Platters full of exquisite pastries, dense scones with cream and finger sandwiches, all adorned with silver tea ware and fine bone china cups. This may be what we call ‘high tea’ today; but this was not the case a century ago.
In this post, we will be taking a quick trip to England, as a part of our “Tea service around the world” articles. England has a number of tea service styles, so I will be giving a brief overview of service types in this article and will delve deeper into British tea service etiquette in a follow up post. Let us begin with the most famous;
Today’s tea houses offering high tea service will likely serve highly decorated two or three tier platters with warm savouries, dense scones and exquisitely colourful sweet treats; Often served alongside more than one choice of tea, poured from an elegant glass teapot. What we have here is actually called Afternoon Tea, or the historically named, “Low Tea”.
So, if the fancy service often served between 3 and 5pm isn’t high tea, then what exactly IS high tea?
During the 1800’s in England, High Tea was a meal, served later in the day, and always consisted of meat and bread with butter. Not fancy meat pastries and artisan breads- just meat and bread, often served cold, with a pot of strong boiled tea. The type and amount of food was dependant upon the families budget, but ‘high tea’ was very common among poorer families. For those who could afford it, the spread may have consisted of bacon, fish, potatoes, eggs and cheese. It was served at around 5:30 or 6:00pm in the afternoon, a welcomed meal for the working class. It was called ‘high tea’ because the meal was served on high tables and chairs (at the supper table) and was also referred to as ‘meat tea’. It was often the largest meal of the day and would be what we now call ‘dinner’.
Have you ever wondered why some Australian’s call the evening dinner meal ‘tea’?
This might be thanks to our British ancestors, describing their evening meal simply as, ‘tea’.
Afternoon Tea or ‘Low Tea’- the tea service we mistakenly now call high tea.
The practice of serving tea in the afternoons is given credit to Anna Maria, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, during the early 1840’s. To stave off hunger pains caused by the long wait between Luncheon and the evening meal, which was becoming more fashionably later in the evenings, Lady Bedford requested tea and bread with butter be brought to her bedchamber at 5:00pm. She later began inviting close friends to her bedchamber to share tea with her, and thus, the ritual of ‘afternoon tea’ among the elite was born. By the late 1840’s, afternoon tea with elegant cups and saucers, held in the drawing rooms of grand houses, became very vogue. The practice of afternoon tea didn’t spread to the lower classes until the mid 1860’s and early 1870’s and was often a less extravagant affair, but still an important part of a lady’s day. Afternoon tea was almost always served on less formal, yet more comfortable low chairs and tables (much like what we would now call a ‘coffee table’), hence why it was also referred to a ‘low tea’.
As described in Mrs. Beeton’s 1879 Book of Household Management;
“The afternoon tea signifies little more than tea with bread and butter, and a few elegant trifles in the way of cake and fruit. This meal is simply to enable a few friends to meet and talk comfortably and quietly”.
Of course, as expected since the 1800’s, afternoon tea has evolved to focus more on food, offering fancy pastries, artisan breads and decadent sweets showered with chocolate, fruits and flower petals.
Although many modern tea houses will serve their afternoon tea with glass teapots and heavy crockery, traditionally afternoon tea should be served with fine china cups and saucers, silver cutlery, bowls and serving utensils and a silver teapot. The service is very formal and might be referred to as “Queen’s Tea”. We will cover this type of tea service in a later post.
“Cream Tea” or “Devonshire Tea”
Cream Tea, or Devonshire Tea is a much lighter affair than Afternoon Tea and traditionally only consists of tea, scones, jam and cream. The cream served with Devonshire tea is not just any whipped or aerated cream from a can, but clotted cream. Clotted cream is a crusty yellow cream, hailing from southwestern England, where the rich pastures enabled the cows to produce richer milk with a higher fat content. Devonshire Cream was produced in the county of Devon, while Cornish Cream came from the county of Cornwall. Although made in different counties, both are referred to as clotted cream. The biggest divider between the counties is whether the jam or the cream is placed on the scone first.
Strawberry Tea is another take on Cream Tea. It includes tea, scones, jam, clotted cream and fresh strawberries.
“Elevenses” or “Morning Tea”
Morning Tea as it is known to Australian’s, is known as “Elevenses” in England. To some, it is even called “second breakfast”. Regardless of what it’s called, the meaning is the same; a mid-morning break for refreshments. This mid-morning break comes after breakfast and before lunch (at eleven o’clock), and is a very casual affair, usually consisting of tea (not coffee) and biscuits, small cakes or pastries. Stick with the comforting classics though. Ginger biscuits, anyone?
Elevenses is thought to have come about during the 1830’s, where it has been referenced along with “fourses”, as additional times to take tea during the day.
In a follow up post, we will be looking at tea service etiquette for both Afternoon Tea and Devonshire Tea.