Tea Time

12 September 2009
This information was compiled and published by Ed Vidunas and

Afternoon tea is what comes to mind when people think of English tea ceremonies although it is mistakenly called high, and for god reason. It is mostly a ladies activity that took place in late afternoon. Elegantly dressed women would gather around a table of fancy pastries and fine china; and tea, of course. The women of high society would get together in the late afternoon for tea and it all seemed so regal. However it was known by its other name, low tea.

Although tea had long been common in London it would not be until the mid 1800’s that “tea” would be served. Diner was not taken until 8 or even 9 o'clock at night and this was some time after the mid-day meal. I am sure that so many people had hunger pains and had something in the afternoon. The Duchess of Bedford was no different. She started having a tray of tea with bread and butter served to her in the mid-afternoon. This became a regular occurrence and as she began to invite other high-society ladies to join her having afternoon tea became the 'in-thing' for the upper-class women. Along with tea, there would be small pastries with clotted cream or preserves, delicate sandwiches, and scones. Gossip was central to the conversation, I am sure.

Low tea was referred to by this name as high tea was the other tea time in London and was different. It was served later, around six in the evening, and consisted of a full, dinner meal for the common people. Tea was still served, but there would also be meats, fish or eggs, cheese, bread and butter, and cake. It was more of a man's meal, than a ladies social diversion. Gossip was central to the conversation, I am sure.

High tea and low tea are relative terms but not to a person’s status in society but by the table that was used. Ladies tea was at first served in a home and the girls sat around a low table in a sitting room. The diner table was not used for social meetings. It was used for a main meal that high tea offered. The fact that a high table was used as opposed to a low one identified high or low tea.

There are three basic types of Afternoon, or Low Tea:

Cream Tea - Tea, scones, jam and cream Light Tea - Tea, scones and sweets Full Tea - Tea, savories, scones, sweets and dessert

In England, the traditional time for tea was four or five o'clock and no one stayed after seven o'clock. Most tea rooms today serve tea from three to five o'clock. The menu has also changed from tea, bread, butter and cakes, to include three particular courses served specifically in this order:

Savories - Tiny sandwiches or appetizers  Scones - Served with jam and Devonshire or clotted cream Pastries - Cakes, cookies, shortbread and sweets