Lorre White celebrates London Holiday Teas

Observance of the custom originated amongst the wealthy classes in England in the 1840.

Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, is widely credited as transforming afternoon tea (or low tea) in England into a late-afternoon meal whilst visiting Belvoir Castle, though Charles II of England’s wife Catherine of Braganza is often credited with introducing tea to the court upon her arrival in 1662.

By the end of the nineteenth century, afternoon tea or low tea had developed into its current form and was observed by both the upper and middle classes: “the table was laid…there were the best things with a fat pink rose on the side of each cup; hearts of lettuce, thin bread and butter, and the crisp little cakes that had been baked in readiness that morning.”

Traditionally, loose tea is brewed in a teapot and served with milk and sugar. The sugar and caffeine of the concoction provided fortification against afternoon doldrums for the working poor of 19th and early 20th century England who had a significantly lower calorie count and more physically demanding occupation than most Westerners today.

For laborers, the tea was sometimes accompanied by a small sandwich or baked snack (such as scones) that had been packed for them in the morning.

For the more privileged, afternoon tea was accompanied by luxury ingredient sandwiches (customarily cucumber, egg and cress, fish paste, ham, and smoked salmon), scones (with clotted cream and jam, see cream tea) and usually cakes and pastries (such as Battenberg cake, fruit cake or Victoria sponge).

In hotels and tea shops the food is often served on a tiered stand; there may be no sandwiches, but bread or scones with butter or margarine and optional jam or other spread, or toast, muffins or crumpets.

For much of the twentieth century methods of preparing and serving afternoon tea were the subject of much snobbery: in a letter to Nancy Mitford (a social commentator and great satirist of upper class behavior), the author Evelyn Waugh mentions a mutual friend who uses the expression ‘rather milk in first’ to express condemnation of those lower down the social scale, reflecting a traditional snobbery whereby the Georgian and Victorian elite often derided their middle-class governesses for the practice, dubbing them “milk-in-first misses.” 

In the British film Gosford Park the tension is depicted as continuing to exist; Lady Sylvia McCordle sneers at the police Inspector Thomson for putting the “milk in first” and in the film he quickly realizes how the act demonstrates his social “inferiority” and becomes embarrassed. Nowadays the ‘milk in first or tea in first’ debate is altogether more light-hearted, but nonetheless everyone has his or her preferred method of making tea.

Isabella Beeton, whose books on home economics were widely read in the 19th century, describes afternoon teas of various kinds: the old-fashioned tea, the at-home tea, the family tea and the high tea and provides menus.

Nowadays, a formal afternoon tea is often taken as a treat in a hotel or tea shop. Most high quality hotels in Britain serve afternoon tea, sometimes in a palm court, and more recently have offered the option of champagne instead of tea.

In everyday life, many Britons take a much simpler refreshment consisting of tea (and occasionally biscuits) as one of many short tea breaks throughout the day.

Afternoon tea or Low Tea is a small meal snack typically eaten between 3pm and 5pm.

“Tis the season to celebrate and be jolly; why not try to host your very own ‘High Tea’ this Holiday Season!

High tea

High tea (also known as meat tea) is the evening meal or dinner of the working class, typically eaten between 5pm and 7pm.

High tea typically consists of a hot dish such as fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, or macaroni cheese, followed by cakes and bread, butter and jam. Occasionally there would be cold cuts of meat, such as ham salad. Traditionally high tea was eaten by middle to upper class children (whose parents would have a more formal dinner later) or by labourers, miners and the like when they came home from work. The term was first used around 1825 and high is used in the sense of well-advanced (like high noon, for example) to signify that it was taken later in the day.

The term “high tea” was used as a way to distinguish it from afternoon tea. Though it is often stated that the words “low” and “high” refer to the height of the tables from which either meal was eaten, the term for the later meal actually relates to the usage of “high” as in the phrase “it’s high time”.  Afternoon tea was served in the garden where possible; otherwise it was usually taken in a day room, library or salon where low tables (like a coffee table) were placed near sofas or chairs generally (hence the fallacy about it being low tea).

Other uses

In many parts of the British Isles, tea is used to mean the main evening meal.

Tea drinking in Britain is a quotidian thing, taken lightly and often. But afternoon tea is more of an occasion, a treat for someone special or a place to take visitors from abroad looking for their Englishness fix. The Ritz, The Savoy, The Dorchester are perhaps the best known, but many will quite rightly baulk at the eyewatering prices charged for what is essentially hot water, tea leaves and cake.

If you are visiting the fair city of origin, here are a few other Zagat alternatives that are lighter on tourists and easier on the wallet:

The Wolseley: Next to the Ritz on the Strand, The Wolseley might not have its neighbour’s history and upper crust pedigree, but it is nevertheless an elegant hotel in one of the capital’s most desirable locations, and a full Afternoon Tea of sandwiches, cakes, pastries, scones with cream and tea is a reasonable £22.50 (Monday-Friday 3 PM-6:30 PM; Saturday 3:30 PM-5:30 PM; Sunday 3:30 PM-6:30 PM).

Capital Hotel: Kensington’s Capital Hotel is a short walk from Hyde Park and Harrods, and its afternoon tea offering at £25 is sufficiently superior to have been awarded the Tea Guild’s Award of Excellence 2012 (daily 2:30 PM-5:30 PM).

The Orangery at Kensington Palace: In the heart of Kensington west of Hyde Park, the Orangery restaurant also serves an afternoon tea that includes orange-scented scones for £19.95 (daily 2 PM-5 PM).

Georgian Tea Rooms at Harrods: This Knightsbridge institution also boasts a tea room buried among the store’s Egyptian kitsch, offering a full range of the delights from the store’s patisserie, for £29 (Monday-Saturday noon-6 PM, Sun until 5 PM).

The Great Court Restaurant at the British Museum: Lunch under the magnificent glass dome of the British Museum’s Great Court, or just take tea, with prices starting at £22.50 (daily 3 PM-5.30 PM).

By Michael Parker

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