Ever since the late 1700’s, tea time has been an integral part of English life. When people from other countries imagine life in England, they almost always picture the English sitting down at a table set with delicate china, socializing over hot cups of tea and little cakes.
Even I used to think that High Tea and Afternoon Tea were the same thing: dainty little social events, where one drank tea, ate sweets and little sandwiches. But now I know better. Don’t make the same mistake when you are talking about these English tea ceremonies.
There are two types of tea time in England:
◦Low tea or afternoon tea
◦High tea or “meat tea”
Afternoon tea (low tea) comes to mind when people think of English tea ceremonies. It all began back in the mid 1800s, when the Duchess of Bedford started having a tray of tea with bread and butter served to her in the mid-afternoon. In those days, lunch was served at noon but dinner was not eaten until 8 or even 9 o’clock at night. The Duchess found herself hungry during those long afternoon hours. It became a regular occurance and as she began to invite other high-society ladies to join her, having Afternoon Tea became the ‘in-thing’ for the upper-class women. Along with tea, there would be small pastries with clotted cream or preserves, delicate sandwiches, and scones.
Many people use the term “High Tea” to describe the event I’ve mentioned above, probably because it sounds more elite. But High Tea is a much different thing. It was served later (around six in the evening) and consisted of a full, dinner meal for the common people. Tea was still served, but there would also be meats, fish or eggs, cheese, bread and butter, and cake. It was more of a man’s meal, than a ladies social diversion.
High Tea Versus Low Tea
Afternoon tea or low tea is what Americans picture when they think of tea time: tea served with light snacks such as crustless sandwiches, crumpets and scones. This custom originated among the upper classes, as they had both the time and the money to have an extra meal between lunch and dinner.
High tea, on the other hand, is a full meal served with tea, including meat, bread, side dishes and dessert.
The custom of high tea originated in working class homes, where it was the main meal of the day. Amusingly, Americans tend to say “high tea” when they are really referring to afternoon tea.
High or Meat Tea
While afternoon teas can be extremely high in calories, high teas are even more substantial and nourishing.
Working class people did not have time for a leisurely round of snacks and gossip between lunch and dinner. They were working. Tea time for them meant an early supper, served as soon as possible after work.
Dainty snacks simply were not enough. So, the custom evolved of serving a substantial meal in the early evening. High teas can include cold cuts, shepherd’s pie, baked beans on toast, steak and kidney pie, cakes, custards, sweets and pickles.
Tea, of course, is obligatory.
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