High Tea vs. Low Tea

by admin on October 12, 2011

High tea and low tea are often confused so if you are planning on hosting a tea party modeled after either, it would be helpful to know the differences between the two. The themes for tea parties are endless but traditionally, there have been various tea meals at set times in the day with a typical spread of dishes or desserts. Tea parties have roots in some of the following traditions:

Elevenses is a tea served in the morning (usually around 11:00, hence the name elevenses) with a small snack of biscuits or cake.  It is similar to the American mid-morning coffee break.

Afternoon tea, or low tea, is the fashionable English ceremony traditionally served around 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon but today it is enjoyed as early as 3:00. This tea ceremony is the inspiration for many tea parties and is the one that most people tend to associate with taking tea. Afternoon tea is more of an indulgent snack than a meal and today’s menu can include tea sandwiches, scones, pastries, fruit cakes, cookies, and sometimes a decadent layer cake. Usually these are served in three courses: first the savories (tea sandwiches and appetizers), then the scones (also served with crumpets and fruit breads), and finally the sweets (cookies, cakes, pastries).

We have Anna Maria (1783-1857), the seventh Duchess of Bedford and a lady-in-waiting in QueenVictoria’s court, to thank for the tradition of afternoon tea. In her time, the English upper class ate a large breakfast and a small lunch followed only by a late dinner, normally served between 7:00 and 8:30. One afternoon, a famished Anna Maria ordered her servants to serve tea and cakes in her boudoir. Soon she began inviting friends to her private chambers to partake in this secret ritual but eventually word of the delightful ceremony spread. It quickly became fashionable among the wealthy to host afternoon teas. The elegant fare was traditionally served in the drawing room on a low side table beside the armchairs, hence the name “low tea.” Afternoon tea is a rather general term and can be celebrated in a number of ways.  Following are three basic afternoon teas:

  1. Cream tea, also referred to as Devonshire tea or Cornish cream tea, is an afternoon tea that includes a simple spread of scones with jam and clotted cream.
  2. Light tea is served with scones and sweets.
  3. Full tea includes the complete three course afternoon tea menu of savories, scones, and sweets.

High tea, or meat tea, is often confused with the elegant afternoon tea ceremony (also called “low tea”) because “high tea” seems to imply a more regal affair. But high tea is actually a supper that has its roots in the Industrial Revolution when the working-class dined after a day in the fields or the factories.  The meal was served at the high dining room table rather than the low tea table in the drawing room specifically for use during afternoon tea. High tea is a sit-down meal very similar to a supper and is generally served at or after 6:00 in the evening.  It includes savory dishes with breads, meats, and cheeses. Homemade cakes or pies are also typically served.

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