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 traditions of tea and food, from why Earl Grey was so popular to how to behave at high tea to the common types of food you’ll find at high tea (and what’s safe to eat if you’re a vegetarian).
High Tea vs. Low Tea
British Tea History
High Tea Etiquette
High Tea Fare
The Tea Itself
High 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 “finger foods.” Or remember etiquette savant Judith Martin’s quip regarding the confusion: “It’s high time we had something to eat.”
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.
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 tea retail shops in London alone. (Coffeehouses were for men only, so tea retailers set up areas to drink tea in order to pull in more female customers.) 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 withdrawing 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, 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.” Most of the foods were somewhat bland and the overall occasion was considered to be utilitarian and melancholy, a (possible*) end to the drab working day of the clerk or factory worker who had little or no time for a lunch break.
*Some farmers and laborers returned to work after this meal. So, yeah, life was pretty bad and high tea was just a less bad part of it.
High Tea Etiquette
In high society during the Victorian Era, the main point to remember regarding high tea etiquette was that you shouldn’t mention it around proper ladies, lest you scandalize them. (If that came as a shock to you, read High Tea vs. Low Tea
. If you want to know about pinkies and all that, read Low Tea Etiquette.) At that time, “high tea” had a low enough reputation that many people of wealth took a meal that was remarkably similar to “high tea,” but referred to it as “supper and tea” and other euphemisms to avoid associations with the lower classes. At that time, the other main point of tea etiquette was punctuality. Tea, like much else in the whistle-clock world of the Victorian working class, was set around a very rigid schedule.
Today, high tea etiquette is the same as that of any British meal. Do not speak with your mouth full or prop your elbows on the table, as both activities are considered to be very rude. Avoid making eating noises like slurping or chewing loudly. Do not leave your utensils on your plate until you are ready for it to be cleared. It is usually served in the home, but if you are eating out, you should be very polite to your servers. Always say “excuse me,” to get their attention and thank them when they bring you food and drink. 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.”)
High Tea Fare
As the name suggests, “meat tea” includes meat, and often an abundance of it. Below is a listing of common high tea dishes, sorted by type. Foods that are particular to a region or country have their origin listed in parentheses. The few foods that are usually vegetarian will have one asterisk (*) and the fewer foods that are usually vegan will have two (**).
Bacon and Egg Pie — a very meaty pie with a lard crust and (occasionally) with some vegetables (Irish)
Ham — large, baked, meaty
Other Meats — served hot or, more often, cold (particularly in England)
Poacher’s Pie — a pie made with beef, rabbit, chicken and game (Wales)
Roast Beef — a large piece of beef, usually rump roast with fat marbling, that has been roasted with gravy
Sausages — various types
Sausages and Eggs — just like it sounds, sausages (be they beef, pork or a blend) cooked and served with eggs (Scotland)
Steak and Kidney Pie — a pie dish, filled with diced steak, beef kidneys and a thick beef sauce (England)
Steak Pie — another pie dish, filled with steak, onion, carrots and gravy (Scotland)
Yorkshire Pie — Think “chicken pot pie with beef instead of chicken” and you’re getting close . . . except that these pies were often huge and made in fancy shapes with designs made from dough on the surface.
Haddock — lightly smoked and flavored (“Finnan Haddie”) or just heavily smoked, sometimes made into a stew (Scotland)
Kippers in Milk — herring poached in milk (Scotland)
Pickled Salmon — salmon preserved in vinegar
Soused Mackerel — mackerel baked with vinegar
Barm Brak — fruitcake (Irish)*
Biscuits — You know this one already.*
Bread and Butter — sometimes in the form of a sandwich, or buttered toast*
Cakes — many kinds, many flavors, all types of sponge cakes with jam were very popular at the time*
Crumpets — small, round, pancake-like baked goods often eaten with butter*
Drop Scones — a type of Scottish pancakes*
Dundee Cake — a rich fruitcake (Scotland)*
Gingerbread — in this case, a moist cake flavored with ginger and molasses (Scotland)*
Sally Lunns — a bread/cake that is often round, sometimes square and always surrounded by legend and controversy*
Scones — served with cream and/or jam/preserves (usually strawberry)*
Various Other Pastries — Use your imagination.*
Onion Cake — a.k.a. “Teisen Nionod,” a slow-baked potato and onion casserole (Wales)*
Potatoes — mashed, stewed, boiled, baked with seasonings and just about every other way you can think of preparing them
Various Other Vegetables — Other vegetables were served in dishes and on their own, but not much attention was paid to them, as meat was considered to be more important.
Ale — a full-bodied, barley malt beer, sometimes with a fruity or buttery taste, and sometimes spiced**
Coffee — Yes, back in the day you could serve coffee at a tea meal without starting a row. In fact, tea was popularized by coffeehouses during this era, so fans of both beverages got along quite amicably.**
Tea — more on this later**
Baked Beans — seasoned with molasses and ham, and then served on toast (England) Cheese — various kinds, served with bread*
Eggs — served in a variety of ways*
Glamorgan Sausage — a.k.a. “Selsig Morgannwg,” an odd dish that is made of cheese, bread, leeks and eggs, but shaped like a sausage and fried (Wales)*
Irish Rarebit — a variation on Welsh Rarebit, topped with onions, herbs, gherkin pickles and vinegar instead of tomatoes (Ireland)*
Sandwiches — (see Low Tea for more information)
Shepherd’s Pie — a deep pie filled with chopped beef and onions and covered with mashed potatoes (England)
Various Fruits — these varied with the season**
Various Jams, Jellies, Preserves and Marmalades — Strawberry was and still is the most popular.**
Welsh Rarebit — a.k.a. "Welsh Rabbit" or “Caws Pobi,” a dish made of toast topped with a savory sauce made from cheese and various other ingredients (Wales, obviously)*
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.
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 who you ask). This legend is entirely untrue and mildly humorous, considering the facts that Earl Grey never set foot in China and early Earl Grey was made with Indian and Sri Lankan (Ceylon) tea. Earl Grey’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” that tea would 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).
Many of the most popular teas for afternoon tea are black teas but, despite black tea’s reign, you may find jasmine greens, gunpowder green, various oolongs and an assortment of tisanes 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.) Using honey to sweeten tea is also popular in the UK, as the use of honey predates sugar by centuries there and was used to sweeten herbal infusions long before tea came along.
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.
High Tea Today
In recent years, changes in labor laws (such as the requirement of a meal break) have decreased the need for a large meal at the end of the workday, and the ritual and meal known as high tea has waned. High tea is being reduced to a snack or replaced by a larger dinner/supper through most of the U.K. However, some regions still refer to their main evening meal as “tea.” Depending on where you are in England, high tea may be served from 5 to 6 PM or as late as 7:30 PM. It tends to be informal and relatively simple.
Since the 1950s, “high tea” has often been mistaken for afternoon/low tea in America. This is because Americans often used the word “high” to mean “formal” at the time, and assumed the same was true of British tea-drinkers. Sadly, many American hotels and restaurants still offer “elegant high tea” today.
For more information on High Tea’s counterpart, read Low/Afternoon Tea.