Posted in Reference

I had always assumed that afternoon tea referred to a simple snack of a cup of tea and perhaps a couple of chocolate digestives, taken at around four o'clock in the afternoon, to bridge the gap until dinnertime. By contrast high tea was, in my mind's eye, a more lavish event that involved digging out the bone china, making cucumber sandwiches and might even stretch to daintily arranged fondant fancies and slices of battenburg. With the benefit of hindsight I now realize that I was largely erroneous in my suppositions. How could someone born and bred in England be so ignorant of one of their most iconic traditions? Well we haven't had much time to uphold this particular tradition in our increasingly hectic lives. These days it seems to largely be preserved by overseas visitors keen to experience 'authentic' British culture. Ah the irony! So if like me, your experience doesn't extend further than the compulsory cream tea whenever you find yourself on holiday in Devon or Cornwall, read on.

Afternoon tea is largely credited to Anna Maria Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford and would appear to date back to around 1840. For many upper class households dinner wasn't served until around 8 or 9 o'clock in the evening, meaning that hunger pangs were always liable to assert themselves well beforehand. The Duchess is quoted as having complained of “having that sinking feeling” by late afternoon, but being a proactive type she remedied the situation by having light refreshments sent up to her rooms. Perhaps on account of being a sociable sort, she began to invite a few friends along to partake of the snack with her; the idea caught on and the concept of afternoon tea was born. It is also referred to, not as high tea, but low tea because it was served in the comfort of the drawing room with its low tables and comfortable chairs. It soon came to involve dainty sandwiches, cakes and complicated social etiquette and was an event that wealthy ladies held to entertain each other.

Although high tea has the ring of something equally refined and perhaps more so, it was in fact the meal eaten by the working classes when they finally returned home from a hard day's slog absolutely famished. It was what we would think of as a proper dinner; thinly sliced cucumber sandwiches just wouldn't have packed the calorific punch needed. It is likely that it was referred to as high tea because it was served at a standard high table. Interestingly, further North in England and in Scotland the main evening meal is still commonly referred to as tea, while dinner is the meal eaten in the middle of the day. Thus it is the time of day which denotes the name of the meal and not the meal itself.

by Kafevend

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