Is it Afternoon Tea or High Tea?
“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” - Henry James
When I was invited to write a guest blog post for Lady Baker’s Tea, it coincided with the timing of the Coronation of King Charles III on May 6, 2023. Knowing that, throughout the Commonwealth, there most likely will be celebratory coronation tea events, I thought the timing offered the opportunity to discuss the various types of tea services.
The whole culture of tea service is steeped (pun intended) in history and tradition. Anna Maria Russell, seventh Duchess of Bedford (and a friend of, and a lady-in-waiting to, Queen Victoria) is widely credited with setting the trend of Afternoon Tea circa 1840s. At the time, members of upper society were accustomed to having dinner late into the evening, around 8:00pm – 9:00pm and, so the story goes, the Duchess was finding herself a bit peckish mid-afternoon. To stave off the twinges of hunger, the Duchess began taking tea and light refreshments in her chamber. It became such an enjoyable ritual, she later began inviting friends to join her for tea and the drawing room or gardens became the scene for the social event known as Afternoon Tea. Ladies from the elite high society gathered, in fancy garb, for a genteel afternoon of refreshments, tea, and a visit (no doubt, dare I surmise, with a hefty dose of gossip on the side).
There are several terms used to describe events, experiences, and meals that involve the tea beverage. Sometimes, they can be somewhat confusing and, other times, people are labeling the event one thing but, when one sees what is being served, they are actually talking about an entirely different type of tea experience. The one thing all these tea experiences will have in common is the tea beverage but it is what is served with the tea beverage that will define the event, experience, or meal itself.
Let’s examine five (5) different tea services: 1) Elevenses; 2) Cream Tea; 3) Afternoon Tea; 4) Royal Afternoon Tea (aka Champagne Tea or Celebratory Tea); and 5) High Tea.
This is not an event per se; rather it is more like we, here in Canada, refer to as a tea break. Called “Elevenses” because 11:00am is the hour to typically partake, this would involve a cup of tea and perhaps a light refreshment such as a muffin or scone.
Cream Tea (sometimes called Devonshire or Cornish Cream Tea)
A Cream Tea is nothing more than freshly made warm scones, clotted cream/Devonshire Cream (from which this tea service draws its name), jam and, naturally, a pot of tea. No sandwiches or sweets are a part of a Cream Tea. While there is no prescribed hour at which this tea service is typically taken, it is commonly enjoyed in an afternoon. It is not a meal but rather most closely resembles a substantial snack.
Originally, Afternoon Teas consisted of light refreshments served on low tables like coffee tables, for example. The idea of an Afternoon Tea was, as the Duchess of Bedford enjoyed, to have some refreshments, mid-afternoon, to counter the sluggishness often experienced in the afternoon and to stave off the hunger until dinner was served later in the evening. Partakers would often be seated in low comfy armchairs as opposed to formal high-backed dining chairs and they would use the low coffee tables upon which to set their cup and saucer and refreshments. Hence, an Afternoon Tea was also known as a “Low Tea”, referencing the lower, comfy chairs and low tables. In fact, some high-end hotels serve Afternoon Tea in the surroundings of their lobbies and, indeed, comfortable armchairs and sofas are still used along with low coffee tables. Today, however, the traditional Afternoon Tea is most often served at regular height tables with typical dining chairs.
Afternoon Tea, a British food tradition, is typically a three-course event – a sandwich course, scones course, and patisserie course – and can be quite an elaborate affair whether prepared by a hostess at home or enjoyed at a chic hotel or tea salon. What characterizes a traditional Afternoon Tea are crustless finger or petite triangular shaped sandwiches, fresh, warm scones with jam, fruit curd, and clotted cream, an assortment of pastries/sweets and, of course, the tea beverage. Open-faced sandwiches and even very small finger rolls or mini croissants stuffed with delectable fillings may also be part of the offerings. Today, it is not uncommon to see some savory offerings such as mini quiches or canapés served alongside the sandwich course which, in this case, would be referred to as the Sandwich and Savory Course. It goes without saying that all food is small, dainty, and precise, usually two to three bites per item.
The finger food will typically be presented on a three-tier server (shown above) or curate stand (a tiered wrought iron server with spaces for the plates of each course to be set (shown below)) though, sometimes, each course will be served separately on multiple service trays. The traditional tall servers/stands lend an air of elegance and sophistication to any tea table. Additionally, they are an efficient way to serve the food and have it easily accessible to tea guests. All the food items can be brought to the table at once on one unit, taking up less space as tea tables tend to be small and compact.
Sandwiches/savoury items are presented on the bottom tier, scones on the middle tier, followed by the tempting sweet treats on the top tier. Food is consumed from the bottom tier upwards, starting with the sandwiches and savory bites, followed by the scones, and ending with the pastries/sweets. From an aesthetic point of view, consuming the tea fare from the bottom tier upwards provides a visual of a bountiful, clean and tidy server as guests enjoy the courses of the Afternoon Tea experience, until the items in the last course (the pastries) are consumed and the server is then removed from the table.
If the event is formal, a formal tea set or pieces from formal china will be used. Matching pieces do lend an air of formality and cohesiveness to the tea setting. If the event is somewhat less formal, coordinating pieces of china may be used so long as they coordinate well in style and color. Small tea-sized plates are used for tea events. Small portions of food characteristic of tea fare simply look better on small plates as the food does not appear so minuscule and “lost” as it would on a large dinner plate, for example.
China teacups and either china or silver teapots will be on the table for a formal Afternoon Tea. Sometimes one blend of tea will be served for the entire three courses but, if partaking of an Afternoon Tea at a high-end hotel or tea salon in London, for example, it is most likely they will have a tea sommelier on staff and servers will offer suggestions for tea pairings chosen to complement the unique flavors of the assortment of foods for each particular course.
While Afternoon Tea is traditionally served between three and four o’clock, there is no longer a hard and fast rule on the time. In London, for example, where Afternoon Tea is very popular at all sorts of venues that range from small tearooms to tea salons to high-end hotels, it is not uncommon to be able to partake in a formal Afternoon Tea from around the noon hour and even up to the early evening hours. The lengthy duration of hours from which to choose to enjoy Afternoon Tea is due to the popularity of the custom of Afternoon Tea and the need to accommodate as many guests as possible. Bookings are often required weeks in advance at the more popular and prestigious venues.
The length of time to allow for an Afternoon Tea sitting varies and will usually be indicated when booking. I have enjoyed Afternoon Teas that have lasted anywhere from 1½ hours to 3 hours. The Afternoon Tea experience is intended to be relaxing and unhurried and a time to savour fine food and visit and converse with family or friends. The same holds true if hosting an Afternoon Tea at home.
A formal three-course Afternoon Tea is not typically a daily ritual for most. It tends to be reserved as an indulgent treat for special occasions, especially given it is not usually an inexpensive experience. An Afternoon Tea, whether enjoyed at a tea salon, a glitzy hotel, or at home, is ideal for celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, bridal and baby showers, and other special celebrations. And, of course, an Afternoon Tea may be enjoyed at any time, with no special occasion involved.
Royal Afternoon Tea
A Royal Afternoon Tea will have all the components of a standard formal Afternoon Tea but will also include a glass of champagne.
Sometimes, though not always, a signature dessert will be served in addition to the sweets offered in the pastry course. Including a special dessert makes the event a bit more extravagant.
Some people refer to the traditional Afternoon Tea of dainty (and always crustless) sandwiches, rich, puffy scones, and an array of luxurious pastries and sweets as “High Tea”, which it is not. I’m not sure why this happens – perhaps it is because the food is often served on a tall (hence “high”) three-tier server, or curate stand, along with fancy china cups and saucers on the table or it may be because the mere mention of Afternoon Tea fare evokes the notion that it is a “high” class society event. Nonetheless, there is a distinction between an “Afternoon Tea” and a “High Tea”.
High Tea is actually a full hearty and substantive meal and equates to what we, here in Canada, would refer to as supper featuring hot menu items which are most frequently served at a regular height kitchen table. That is, at a ‘high’ table versus a ‘low’ coffee table. Hence, the name “High Tea”. Foods denoting a High Tea might include chicken or meat pot pies (seen in the photo below), egg dishes like quiches, or items like casseroles, baked beans, stews, and/or dishes that include meat and potatoes or fish. Bread or, here in Canada, biscuits (the less rich version of a scone) might also be served. Dainty, crustless sandwiches and scones would not be part of the menu for a typical High Tea. Of course, there would indeed be the tea beverage at High Tea though not likely served in china teacups!
High Tea was considered a working-class meal enjoyed between five and seven o’clock and served at a kitchen table after returning home from a day’s labour. For those who watch the British soap opera, Coronation Street, the characters can sometimes be heard inviting others “round for tea” – it’s “High Tea”, or supper, they are referring to in this context.
I have seen some hotels advertising “High Tea” but, when I look at their menu, they’re actually offering the components of a traditional Afternoon Tea. While I am not sure why they are calling it High Tea, I surmise it is either a case of them not knowing the difference between a proper Afternoon Tea and High Tea or they are marketing the experience to tourists who, the hotel thinks don’t know any different, to give the impression that the event is more ‘posh’ than simply calling it what it is - an Afternoon Tea. There is nothing fancy, posh, elaborate, or overly refined about a typical High Tea, or supper.
There are many facets to the proper Afternoon Tea experience including the rituals and etiquette expected as well as the tea accoutrements, tea pairings, and the traditional foods normally found on a tea table, far too many elements for me to cover in this post. Knowing the difference between the various types of tea services -- particularly a proper Afternoon Tea and a High Tea -- is but the first step in learning about, and enjoying, the refined charms of Afternoon Tea whether that be hosting an Afternoon Tea at home or experiencing a special tea service at a tea venue while traveling.
We have the seventh Duchess of Bedford to thank for creating an enduring British tradition of pairing the tea beverage with light refreshments, resulting in the custom of a proper English Afternoon Tea. As someone who adores everything about the classic and elegant Afternoon Tea, I raise a china teacup of my favorite tea to the Duchess of Bedford!
Barbara Mayhew is a PEI food blogger who has a passion for everything Afternoon Tea related. Visit her website at https://myislandbistrokitchen.com/ and Facebook page “My Island Bistro Kitchen”. You can also find her on Instagram @peibistro where you can view her gallery of mouth-watering food photos, gardening exploits, afternoon tea events, and collection of china teacups.