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Afternoon Tea vs. High Tea: Unveiling the British Tea Traditions

27 July 2023

Discover the cultural significance, distinct characteristics, and unique traditions of British Afternoon Tea and High Tea.

What Is The Difference Between Afternoon Tea and High Tea?Photo By Canva

Tea drinking is an integral part of British culture, synonymous with elegance and sophistication. But did you know that there's a distinct difference between Afternoon Tea and High Tea? These two traditions are often confused, though they have different origins, menus, and times of day for serving. Today we're diving into the details of these beloved British customs, clearing up any confusion and enriching your understanding of tea culture.

Origins and Class Associations

Afternoon Tea was introduced in the early 1840s as a mini meal to curb hunger between lunch and a late dinner. This concept was popularized by Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, and quickly adopted by the upper class.

High Tea, on the other hand, originated within the working class as a hearty meal after a long day of work, typically served between 5 to 7 pm. The term 'high' is believed to be associated with the high tables at which the meal was served, contrasting with the low drawing-room tables utilized during Afternoon Tea.

What Is Afternoon Tea?

Afternoon tea, also known as "low tea," is a British tradition that originated in the early 19th century. It was introduced by Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, as a way to curb the hunger between lunch and dinner, which was typically served quite late in the evening.

Afternoon tea typically consists of a selection of dainty finger sandwiches, scones served with clotted cream and jam, a variety of cakes, and pastries. These are served alongside a pot of tea, which could include traditional teas like Darjeeling, Assam, or Earl Grey.

This tradition quickly gained popularity among the upper class and became a social event for ladies who would gather in drawing rooms over tea and conversation.

Despite its name, afternoon tea is usually served from around 3.30pm to 5pm, and it's often seen as a treat or a special occasion rather than a daily event.

Today, afternoon tea remains popular and is served in many cafes, tea rooms, and hotels across the UK. It's also enjoyed around the world and is associated with elegance, sophistication, and leisurely enjoyment.

What Is High Tea?

High tea, despite what the name might suggest to those not familiar with the term, is not a more formal or "higher" form of afternoon tea. In fact, it's quite the opposite.

High tea, also known as "meat tea," originated in the working class of Britain during the Industrial Revolution. Workers would come home from factories and mines for an early evening meal served at a high table (hence the term "high tea"), which was more like dinner than an afternoon snack.

High tea typically consisted of hearty, robust dishes meant to sustain those who had labored hard throughout the day. Dishes might include meat, fish, eggs, baked goods such as crumpets or scones, and a selection of vegetables. Like afternoon tea, a pot of strong tea would also be served.

The tradition of high tea continues in various parts of the UK today, particularly in the North, but it's quite different from the dainty cucumber sandwiches and petite fours associated with afternoon tea. Today, high tea is sometimes mistaken as a more formal or luxurious version of afternoon tea, especially by non-British people, but traditionally, it is more of a working-class meal.

In modern usage, high tea can sometimes refer to a more elaborate version of afternoon tea, particularly in the context of hotels or restaurants. But traditionally and historically, high tea and afternoon tea have very different origins and characteristics.

Food and Tea Served

English Breakfast TeaPhoto By Canva

Afternoon Tea traditionally consists of a selection of dainty sandwiches (such as cucumber or smoked salmon), scones with clotted cream and jam, cakes, and pastries. These are served with a variety of teas, like Darjeeling or Earl Grey.

High Tea comprises more substantial fare – essentially, it's a full dinner. Dishes might include meats, fish, eggs, cheese, bread, and butter, along with baked goods like crumpets or cakes. Tea served could range from strong blends like Assam to the more robust English Breakfast tea.

Afternoon Tea: The food served at an afternoon tea usually consists of a selection of finger sandwiches (for example, cucumber, egg and cress, smoked salmon, ham, and cream cheese), scones with clotted cream and jams, and a variety of small cakes and pastries. The tea served can range widely based on personal preference, but popular choices often include Earl Grey, Darjeeling, Assam, and English Breakfast. It's a light, elegant affair meant to satiate hunger between lunch and dinner.

High Tea: High tea, on the other hand, is more of a hearty meal. It often includes a hot dish such as shepherd’s pie, steak and kidney pie, or fish and chips. Following the hot dish, a variety of cold foods like pickles, cheese, and cold cuts are served. Bread, butter, and jam also typically accompany the meal. The dessert course might include cakes, tarts, and biscuits. The types of tea served can also vary widely, but strong black teas are commonly served because they pair well with the heavier food.

Tea Service: The tea in both Afternoon and High Tea is traditionally loose leaf, meaning it's steeped in a teapot and then strained as it's poured. Most traditional tea services will offer a range of teas to choose from, and your selection will be brewed fresh when you order. The tea is then served in a teacup, often along with milk and sugar on the side so that guests can adjust the tea to their liking.

Tea Service Etiquette

The etiquette surrounding tea service has a long history, particularly in Britain, where afternoon tea and high tea have their origins. While some of the more formal rules may not be followed to the letter in everyday life anymore, they can still come into play during more formal occasions or at establishments that uphold traditional practices. Here are some of the key points to remember:

Serving Order: Traditionally, tea is poured first, followed by milk. This was originally done to protect the fine china cups from the heat of the boiling tea. However, some people prefer to add the milk second so they can judge the strength of the tea.

Holding the Cup: When holding a tea cup, pinch the handle between your thumb and index finger, allowing your middle finger to support the handle from below. Never hold the cup itself or loop your fingers through the handle.

Stirring the Tea: When stirring tea, don't make circular motions. Instead, stir straight back and forth, from 6 o'clock to 12 o'clock. Avoid touching the sides of the cup with the spoon to prevent any unnecessary noise.

Scone Etiquette: When eating scones, don't cut them with a knife. Instead, break off a bite-sized piece with your fingers, then add cream and jam. Traditionally, clotted cream goes on first, followed by jam, in the Devon style, while in Cornwall, the jam goes on first followed by the cream.

Napkin Etiquette: The napkin (or serviette) should be folded in half and placed on your lap with the fold facing towards you. If you need to leave the table temporarily, place the napkin on your chair, not the table.

Eating Etiquette: Wait until everyone has been served before you start eating or drinking. When you're done, place your cutlery diagonally on the plate, with the handles on the bottom right.

Order of Eating: Traditionally, the order of eating for afternoon tea starts with the savory items, like sandwiches, followed by the scones, and then the sweets.

Remember, these are traditional rules of etiquette and may not be strictly observed everywhere. However, understanding these rules can enrich your tea experience and can be particularly helpful if you ever attend a formal tea service.

Today's Adaptations

Modern interpretations have seen a blending of Afternoon Tea and High Tea. Luxury hotels and tea rooms often serve 'High Tea' in the late afternoon, combining the light bites of traditional Afternoon Tea with more substantial offerings, catered to an international clientele who often equate 'high' with 'upper class'.

Afternoon Tea and High Tea each have their unique charm and purpose. Whether you're savoring delicate pastries in the afternoon or enjoying a robust evening meal, understanding the history and distinctions between these two traditions can enhance your tea-drinking experience.

What Are The Three Types Of Afternoon Tea?

Different Types of TeaPhoto By Canva

There are essentially three main types of afternoon tea, each with its own characteristics and typical offerings:

Cream Tea: This is the simplest version of afternoon tea. Cream tea primarily consists of tea served with scones, clotted cream, and strawberry jam. It's a wonderful choice if you want something light in the afternoon.

Afternoon Tea (also known as Low Tea): Afternoon tea is a more substantial meal than cream tea, but it's not quite as large as high tea. It typically includes a variety of small sandwiches, scones served with clotted cream and jam, a selection of sweet pastries, cakes, and, of course, tea. It's traditionally served in the mid-afternoon on low lounge chairs, hence the name "Low Tea."

High Tea: High Tea, contrary to what the name might suggest, is the most substantial of the three. It's a heartier meal that typically includes a variety of foods, such as meat dishes, fish, eggs, cheese, bread and butter, and even baked goods like cakes and pastries. Despite its name, high tea was traditionally a working-class meal served on higher, dining tables after work, hence "High Tea."

While these are the traditional types of tea services, many places offer their own variations, and the lines between these categories can sometimes blur. Some modern establishments may even offer themed or special occasion teas, with unique menus to match.

What Is The Dress Code For High Tea?

The dress code for high tea can vary greatly depending on the venue and occasion. In general, the attire for high tea is smart casual, but some places may require more formal attire. Here are some general guidelines:

Smart Casual: This means neat, clean, and appropriate for the occasion. For women, a smart blouse with trousers or a skirt, or a dress could be perfect. For men, chinos or trousers and a collared shirt would be appropriate.

Formal Venues: At more formal venues or for special occasions, you might be expected to dress up a bit more. Women might choose to wear a cocktail dress or a dressy blouse and skirt, and men could wear a suit or at least a jacket and tie.

Hats and Gloves: In very traditional or formal settings, women might choose to wear hats and gloves, although this is becoming less common.

Footwear: Smart shoes are a must. Avoid trainers or any overly casual shoes.

Avoid Casual Clothes: Regardless of the venue, avoid wearing overly casual clothes such as shorts, jeans, T-shirts, and flip-flops.

Remember, these are just general guidelines, and the best thing to do is to check with the venue or host in advance to be sure you're dressed appropriately. After all, one of the joys of high tea is the chance to dress up a bit and enjoy the elegant atmosphere.

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