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The English tradition of high tea dates back to the days of the industrial revolution. Working families would return home exhausted and lay a quick meal of cold meat, bread, potatoes, cheese, and (of course) tea. The meal was called “high tea” because it was served on the dinner table (the high table) as opposed to the tea table (the low table).
High tea in America sometimes refers to an elegant afternoon snack, but the use of the term “high tea” for this type of meal is incorrect. The confusion rests in the belief that high tea is “high class” tea, or “high society” tea, whereas in England high tea is a working class meal.
What (some) Americans think of as high tea is called afternoon tea or low tea in England. Afternoon tea is an elegant affair that originated in 1840. The Duchess of Bedford began taking a light meal at around 4 pm to tide her over during the long hours between the noonday meal and supper. The idea was a popular one with society ladies, and continues up to the present day.
High tea, in contrast to afternoon tea, is an informal affair. Many English families serve high tea at around 5 or 6 pm. The meal consists of sandwiches, pastries, and fruit. Tea is usually served but some may prefer to drink beer or cider.
Working class high tea is a substantial meal. When served to farm workers it consists of a variety of meat and fish dishes as well as Cornish pasties, Welsh rabbit, and Scotch woodcock. Breads and cakes are also served, and it is all washed down with steaming pots of hot tea.
High tea is sometimes referred to as simply “tea.” This is a meal that is served around 6 pm and does not necessarily have to include tea as a beverage. The term “tea” when used as a meal has passed to many parts of Australia and New Zealand, where the three daily meals are breakfast, lunch, and tea.
The tea used for high tea is quite common – often made from tea bags. It is served with milk and sugar and prepared in an earthenware tea pot such as a Brown Betty tea pot.
Although the British have a long tradition of tea drinking, tea bags have become the norm for many people in Great Britain (as well as in other western countries). Tea bags, however, are usually a poor substitute for the fine quality tea that can be had from loose leaf tea. For those interested in a “high class” high tea, loose tea should be a prerequisite. Loose tea leaves make a more flavorful tea because the leaves have the room to fully expand and release their flavor to the hot water.
Video - Arranging the Tea Table