Shopping: Tea time

China cups, cake slices, silver spoons - afternoon tea is an elaborate ritual, and all the better for it.

THIS HAS been an important week for tea drinkers. For hundreds of years, there has been a weekly tea auction in London, where teas from up to 10 of the world's 25 tea-producing countries are auctioned. However, on Monday this tradition is to end and buyers will instead start trading directly with tea plantations or at local overseas auctions.

It may sound like the death of a great tradition, but Illtyd Lewis, executive director of the Tea Council, confirms that the cuppa is as popular as ever. The UK is the world's biggest tea consumer and 185 million cups of tea are sold each day in Britain. Coffee may recently have become hip - simply note the number of coffee bars opening across the country - but more than twice as many cups of tea are drunk each day in this country.

These days, the words "afternoon tea" bring a cornucopia of cosy English images to mind - sipping soothingly from china teacups and nibbling on dainty sandwiches in an English country garden or sitting in a quaint little cafe in an old market town with a big plate of scones.

According to Marguerite Patten, author of The Complete Book Of Teas (Judy Piatkus, pounds 10.99), the elaborate tradition of afternoon tea, complete with delicate sandwiches and cake, was probably started as recently as the early 19th century when Anna, wife of the seventh Duke of Bedford, decided she needed something to fill the gap between lunch and dinner.

Some of the best accessories for afternoon tea can be found at Dickins and Jones (0171-734 7070), 224-244 Regent Street, London W1. They can provide delicate tea strainers, whimsical sugar bowls, tablecloths, cake slices; any budding Mad Hatters should pay a visit. Specialist kitchen shops also stock teatime goods. The Elizabeth David Cookshop in Covent Garden (0171-836 9167) sells dessert forks for pounds 1.99 each, dessert knives from pounds 2.99 and silver cake slices from pounds 1.10 to pounds 3. For something more unusual, Kooks Unlimited, at 2 Eton Street, Richmond (0181-332 3030) stocks Mary Rose Young tea services, pounds 40 for a teacup and saucer, in bright, rose-covered designs, and quirky Carol Boyes pewter cake slices for pounds 50. For entertaining, Summerhill and Bishop (0171-221 4566) is at 100 Portland Road, London and stocks handmade glass cake stands from pounds 52.50.

If all this talk of afternoon tea gets you feeling nostalgic head to the Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum at Butlers Wharf in London (0171-378 0222). The museum has exhibits detailing tea production and customs from all over the world, as well as a shop selling traditional teas, teapots, tea strainers, cups and saucers. The museum is a reminder of the days when everyone would stop for a cuppa, and when waiting for the tea to infuse for the necessary five minutes was the soul of the occasion. A round of tea would be poured out, then hot water would be added to the pot for a second round, and the ritual would begin again.

Tastes have changed, however and recently a host of "new" tea types has been introduced. Whittard of Chelsea (0800 525 092), the high-street chain, stocks all manner of teas, including flavoured green teas and instant iced teas. You can even buy Darjeeling First Flush from the Margaret's Hope Estate.

Finally, as well as visiting specialist tea shops, there are other ways to enjoy the soothing nature of a good cup of tea. Crabtree and Evelyn's (0171-603 1611 for stockists) Song de Chine eau de toilette, pounds 15.50 for 100ml, aims to create an air of calm and contemplation, perfect for a lazy summer afternoon tea out of doors. One of its key ingredients is oolong tea extract.

RHIANNON BATTEN

The Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum is open daily from 10am to 6pm. Admission pounds 3.50 for adults and pounds 2 for concessions.

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