Ever fantasized about a “royal teatime” at Buckingham Palace? Me, too, so I checked it out and found that the idea is not as fantastical as it sounds. It’s an annual event attended by over 24,000 lovers of tea time— wow!
Of course, my fantasy was for something a bit more intimate. Afternoon tea is usually for smaller groups of family and friends, usually up to about 10 people. More than that is not really conducive to meaningful conversation, just a lot of chatter. While this type of tea time was originally intended as a filler between the usual two-meals-a-day diet (breakfast and dinner), it soon became quite the social event, thanks to people like Anna Maria Stanhope, the Duchess of Bedford (1783-1857). Legend has it that she couldn’t quite last between those two meals, especially since fashion decreed that dinner be served later and later, so she began having tea and tidbits in her private chambers at Belvoir Castle and then inviting friends. It soon became the thing among others of her social class. As the price of tea became more affordable, afternoon tea was enjoyed by the “lower classes.”
Three years after the Duchess’ death, Queen Victoria elevated the event started by her lady-in-waiting to a grand afternoon tea party in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. It has been an annual tradition up to this day, with Queen Elizabeth II hosting as many as three parties with around 8,000 attendees each. That’s a lot of tea!
Those attendees come from all walks of life, making this a very egalitarian tea time. However, you can’t just show up and take part. Invitations are sent out, some directly and some through a Palace approved sponsor. If you receive such an invitation and accept it, come properly attired. For men, that means a suit, uniform, traditional dress (such as a Scottish kilt), or morning dress. Women wear a dress suitable for an afternoon event (other than a rock concert) with hat and/or gloves or their traditional dress (such as a sari, worn in India). You Red Hat Ladies would be real stand-outs here!
Be sure to arrive well before the 3 pm gate opening. You want to be close to the front to be sure you have plenty of time to stroll through the Royal Gardens (usually closed to the public). Then, at 4 pm you will hear the National Anthem, signaling the start of tea time and the arrival of your hosts, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, along with members of the Royal Family. They split into different paths so they can circulate among the guests, eventually ending in the Royal tent where they are joined by guests of high rank and others. The remaining guests take their tea and goodies from a buffet table that’s as long as about one and a third football fields.
What’s that table loaded with? Better question is: “What’s it not loaded with?” Here’s the menu (served by the thousands of cupfuls, glassfuls, slices, etc.):
- hot tea (Maison Lyons tea — a special blend of Darjeeling and Assam by Twinings exclusively for these events)
- chilled (iced) tea
- fruit squash (sort of like lemonade but made from different fruits)
- tea sandwiches of different kinds
- bridge rolls
- butter drop scones
- fruit tartlets
- butter cake fingers
- cakes (chocolate/lemon, Dundee, Majorca)
- chocolate/jam Swiss roll
Eat, drink, and be merry, for the fun ends at 6 pm when the National Anthem is played again while the Queen and Royal Family depart for the Palace and the tea party is therefore ended.
Not on the guest list? You may not be able to attend, but you can sure feel as if you were there by enjoying some Buckingham Palace Garden Party Tea, a special blend of Earl Grey and Jasmine (my review). You also don’t need to be this elaborate nor hire a staff of almost 450 to prepare and serve it all. Just steep the tea, hire a caterer or have the local bakery deliver, and wait for the guests.
Oh, yeah, don’t forget to mail the invitations!
Make sure to check out A.C.’s blog, Tea Time with A.C. Cargill!