High tea and Afternoon tea in English tea culture

High tea and Afternoon tea in English tea culture

Often confused for the other, high tea and afternoon tea are quite different from each other. Both have their roots in Britain but while one was a meal of the working classes, the other was a fancier and aristocratic one.

What is High Tea?

High tea’ traces its historical roots to the practices of working class families in the UK, who would gather together in the evening to enjoy tea served with a heavy meal that was inclusive of meat dishes, vegetables and baked food.

It is completely different from Afternoon Tea, with many confusing the two, but High Tea came long after Afternoon Tea – or Low Tea – was conceived by the aristocracy.

The History of Afternoon Tea

Historically, a good tea session was a periodic interlude throughout the day. Tea as a beverage was very fashionable in Britain by the late 17th century, but it did not in any way refer to an entire meal until 1840. Legend has it that Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, used to get a ‘sinking feeling’ in her stomach due to hunger in the gap between meals. One day, she ordered her help to bring some tea and sandwiches to her bedroom late in the afternoon.

Since she was a part of the aristocratic circle, she soon invited her friends over for a snack as well, served in the bedroom itself. It became something very fashionable, soon finding its way to drawing and dining rooms around the United Kingdom. Such was its popularity, that even the Queen herself started enjoying a meal at teatime! Her Highness’ Afternoon Tea included a Victoria sponge – a pound cake sliced in half and filled with jam, cream or both, named in her honour.

The History of High Tea

Before the 19th century, most British families used to have only two meals a day, a heavy breakfast followed by supper in the evening. Afternoon Tea came as a welcome bridge between meals, lunch and supper. However Afternoon Tea soon evolved into something beyond tea with some ‘snacks’. It became an event of sorts, an occasion! By the 19th century, it was a widely popular meal and the working class completely redefined the concept of Afternoon Tea.

Workers who used to travel long distances to work got into the habit of eating a small meal at about six in the evening. It was a feast of fresh and simple homemade food, that included a lot of food like cold meat, pies, tarts, salads and sandwiches, leading to it being called ‘meat tea’ as well.

The higher class soon caught on, and would include foods like scones, cupcakes, salmon, ham and roast beef to their afternoon tea session, making it a mini meal of sorts. This was soon christened as ‘High Tea’ because everything was served on a high dining table.

While High Tea evolved from Afternoon Tea, the latter is still a meal of sorts among those who don’t fancy a heavy meal late in the day. It was referred to as ‘low tea’, as it was served on low tables in the drawing or sitting room, rather than the dining table. 

So now you know! Afternoon Tea started off as something for the elite, evolved into High Tea because of the working class, and has now ended up as something rather universal- right from the Queen to her subjects! 

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