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High Tea vs. Afternoon Tea

High Tea vs. Low Tea & Afternoon Tea vs. Meat Tea

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An image of afternoon tea sweets in London

This dessert case at The Athenaeum in London features a variety of afternoon tea treats, including cheesecake, chocolate cake, brownies, tartlets, meringues, custard, panna cotta, pastries and other sweets.

Lindsey Goodwin
Outside of the United Kingdom, many people refer to afternoon tea as 'high tea.' Although the idea that high tea is a meal of foods like scones and finger sandwiches is common, it is not actually correct in a traditional or historical sense.

Afternoon Tea Basics

Afternoon tea, also known as 'low tea,' is what most people think of when they hear 'high tea.' It involves things like manners, lace and dainty foods. It is typically served in the mid-afternoon and it was traditionally served on low tables, hence its two names. (For more information on the foods served, see these afternoon tea recipes.)

Historically, afternoon tea was considered to be a ladies' social occasion, and it is more often enjoyed by women than men to this day.

High Tea Basics

Traditionally, high tea was a working class meal served on a high table at the end of the workday, shortly after five PM. It was a heavy meal of meat dishes (such as steak and kidney pie), fish dishes (such as pickled salmon), baked goods (such as crumpets or, in Ireland, barm brack), vegetables (such as potatoes or onion cakes), and other heavy foods (such as baked beans and cheesy casseroles).

High tea was much more of a working class family meal than it was an elite social gathering.

A Brief History of Afternoon Tea

Legend has it that afternoon tea was started in the mid-1800s by the Duchess of Bedford. Around this time, kerosene lamps were introduced in wealthier homes, and eating a late dinner (around eight or nine PM) became fashionable. At the time, there were only two meals each day -- a mid-morning, breakfast-like meal and the other was an increasingly late dinner-like meal.

The story goes that the Duchess found herself with a "sinking feeling" (likely fatigue from hunger during the long wait between meals) and decided to have some friends over for assorted snacks and tea (a very fashionable drink at the time). The idea of an afternoon tea gathering spread across high society and became a favorite pastime of ladies of leisure. Later, it spread beyond the highest echelons of society and became more accessible for some other socioeconomic groups.

Today, tea is a major component of many British meals, including breakfast, 'elevenses,' afternoon tea and 'tea' (which is more like traditional high tea than afternoon tea).

Types of Afternoon Tea

Although many Americans think of afternoon tea as having a set menu, there are many variations on this tea-centric meal.

The simplest form of afternoon tea is cream tea -- a meal of tea, scones and cream.

Add fresh strawberries to cream tea and you have strawberry tea. Alternately, if you add more sweets to cream tea, you get light tea.

Add savory foods, like finger sandwiches to light tea and you get full tea, which is the elaborate meal most Americans think of when they hear the phrase 'afternoon tea.'

Some hotels and tea rooms also offer other variations on afternoon tea, such as champagne tea (afternoon tea served with a glass of champagne) and teddy bear tea (a children's afternoon tea party featuring dolls and teddy bears). In Bath, England, Sally Lunns are a popular addition to afternoon tea.

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