In the U.S., “high tea” is often incorrectly used to mean a formal afternoon tea. In England, a formal afternoon tea is called “low tea,” and “high tea” (or “meat tea”) is an early evening meal reserved for the lower classes. Learn about the history of the British tradition of the afternoon tea meal, including its history, the common foods and teas served, the proper etiquette for taking tea and American adaptations of afternoon tea.
High Tea vs. Low Tea
British Tea History
Low Tea Etiquette
Low Tea Fare
The Tea Itself
Low Tea Today
High Tea vs. Low Tea
If you live in the U.S., you have been lied to about high tea. Well, maybe not LIED TO, but you’ve been given incorrect information at the very least. You’ve probably seen a scene in a movie or heard a joke in which rich and snooty women chit-chat over “high tea,” which is portrayed as an elaborate spread of tea, scones, and finger sandwiches served on doilies atop tiered silver trays. In fact, the event being (mis)represented is afternoon tea, or LOW tea. The problem is that many Americans equate the word “high” with class and formality. In fact, the word “high” refers to the height of the serving table: high tea is served at a high dinner table, while low tea is traditionally served on low tables in a sitting room.
So, what’s what? High tea is a full meal served at around 5 or 6 PM. It is usually associated with the members of the lower classes, who were hungry after a long day at work (often with no break). Low tea is a light meal traditionally begun at 4 or 5 PM and ending before 7 PM. It is associated with the high class, who saw it more as a social occasion than a meal and used it to stave off hunger between an early lunch and a late dinner. Think of high tea as a meal and low tea as a large snack or as “finger foods”... or remember etiquette savant Judith Martin’s quip regarding the confusion: “It’s high time we had something to eat.”
This article covers Low/Afternoon Tea. Follow the link to read about High/Meat Tea.
British Tea History
There is more than enough British tea history to warrant a whole article (or even a whole series of books), but here’s a quick overview as it relates to low/afternoon and high/“meat” tea in England.
The first recorded arrival of tea in England was when Catherine de Braganza brought chests of it in her dowry for her marriage to Charles II in 1663. Charles and Catherine’s affinity for tea quickly popularized it amongst the upper classes and the British tea trade began in earnest in the 1670s, thanks to the British East India Company. Though tea was initially limited to the upper classes, it gradually spread to even the lower classes. By 1700, it was served in over 500 coffeehouses and teashops in London alone. (Coffeehouses were generally for men only, but tearooms allowed even unaccompanied female patrons. Similarly, after World War II in the U.S., it was still uncommon for women to go to coffeehouses unaccompanied, but tearooms were acceptable places for women to frequent alone.) With these changes, tea supplanted ale as the national favorite.
Soon after tea’s explosion in popularity, there were some major changes in the world of British cuisine. Strangely enough, these changes had to do with the English seeing the light, literally. During the 1800s, gas or oil light was introduced to many homes in England. Prior to this, there were two main meals during the day. One was breakfast and the other, significantly larger meal was dinner. Since lighting was poor in the evening, people ate dinner around noon and went to bed relatively early. The advent of artificial lighting allowed people to stay up later and, consequently, to eat later. Fashionable people of the upper classes ate their dinners as late as 9 PM. Though the later hours corresponded with a later start to the day and a later breakfast, this shift still left a large, foodless gap in the middle of the day. Legend has it that in 1840 Anna, Duchess of Bedford (one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting) began to request tea and “breadstuffs” (assorted baked goods, which were often served as a refreshment for visitors) each day from her servants. She began to invite friends over to join her for these refreshments and the tradition of afternoon tea commenced. It was a highly social occasion centered around the low tables of drawing and sitting rooms (hence the name “low tea”). By 1880, afternoon tea had spread to the homes of the upper classes and to tea shops across the country.
Middle and lower classes had afternoon tea whenever they could, though this was often a challenge, given the labor laws at the time. Midway through the Industrial Revolution (the early 1800s), working classes adopted a variation on low tea for themselves: a heavier meal served with tea at 5 PM, upon their return home from work. It was, of course, served at high tables and known as “high tea.” When the Aerated Bread Company (A.B.C. tearoom) opened in London in1864, female patrons and middle- and lower-class men (with work breaks) began to take a tea meal around four when they could. This led to the decline of high tea in London, though the tradition remains today in rural northern England and in Scotland.
Low Tea Etiquette
Low tea etiquette is steeped in controversy. Debates roar over what to do with your pinkies, whether you should pour milk or tea into your teacup first and much, much, more. However, I will cover the main points here.
First, if you are invited to low tea by mail (which you should be), then RSVP as soon as possible. Do so with a mailed (not emailed), handwritten card, preferably on your personalized stationery. After the tea, handwrite a thank-you note (once again, on your stationery) and mail it immediately.
Always remember the rules that I know your mother told you: don’t chew with your mouth open or speak while you have food in your mouth, take small bites, don’t play with/mash/mix your food, don’t blow on hot foods, don’t slurp or chew loudly, don’t put your elbows on the table unless all the dishes have been cleared, keep your napkin in your lap, never cup up more than a few bites at a time, don’t reach across the table, sit up straight, cover your mouth and say “excuse me” when you burp, blahblahblah.
There are a few major rules you may not know. It’s OK to use your hands for many low tea foods. If a utensil isn’t provided, assume that it’s a finger food. The purpose of finger foods is to allow guests to take small bites and enjoy conversation over the course of the tea. Keep that in mind, take small bites, and focus your energies on the conversation rather than the food. When adding cream/butter and jam to your scones, first add the jam, and then add the dairy. Scones, like the rest of the meal, should be eaten in small bites. If you have a spill that gets on someone else, hand them a napkin (some call it a “serviette” in England, but the more upper-class name is "napkin") and offer to pay for the garment’s cleaning. If you spill something on yourself, calmly use your napkin to clean what you can, then ask for sparkling water to clean the rest. Never dip your napkin into your water glass. If you have something stuck in your teeth, quietly excuse yourself to remove it in the restroom.
As for the pinkies and milk/tea first debates: Many "experts" will tell you that you should stick your pinkie out. This is incorrect. The pinkie should be gently arched to keep it from getting burnt by the body of the teacup, but it should not point anywhere. The milk/tea first debate came from an early style of European teaware that would crack from quick temperature fluctuation. Today, it’s irrelevant. However, it is generally considered to be classier (and more sensible) to add the milk last in England today.
If you’re American drinking tea in England, there are a few extra rules to know. Please know that dress is usually formal (any skirt above the calf is too short) and the topics of politics and business should be avoided, as should anything very personal. If you’re using utensils, keep your fork in your left hand and your knife in your right hand at all times. When you are done eating, place all your utensils (including teaspoons, dessert spoons, etc.) on your plate or saucer, with the knife and fork at the 4:20 position (knife oh-so-slightly counter-clockwise from the fork). Fold the napkin and place it to the left of your plate when you are leaving the table, but not before then. (If your host/hostess does this, it signals the end of the tea.) Do not push the plate away from you when you are done eating. If you are eating out, you should be very polite to your servers. Always say “excuse me,” or wave (not snap) to get their attention and thank them when they bring you food. A tip of 10% is customary, unless it is built into the cost of the meal. (If it’s built in, the bill will say “Service Included.”)
So far, we’ve covered general behavior and food etiquette. Let’s move on to tea. It is considered rude to sip tea (or coffee, for that matter) from a spoon. Never dunk biscuits (cookies) in your tea. Swallow your food before you sip your tea. Use a fork or other tool (not your fingers) to add lemon to your tea. Do not add milk and lemon together, or the milk may curdle. Do not stir your tea vigorously or make a clinking sound with your spoon. Instead, gently move the teaspoon from the six o’clock position toward the twelve o’clock position. If your teacup has no handles, place your thumb at the six o’clock position and your fingers at the twelve o’clock position. If it has a handle, hold the handle with your fingertips, but do not put your fingers through the handle.
Finally, etiquette is SUPPOSED to be about the comfort and happiness of everyone involved, and not about making anyone uncomfortable. So please play nice!
Low Tea Fare
Low tea is lighter than high tea, but many of its dishes take a considerable amount of time to prepare. The simplest type of low tea is Cream Tea, followed by Light Tea. The most elaborate type is Full Tea.
Despite the name, Cream Tea does NOT mean tea served with cream in it. British tea is served with milk. (Cream is too heavy and would overpower the taste even more than milk does.) The “cream” in the name refers to clotted or Devonshire cream, which is served with scones and jam (usually strawberry). Sometimes, butter is served as well. Basically, it’s a snack.
Veggie notes: Everything in Cream Tea is vegetarian. Generally speaking, only the tea (pre-milk) and the jam are vegan, though you can make vegan scones.
Light Tea builds upon cream tea with the addition of more sweets. The types of sweets vary, but sponge cake is the most popular. It can be (but rarely is) plain. Variations include:
Flavored cakes (lemon, orange, coffee, chocolate, etc.)
Victoria sponge (named after Queen Victoria, made with added butter/margarine, filled with cream and raspberry/strawberry jam or lemon curd and cut like a sandwich)
Battenburg cake (or “window cake,” a type of light sponge cake in a 4-square grid of yellow and pink, held together with apricot jam and engulfed in a layer of almond paste)
Jelly rolls (spiraled layers of cake and raspberry/strawberry jam/jelly)
collapsed swiss rolls (cakes that are spiraled like jelly rolls, filled with whipped cream/buttercream, Jam, berries and/or lemon curd, and then weighted down so they “collapse”)
Madeleines (light butter-lemon sponge cake “cookies;” as the name would suggest, they are French)
Fairy cakes (Brit talk for “cupcakes”)
Butterfly cakes (cupcakes that have been hollowed a bit, stuffed with a sweet filling, and topped with a butterfly shape made from the removed cake)
Eve’s pudding (a two-layer concoction comprised of baked apples topped with sponge cake and served with custard or cream)
Trifle (a layered dish of sponge cake, thick/solidified custard, fruit/berries, fruit juice/gelatin, whipped cream and sometimes a dash of sweet wine)
Other prevailing sweets include biscuits (or, in American English, “cookies”), shortbread (which may be a wedge/“Petticoat Tail”, small round, or finger shape), muffins (which are not traditional, but are common in American variations on afternoon tea), fruit tarts, petits fours, fruitcake, tea bread/cake, Sally Lunns (the rich, sweet bun of legend) and other pastries. Seasonal fresh fruit may also be served.
Veggie notes: Unless there is an unusual addition to the meal, it will probably be vegetarian. Trifle is the only exception to this rule, as it often contains gelatin. Otherwise, just be sure to ask if the shortening in the baked goods is butter or lard. As much as the glaze on a fruit tart looks like gelatin, it’s actually a jam-alcohol mixture. Don’t worry! For those of you who do eggs but not dairy, please note that sponge cake is not made with any dairy unless it’s in a filling or topping, but Victoria cake has butter in it. If fresh fruit is served, it’s probably the only vegan thing served besides the tea and the jam.
Just when you thought light tea had all the sweets you could handle, along came full tea. Full tea includes lighter scones or sweets and a heavier “dessert.” However, the main distinguishing feature between light and full tea is the addition of “savories,” which are eaten first, and followed by scones and (last) a dessert.
Savories usually come in the form of finger sandwiches, but they could also be soup, cheese and crackers or nuts, quiche, and other savory foods that Americans often think of as appetizers. Sandwiches were (and still are) particularly popular because they were invented by the Earl of Sandwich in 1762, not long before afternoon tea was popularized in England. They were all the rage at the height of low tea culture, so a lot of attention is paid to their preparation. An ideal tea sandwich is crustless, made from thin-sliced bread, flavorful (they often have chutneys, garlic, scallions, mustards, peppers, spices and a large amount of fat) without overpowering the tea, small (two bites or less; cut a regular crustless sandwich into four squares or triangles to achieve this) and spread with soft butter or cream cheese between the bread and the filling. Common sandwich fillings include cucumber (or cucumber mint, served on white or rye bread), egg (or egg and cress, served on white), ham (often with chutney or mustard and cheese, served on light rye), smoked salmon (on rye), smoked ham (on white), tuna salad, cold-smoked herring (a.k.a. “bloater,” this one didn’t spread to the U.S. for obvious reasons), chicken curry, cheese (often with apple or fig), and watercress, radish, asparagus, onion, cranberry relish, nuts or carrot with various other ingredients.
Veggie notes: There are thousands of variations on the tea sandwich, so you have a lot of options to choose from if you get to select which ones get made. If you have a limited menu, cucumber sandwiches are almost always available and egg sandwiches are common. Vegans will need to be very wary even when placing a special order, as butter or cream cheese is traditionally spread between the bread and the filling and many fillings contain mayo, cheese, cream cheese or butter. As for any other savories, use your best judgment and ask if you have any questions. See Light Tea for information on the non-savory dishes.
The Tea Itself
With all this talk about manners and food, we haven’t even covered the tea yet. Unfortunately, this is the downside of afternoon tea. It’s named for the tea, but sometimes the focus is on just about everything except the tea itself.
Black teas overshadow all others in British tea culture. The most internationally known of them all is Earl Grey, which is said to have been named when Earl Grey saved the life of a drowning Mandarin tea merchant (or his son, depending on whom you ask). This legend is entirely untrue and mildly humorous, considering the fact that Earl Grey never set foot in China. Earl Grey tea’s distinctive taste comes from the addition of the essential oil of bergamot citrus fruit. Its popularity comes from the old belief that it would quell any “improper impulses” (i.e., sexual impulses) that tea would (supposedly) otherwise encourage in young women.
Many other popular “British” black teas also hail from India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon). These include the rich, malty Assam; the mild, floral Darjeeling; English Breakfast, a blend of Ceylon and Indian teas; English Afternoon, a blend of Assam, Darjeeling, and Ceylon teas; Ceylon Orange Pekoe, pronounced “peck-OH” and named for its grade rather than any orange flavor; and Lady Grey, a milder version of Earl Grey with cornflowers, lemon, and orange in addition to the bergamot. Chinese black teas include Russian Caravan and Lapsang Souchong, which have been smoked; Keemun; Yunnan; and Rose Congu, a Chinese black tea with rose petals and essence. Black teas make up the majority of the most popular teas for afternoon tea.
Despite black tea’s reign, you may find jasmine greens, gunpowder green, various oolongs and an assortment of tisanes ("herbal teas") on the tea menu. Common tisanes include chamomile, mint, verveine, rooibos, violet, elderflower and fruit “teas.”
In the British tradition, tea (particularly black tea) is often taken with milk. This dates back to the 1600s, when the French custom of adding milk was seen as chic and adopted almost universally on the isle. There is a common misconception that tea is served with cream rather than milk. This misconception stems from the name “cream tea,” which is actually in reference to the cream served with the scones. The tea is still served with milk, even if it is “cream tea.”
Other common flavors in British tea are lemon and sugar. Avoid adding both lemon and milk, as the citric acid in the lemon can curdle the milk. If you add lemon to your tea, do so with a serving fork. Sugar may be added with a serving spoon. No matter what you add to your tea, be sure to stir it gingerly and avoid clinking. (See Low Tea Etiquette for more information.) Honey is also a popular sweetener for tea in the UK.
On a side note, lemon has been shown to decrease chances of severe sunburn and skin cancer. Milk, on the other hand is said to nullify many of tea’s potential health benefits. I’m sure you don’t need me to remind you that sugar is bad for you, especially after I’ve just told you about an enormous array of delicious sweets waiting for you at afternoon tea.
Low Tea Today
Over time and distance, high and low teas have made a few changes. The main change in England is its decline. Low tea used to be a major part of high society’s daily doings, but these days it is less popular as a daily ritual. This decrease in the daily undertaking of a tea meal has led to low tea’s shift away from a daily occurrence and toward a “special occasion” event. For this reason, low tea is often seen more in hotels and restaurants and less in people’s homes.
The “special occasion” approach has altered low tea in two other ways. First, it has introduced “champagne tea,” which is light or full tea served along with a glass of champagne. Second, it has shifted the tea times. Since people cannot rely on a daily low tea to get them from an early lunch to a late dinner, they eat a later lunch (between noon and 2, often after a light 11 AM meal called “elevenses”) and an earlier dinner (between 5:30 and 7:30). Low tea is typically served from 3 to 5 PM, instead of 4 or 5 to 7 PM. An exception to this is that, in some areas, low tea is served at 5 PM and called “five o’clock tea.” (It is worth noting that many Brits still take a daily mid-afternoon break for a cup of tea and a piece of cake or other sweet at a tearoom, café or hotel, though this is more often a snack than a social gathering or a meal.)
Other changes in tea meals in England include the incorporation of healthier foods and an additional Asian influence. Fruit (especially fresh strawberries and strawberry tea, a variation on cream tea) and vegetarian options are more common than they once were. “Herbal tea” (tisanes) and green tea are much more readily available than they were for the many years that Indian and Ceylon black teas ruled. Asian-fusion dishes besides chicken curry sandwiches pop up on menus every now and then.
Outside of England, other changes have evolved. In the U.S., these changes include children’s tea, tea parties, changes in names, and changes in focus.
Many American hotels and some American tearooms now offer “Teddy Bear Tea.” “Teddy Bear Tea” is a children’s event involving stuffed animals and a bit too much “cuteness” for some people. Décor may include lots of balloons, pink things, frills, flowers (painted and/or real), hearts, faeries, glitter and other fanciful things, particularly in the U.S. Some menus also include children’s foods such as peanut butter and jelly (with or without banana) and apple cider (in lieu of tea).
Hotels and tearooms often hold afternoon tea year-round or during holidays such as Christmas and Mother’s Day. Tea parties are also held as a special event. They are similar to low tea in their food selections, though they are often held for children’s birthday parties or celebrations among older women and may involve the décor mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Cross-Atlantic name-changes include the tendency to incorrectly refer to afternoon tea as “high tea” instead of “low tea,” the renaming of many tisanes, the switch from “faerie cakes” to “cupcakes” and the addition of the word “British” or “English” to a number of dishes.
Finally, the U.S. has a slightly different focus on some aspects of afternoon tea. For example, many Americans think of petit fours as an essential element of afternoon tea. In England, petits fours (which, of course, originated in France) are eaten at the end of a meal or as part of a large buffet, but are not usually associated with afternoon tea. In this example, there is a food that is present in American afternoon tea and absent in British afternoon tea. However, the opposite may also hold true. Many British culinary standards (such as fish paste sandwiches, Sally Lunns, and collapsed swiss rolls) are mysteriously (or, in the case of the fish paste sandwiches, not so mysteriously) missing from American tea menus.
Want to know more? Read on about the British tradition of High Tea!