Recently, I was asked to address a group of Chinese students on the subject of all things British. In my talk, I covered subjects as diverse as education, the economy, social change and entertainment, but the most interesting set of questions came in the informal Q&A right at the end and related to the custom of drinking ‘afternoon tea’. Apparently, many students had been taught that we all stop for tea and cakes – eaten off our best porcelain – at 4.30 every afternoon. I hope that this little piece, which is based on an article by Devin Smith, goes some way to dispelling that myth
Afternoon Tea, High Tea, Cream Tea and Elevenses: Not only is tea a popular drink of choice whether it be hot or cold, day or night, but the British have designated specific pairings of tea and eats. Although every combination includes a pot of tea, the variations are derived by the accompanying cuisine. The most widely known of these variations is, without a doubt, the Afternoon Tea. Changing the fare turns this tradition into a variety of different meals from different regions of Great Britain such as High Tea, Cream Tea, and Elevenses.
Afternoon Tea: This quintessentially British tradition is a light meal served during the mid-afternoon hours consisting of finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam, and cakes. Dating back to the early nineteenth century, this custom has proved it is here to stay and can be enjoyed not only in Great Britain but also in many parts of the world.
High Tea: Although often confused with Afternoon Tea, High Tea is traditionally completely different than the famous light and sweet mid-afternoon meal. High Tea gets its name from the high tables it was originally served upon to the working class at the conclusion of the long and laborious workday. This meal is more closely related to supper than Afternoon Tea, consisting of heavier, hot, and savory dishes such as meat pies or fish with sides of vegetables and breads.
Cream Tea: Focused only on tea and scones with clotted cream and jam, the Cream Tea is a much simpler yet no less satisfying version of Afternoon Tea. For someone like me who swoons over scones, this is the perfect afternoon pick-me-up for you. Less formal, less expensive, and faster than the three-course traditional fare of Afternoon Tea, it can be enjoyed on a more regular basis and can be found in many cafés and coffee shops throughout Great Britain.
One county, in particular, holds the Cream Tea close to its heart, believing this light meal originated within its borders. The Devonshire Tea or Devon Cream Tea hails from the county of Devon, where they prefer to split their scones into two halves, spread each half with clotted cream, and top each half with strawberry jam.
Elevenses: This late morning snack gets its name from the time it is usually enjoyed, around 11:00 a.m. It typically consists of a cup of tea accompanied by a piece of cake or a few biscuits. Serving as a mid-morning pick-me-up, this is a custom I have adopted into my workday in the form of green tea and a snack!
As you can see, tea has steeped its way into many different occasions, crossing social classes, counties, and countries. Whatever time of day you decide to take your tea and whichever fare you choose to accompany it, you can derive a sense of pride from carrying on a tradition that is sure to persist for centuries to come.BACK TO BLOGS