Dinosaur macarons and pink prosecco: how afternoon tea in UK embraced the Instagram generation

<span>Afternoon tea is served at the Kensington Hotel in London.</span><span>Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Afternoon tea is served at the Kensington Hotel in London.Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

Finger sandwiches, scones and tea sipped from bone china have long been enshrined as a British ritual. But a tradition that was once seen as the preserve of the upper and middle classes – as well as of older generations – is finding a new audience.

Sales of afternoon tea hampers are soaring, while more hotels, restaurants and cafes are creating their own offerings, some with increasingly experimental menus. Surveys suggest it is becoming more popular with younger people, partly inspired by how it will look on social media.

Cafes and hotels near family attractions are offering spreads with themes such as Peter Rabbit, Paddington Bear and science experiments. Adults can enjoy more sophisticated options at places such as the Fife Arms, an Aberdeenshire hotel run by the owners of the Hauser & Wirth gallery in London, with a tour of art by Pablo Picasso, Lucian Freud and Bruegel followed by a tea of smoked trout, ham with Arran mustard and a hot cross choux bun.

Benugo, which runs cafes and restaurants in museums and historic buildings such as Westminster Abbey and Edinburgh Castle, is launching its first afternoon tea at the Natural History Museum this month, which will feature a dinosaur-footprint macaron and an ammonite cookie.

Ben Warner, founder of Benugo, said the royal family had given the tradition a newfound popularity. “We noticed a huge spike in people seeking to book afternoon tea during, and after, the Queen’s jubilee in 2022 and King Charles’s coronation in 2023, and not just from overseas visitors,” he said. “Since then, major uplifts have included Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Easter.”

This is not just a tradition for the middle-aged or middle class, either. A survey of 2,000 people by One Poll for Jing Tea found that 43% of those aged between 25 and 34 had celebrated a birthday with an outing for tea and sandwiches. Companies including Fortnum & Mason offer tea hampers that can be delivered as gifts. Searches for these treats are up 600% at Waitrose.com, while at Marks & Spencer, sales of afternoon tea hampers are up 80% year on year.

Sarah Taylor, product developer for hampers at M&S, said: “Customers don’t just see afternoon tea as a tradition; it’s an opportunity to take a moment to ourselves. My favourite is our pink prosecco afternoon tea hamper which features Devon scones, strawberry jam and Cornish clotted cream with pastel macarons, red velvet cake, gold tea and a bottle of Bellante rosé prosecco … [it’s] an Instagram-worthy spread.”

Warner thinks social media has helped popularise afternoon tea with its photogenic array of “colourful cakes, elegant teapots and even a celebratory glass of bubbles”. He said the restaurant at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford had introduced a tea to celebrate the exhibition Colour Revolution that featured beetroot bread and matcha and strawberry battenberg cake.

It may seem like a surprise luxury during a cost of living crisis, and when the hospitality industry is facing extraordinarily hard times. But for hotels and restaurants it is an easy to prepare pre-ordered meal served during two sittings when dining rooms would otherwise be empty. For customers, it is an event meal, often in an exclusive location where they couldn’t otherwise afford to dine.

Warner noted that customers often opt for an afternoon tea rather than a pricier lunch, a frugality that has always been at the heart of the meal.

“It originated among the rich in the late 18th century,” said food historian Annie Gray. “Though there’s no truth to the tiresome invention myth that it was dreamed up by the duchess of Bedford.” The duchess, Anna Maria Russell, is said to have started the tradition of taking tea, bread and butter and cake in the late afternoon in about 1840.

“It was codified as a middle-class meal by writers in the last quarter of the 19th century,” said Gray. “It became very popular as a cheap way to fill up, especially on holiday, in the early days of car tourism in between the wars. Because it retains a whiff of aristocratic origins, it still has a cachet which is easily played upon to market it to a new audience.”

Opinion differs on how innovative an afternoon tea should be. A 2023 survey by Tesco found 20% believed cold meats would improve it – perhaps confusing the occasion with high tea, a very different British meal, with hot food, eaten in the early evening. Cocktails were requested by 32%, while 17% suggested hummus.

Gray, who is author of The Greedy Queen: Eating With Victoria, thinks the meal should conform to its origins, even if they don’t involve the Duchess of Bedford. “The cakes and sandwiches should be fairly bland, reflecting the feminine stereotypes of the 19th century, when it was invented. I was once served spring onion sandwiches for afternoon tea at Claridge’s. I was apoplectic with rage.”