English Tea Time History
What's High and Low Tea

What is English tea time really like? In reality there are two types: high tea and low tea.



Ever since the late 1700’s, tea time has been an integral part of English life. When people from other countries imagine life in England, they almost always picture the English sitting down at a table set with delicate china, socializing over hot cups of tea and little cakes.

Most little girls in the US grow up having tea parties with stuffed animals, using tiny tea sets and talking in “British” accents. Formal “English tea time” birthday parties are becoming increasing popular, as well.

High Tea Versus Low Tea

Most Americans have a set idea of what English tea time means: formal dresses, delicate finger foods, and hot tea all served on the best china. In reality, there are two types of tea time in England:

  • Low tea or afternoon tea

  • High tea or “meat tea”

Afternoon tea or low tea is what Americans picture when they think of tea time: tea served with light snacks such as crustless sandwiches, crumpets and scones. This custom originated among the upper classes, as they had both the time and the money to have an extra meal between lunch and dinner.

High tea, on the other hand, is a full meal served with tea, including meat, bread, side dishes and dessert.

The custom of high tea originated in working class homes, where it was the main meal of the day. Amusingly, Americans tend to say “high tea” when they are really referring to afternoon tea.

Low or Afternoon Tea

The menu for a proper afternoon tea can consist of a variety of light snacks, such as those mentioned above. The food served can be sweet, savory, or a combination of both.

One of the most popular types of afternoon tea is the Devonshire Cream Tea. The Devonshire cream tea menu is simple but unforgettable: tea, scones, strawberry jam, and rich, luscious clotted cream.

Clotted cream is cream that has been thickened by simmering in a water bath and then refrigerated for several hours. It is almost as thick as butter and sinfully rich. The proper way to consume these delicacies is to spread the cream across the scone instead of butter, and then to spread the strawberry jam on top of the cream.

The Devonshire cream tea tradition is said to predate the introduction of tea itself into Britain by centuries.

The combination of scones, jam and clotted cream was first served in a town called Tavistock in the early 11th century.

Monks in the abbey there served this snack to the laborers who helped them restore the monastery after Vikings looted it in 997 AD. The snack became extremely popular among the local people, and was incorporated into the tradition of hosting afternoon teas in the 18th century.

High or Meat Tea

While afternoon teas can be extremely high in calories, high teas are even more substantial and nourishing.

Working class people did not have time for a leisurely round of snacks and gossip between lunch and dinner. They were working. Tea time for them meant an early supper, served as soon as possible after work.

Dainty snacks simply were not enough. So, the custom evolved of serving a substantial meal in the early evening. High teas can include cold cuts, shepherd’s pie, baked beans on toast, steak and kidney pie, cakes, custards, sweets and pickles.

Tea, of course, is obligatory.

Tradition Alive?

Like many old cultural traditions, such as the Spanish and Italian siesta, English tea time is falling victim to the fast pace of modern life. Even in England, formal teas have become much less common.

Most British people still enjoy a snack and a cup of tea in the late afternoon - it’s just often eaten on the run or in front of a computer screen, instead of at a table with family and friends.

However, no matter how busy they become, people still enjoy tea time as a social occasion whenever their schedules permit them to.

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