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Fancy a cuppa? Indulge in centuries-old tradition of afternoon tea

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Forget coffee. Tea is the new black.

And we're not talking about your average cuppa — think bigger, fancier, with finger sandwiches.

The British tradition of afternoon tea is a lingering and luxurious affair, still popular three centuries after a noblewoman started the trend because she got the growlies in the late afternoon.

Legend has it that Anna Maria Stanhope, Duchess of Bedford, had servants sneak a pot of tea and some snacks up to her room each day. Eventually she started inviting friends to join her and the event morphed into a regular social occasion.

Since then, high-end hotels and specialty tea shops around the world have been offering up the afternoon ritual in a range of prices and decadence.

Not to be confused with high tea — which is more of a meal, served in the early evening — afternoon tea begins with a selection of the drink transported in elegant pots that endlessly fill cups daintily clinking on top of saucers.

Towering in the middle of the table is the main attraction: a tiered stand piled high with scones to smother with preserves and clotted cream, tiny crustless sandwiches (there's usually at least one stuffed with cucumbers), and rich pastries and desserts.

Most venues recommend customers set aside at least 90 minutes for sipping, nibbling and chatting away.

Tea and food aside, it's the entire experience of afternoon tea that's the draw, says Anne Marie Vivani, owner of the Savoy Room in St. Catharines, Ont.

Three years ago, Vivani opened her tea room — all it serves is afternoon tea — and has noticed a steady increase in customers. She thinks more people want what she calls "Old World charm."

Brett Patterson is a Toronto executive with Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, which has offered afternoon tea at many of its locations for decades. He says he has also seen a recent resurgence in the tradition.

"We're going back to a lot of things in life, going back to older things ... It's all coming back."

The British period TV drama "Downton Abbey" has spawned at-home tea parties and special events at some tea houses. So have non-fiction royal visits. Later this month, Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, are to visit Canada, with stops scheduled in Prince Edward Island, Manitoba and Nova Scotia.

Of course, the mother of all afternoon tea times seems to be Mother's Day.

The popularity of the tradition is perhaps matched by a growing taste for tea itself.

Starbucks — the queen of coffee — said it all when it acquired a chain of tea stores in 2012 and, the following year, opened its first "tea bar" in New York.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has even identified the tea trend, linking it to people's growing interest in being healthy. Statistics Canada reports that Canadians drink about 10 billion cups of tea each year.

Fairmont's Empress Hotel in Victoria, perhaps the most renowned place to sit down for afternoon tea in Canada, serves about 100,000 people annually. It started its daily event in 1908.

In Edmonton, the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald serves a common twist on afternoon tea, called royal tea. It basically adds alcohol to the menu, typically a glass of sherry or Champagne. The hotel even throws in a tour of its royal suite, where the Queen stayed in 2005.

For those who want to include their wee ones, Fairmont offers afternoon tea in the form of a teddy bear picnic at its Chateau Lake Louise in Alberta. At the company's Vancouver hotel, children are encouraged to dress up like their favourite fairy-tale characters and get special bubble gum tea with peanut butter and jelly finger sandwiches.

Other locations of note that offer afternoon tea include the historic Windsor Arms Hotel in Toronto, Mademoiselle Clifford's Tea Room in Hudson, Que., and Grandma's Tea Room in Charlottetown.

There is an art to serving afternoon tea and it has its own etiquette. Here are some dos and don'ts from Fairmont Hotels and Resorts:

— If you add milk, pour it into the cup before the tea. If you like sugar, drop cubes in afterward.

— To stir, hold the spoon at the six o'clock position and swish back and forth without touching the sides of the cup. Never clink.

— Don't blow on tea to cool it. You just have to wait it out.

— Place index finger into the handle with your thumb on top. The bottom of the handle should rest on your third finger. And, if you like, point your pinky up for balance.

— Take an elegant sip and don't look around. Keep your eyes on your cup so it doesn't spill.

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