High Tea – these two words evoke images of luxurious morsels served in elegant surroundings to the privileged. But when we look back at the history of Afternoon Tea, quite the opposite emerges.
Afternoon Tea is reputed to have been started in England by one of Queen Victoria’s ladies in waiting – Duchess Anna of Bedford in the early 1800’s. As dinner was served fashionably late in this period, at around 8 or 9pm, it is reported that the Duchess began feeling decidedly famished around late afternoon and ordered her servants to sneak in tea and nibbles. Soon she began inviting her friends around to share the meal and afternoon tea became increasingly in vogue. It was served in the drawing rooms or sitting rooms of the upper classes on low tables and thus became known as ‘Low Tea’. Whereby, the working classes would come in from a hard day’s toil and sit at a ‘high’ table to a meal of meat, bread, butter, pickles, cheese and of course tea.
Originally afternoon tea comprised of just tea, bread, butter and cakes but eventually evolved into a selection of savories, scones and pastries. Sandwiches were quite a recent invention of the time attributed to Lord Sandwich and therefore greatly favored. Cucumber and fish paste sandwiches, with the crusts cut off, were the order of the day followed by scones with jam and clotted cream. Next came cakes, cookies, shortbread and sweets. But the one item that was never served in an English afternoon tea, which appears in the US version, are the French petit fours.
The tea itself began being traded in the East by the Portuguese in the mid 1500’s but they were thrown out by the Dutch who started importing tea into Europe in 1610. By 1662 the English King Charles II married a Portuguese lady and brought the tea drinking habit into England. Tea is always served with milk even though the meal is sometimes referred to as ‘Cream Tea’; this pertains to the clotted cream for the scones. Something like traditional English clotted cream can easily be made by heating 1¼ cups (10oz) of heavy cream in a large baking dish for 45 mins at 250f. Poured through a fine sieve and chilled for a couple of hours.
Nowadays Afternoon Tea in all its glory is served in swanky hotels and are mainly reserved for those special occasion meals. Places like the St Regis in New York serve afternoon tea at $48 a go. While London’s Ritz Hotel charges $73 with a minimum of 6 weeks waiting list for bookings. Perhaps the mistaken name of ‘High Tea’ just refers to those high prices.
Photos courtesy of The Ritz London, Flickr - mizzledrizzle, radiowood 2000 and ericspy