes to impress your friends.

If you live in England, you have probably heard of afternoon tea. You might even have tried it for yourself. There’s something rather indulgent about afternoon tea; tiny, crustless sandwiches, exquisite cakes and desserts, and perfect pastries. All served with a pot of English tea, or Earl Grey perhaps.

Tea has been a favourite British beverage for many years. We like our tea with milk, and sugar, made in a mug with a tea bag. The term ‘builder’s tea’ has been coined to describe tea that is strong and refreshing, and a dark amber in colour.

How to Make Tea

There’s something comforting about the ritual of making tea in the traditional way. The tea must be of the loose-leaf variety, not tea bags. The kettle should be filled with freshly drawn tap water, not re-boiled (the water loses oxygen after boiling so this will affect the flavour of the tea) and you must first warm the teapot by adding some of the just-boiled water, swirling it around and tipping it away.

Then, you add one teaspoon of tea leaves per person. And one for the pot, if you like strong tea. Pour over the boiled water, replace the lid on the teapot and allow the tea to brew for 5 minutes. We have a saying here in England – brew, not stew. This means only steeping the tea leaves for a few minutes, no longer.

The argument about what goes into the cup first, the tea or the milk, has been going on for years and will probably always be a source of disagreement. I say it’s down to personal preference.

So, add a little milk to your cup (for proper tea you need china cups with matching saucers) then set a strainer over the cup and pour in the tea. Add sugar if you like, stir and relax with your nice cuppa.

But where did tea come from? Who invented it?

Tea plant

Tea has been around for centuries. It is said that tea was invented in 2737 BC when a Chinese emperor was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled water. Some leaves fell from the tree into the hot water and the emperor, who was an experienced herbalist, decided to try this infusion. And so our beloved cuppa was born.

For the full story on the origins of tea go to the UK Tea and Infusions Association

We’ve been drinking tea in England for about 350 years, since the 1600s and it has become not only our favourite hot drink but also, it seems, a remedy for all afflictions.

My mum’s answer to every crisis was to put the kettle on. If I’d been dumped by my boyfriend and came home crying, mum would swing into action and hand me a steaming mug of tea. Surprisingly, it did help. Perhaps there’s some secret ingredient in tea that makes it a natural sedative?

Of course, we enjoy our coffee too. But tea remains a great British tradition.

The afternoon tea as we know it was born in 1840. Anna Maria Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford and a friend of Queen Victoria, found that she was getting hungry around 4.00 pm. Dinner was never served before 8.00 pm so the Duchess had a long wait for her evening meal. She asked her servants to bring her a pot of tea, cakes and some bread and butter to eat so that she could last until dinnertime without fainting from hunger!

This became a regular thing and the Duchess soon invited friends to join her. The ladies would dress in their finest clothes, including gloves and hats, the tea would be poured from a silver teapot into delicate bone china cups and the sessions would last an hour or more.

Cup of tea

Today’s afternoon tea – in most households – probably consists of a mug of tea made with a tea bag and served with a few biscuits. Or a slice of cake if you’re lucky.

But if you want to experience a proper, traditional afternoon tea, visit one of the famous hotels in London, such as Claridges, The Ritz or The Savoy.

In these establishments, afternoon tea is prepared and served with lavish care. You can choose from up to 30 different teas, served with finger sandwiches, warm scones with jam, lemon curd and clotted cream, artisan pastries and a glass of champagne. If you can possibly manage it, I believe that this has to be experienced once in everyone’s lifetime.

The afternoon tea has also become available worldwide, in places like Banff, Canada, Bangkok, Thailand, New York City, Tokyo, Japan and San Francisco, USA. It’s so quintessentially English that it holds a special appeal to residents of other countries.

But if you go to one of the top hotels in London for afternoon tea, you will find it’s quite expensive. The Savoy currently charges £65 per person and Claridges £75 per person. It is worth the expense, not just for the delectable food but for the whole experience.

But if your budget won’t stretch to that, how about creating your own afternoon tea at home? The elements that make up afternoon tea are simple to put together and can be done without maxing out your credit card. Sandwiches with imaginative fillings, warm scones with jam and cream, pastries, and fancy cakes.

Just a few hints and tips before we go any further; the fillings can be made in advance, but don’t fill the sandwiches until you’re ready to serve them or the bread will go soggy. Scones can be baked ahead of time and frozen, then warmed in the oven before serving. And cakes can be made ahead and stored in the fridge, covered in cling film.

The choice of which tea to serve is entirely up  to you. Traditional teas are Earl Grey, Assam, Ceylon, Darjeeling and Chamomile. But a robust English tea is just as good. Just ensure it’s real tea leaves and that you make it in a teapot.

Here are some afternoon tea recipes for you to try out at home. Feel free to adjust the quantities depending on the number of invited guests.

Dainty Sandwiches


These should be made with white or granary bread with the crusts removed. There are so many fillings to choose from. Cucumber was the traditional sandwich filling but smoked salmon and cream cheese is more popular today. You can choose to cut them into triangles or finger shapes. Makes 20 sandwiches (triangles) or 15 sandwiches (fingers.)

For the sandwiches:
10 slices of bread, white or granary
Softened butter for spreading
Egg and Bacon Mayonnaise:
6 medium eggs
Half a teaspoon of Dijon mustard
10 rashers of smoked streaky bacon
A pinch of paprika
About 12 tablespoons of good-quality mayonnaise
Rocket leaves

Put the eggs into a pan of boiling water. Make sure the pan is deep enough to cover the eggs completely. Boil for 8 minutes, then drain and put into a bowl of cold water. Remove the shells and allow the eggs to go completely cold.

Fry the bacon in a non-stick pan without any oil, turning a couple of times, until crisp and brown. Chop the eggs and break up the cooled bacon. Put some mayonnaise into a bowl and add the eggs and bacon. Season with black pepper and paprika and stir in the mustard.

Cut the crusts off the bread and spread an even amount of filling over 5 of the slices. Top with some rocket then place the second slice of bread on top. Press down firmly then use a sharp serrated knife to cut the bread into 4 triangles or 3 finger slices. Garnish with more rocket leaves.

Cream Cheese and Cucumber:
1 small cucumber
300g soft cream cheese, such as Philadelphia
A squeeze of lemon juice
Salt and pepper

Peel the cucumber and slice it thinly. Beat together the cream cheese and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Spread the bread with the cream cheese and lay the cucumber slices on top. Cut as for the egg sandwiches above.

Smoked Salmon with Lemon and Dill Cream Cheese:
250g smoked salmon
200g cream cheese
Juice of half a lemon
A small bunch of fresh dill, finely chopped
Black pepper

Mix the cream cheese with the lemon juice, dill and black pepper. Spread the mixture onto 5 slices of bread Top with some smoked salmon and place the second slice of bread on top. Press down firmly and cut into fingers or triangles.

Smoked Trout Tartlets

These are made with ready-rolled pastry so they’re quick to prepare and bake. If you can’t get smoked trout you can use salmon instead. They just melt in your mouth. Makes 12.

1 x 320g sheet ready-rolled shortcrust pastry
100g creme fraiche
Zest of half a lemon
1 teaspoon creamed horseradish sauce
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
2 large eggs + 1 yolk
3 tablespoons of milk
100g smoked trout

Unroll the pastry but leave it on its sheet of greaseproof paper. Cut out 12 rounds with a 7 cm pastry cutter and place them into the hollows of a 12-hole tart tin. Chill in the fridge for 20 minutes.

Mix the remaining ingredients, except the trout, in a jug. Put some smoked trout into each pastry case and pour the egg mixture over the top, coming almost up to the rim. Stir the contents of the jug after each one to make sure that the chives and lemon don’t all sink to the bottom.

Bake the tartlets in a preheated oven, gas 6/200C/400f for about 18 – 20 minutes, until the pastry is golden and the filling has risen. It will sink when it comes out of the oven but don’t worry, that’s normal. Serve warm.

Scones with Jam and Clotted Cream

Cream tea

These are so delicious you won’t be able to stop at just one! If you’ve ever had a west country cream tea then you will know how good it tastes. Makes 12 scones.

225g self-raising flour
40g butter, softened
A pinch of salt
1.5 tablespoons of caster sugar
150 ml of milk
Flour for dusting

Sift the flour into a bowl, holding the sieve up high to get air into the flour. Rub in the butter with your fingertips until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar and salt and add some of the milk, working it into the dough with a knife. You may not need to add all of the milk.

Bring the dough together with your hands, handling it as little as possible. Add a splash more milk if it feels dry. Roll out the dough on a floured board or work surface to a thickness of no less than 2.5 cm. Cut out rounds with a 4 or 5 cm pastry cutter (fluted or plain) placing the cutter on the dough and giving it a sharp tap to cut through. Don’t be tempted to twist the pastry cutter or your scones will turn out a peculiar shape!

Lift the circle of dough out carefully and place it on a baking sheet lined with non-stick baking paper. Repeat the process with the rest of the scones.

Continue until all the dough is used up; you will have to gather up the scraps and re-roll them to get the right number of scones. Dust lightly with flour and bake in a preheated oven, gas 7/220C/425F for 12 – 15 minutes until the tops are golden brown and the scones have risen to more than double their original height.

Cool on a wire rack and eat them slightly warm, while they’re crisp on the outside and soft in the middle. Scones are best eaten on the day they’re made, but you can freeze them for another day. Use them within one month.

Mini Victoria Sponges with Strawberries

Strawberry sponges

These are little mouthfuls of heaven! Light, buttery sponge, sweetened cream and fresh strawberries combine to bring a taste of summer to your tea party. Makes 12.

250g butter, softened
250g caster sugar
5 medium eggs, beaten
250g self-raising flour
1 teaspoon of baking powder
A pinch of salt
Half a teaspoon of vanilla extract
300 ml double cream
50g caster sugar
Half a teaspoon of vanilla extract
About 6 strawberries, thickly sliced

Line a 12-hole muffin tin with paper cases. Put the softened butter and the sugar into a large bowl and beat with an electric hand whisk until light in colour and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well before adding another egg.

Add the flour, salt, vanilla extract and baking powder and fold in gently but thoroughly. Spoon the mixture into the paper cases and bake in a preheated oven, gas 4/180C/350F for 25 minutes, or until golden brown and risen. Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool.

Put the cream into a large bowl and whisk until thickened. Add the sugar and vanilla extract and whisk until it’s at the soft peak stage. Put the cakes onto a serving plate and top with a heaped tablespoon of the cream, then 2 slices of strawberry. Serve immediately.

I hope that this has given you the confidence to throw an afternoon tea party for your friends and family. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below.

For more on British traditions, visit traditional British food dishes.

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8 thoughts on “Traditional Afternoon Tea Recipes”

  1. Thank you for this lovely article about tea – it made me feel very English! Informative too with the history – I wasn’t aware of a lot of it. I simply must try these mini victoria sponges – they look a proper treat. I’ll give your recipe a try when I next have guests (if I can wait that long). Thank you!

    • Hi Russell, I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. I find our English traditions absolutely fascinating, and our food even more so!

      You must try the mini sponges, they are so tasty. Call it a trial run, then when you make them for your friends you will know that they’re delicious and that the recipe works! Enjoy 😉 

  2. Hey thanks for this post! A certainly tasty one too!

    I personally pour tea in first and then the milk! I’m able to that way see how the colour will change and have more control over the strength that way!

    wow that’s a huge price to pay for tea! Tea is definitely part of us Brits, for any occasion and reason tea will be served! It’s interesting to see how tea has now spread worldwide!

    • Hi Sariyah, thanks for your kind comments. It is very expensive, that’s why I wrote this article for people to host their own tea parties and save money! 

  3. Afternoon tea is a luxury I don’t partake in as my working hours conflict but I remember visiting my gran when I was younger and she was Victorian. Never a day went by without sampling her afternoon spread. I think if I did this too often I would be as fa as a pig. Thank you for the lovely recipes and reading through them really took me back to yesteryear.  I used to love scones and clotted cream. 

    • Hi Michel, I’m glad that I was able to ring back some good memories for you. Yes, the goodies that make up an afternoon tea are very fattening! But once in a while as a treat is not a problem. 

      Scones are something I try not to make too often otherwise I too will be as fat as butter! If your schedule doesn’t allow afternoon tea, could it be done later, an evening tea? 

  4. Tea is a wonderful treat.

    How easy is it To treat A few of sudden Afternoon guests  to have a cup of tea and a biscottis or two. Add a piece of cake or a creamy cupcake it is a small by itself. 
    I like his history behind the tea. 
    somehow I feel unique being treated with delicious snacks with a cup or two of tea.

    I am sure I will never go to spend 65  or 70 Pound for an afternoon tea. But I will organize my dining area during Thanksgiving or Christmas to have this lavish tea party with all the details that you have here described.

    Thank you so much again  for this one. I always have loved your receipe. 

    • Thanks Anusuya, thank you for your kind comments. I hope that you do try these recipes, your guests will be amazed and very happy to be presented with such tasty treats! You don’t need to spend a huge sum of money, it can be done much more cheaply, but you can still serve quality. Enjoy!


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