tea cups and pot

A history of British afternoon tea vs high tea

I’m lucky enough to be able to travel through Europe and sometimes out of Europe a few times a year. One of the best things about travelling for sure is trying out new and different foods. Even a country not that far away can have surprisingly different habits and tastes when it comes to food. Great Britain is already a nice example of that which is why I decided to dedicate several posts to British food, of course, not forgetting to discuss science as well! Since I’ve had a delicious afternoon/high tea when in England, I decided that part of this series again should focus on discussing just this topic: ‘afternoon tea’.

Your first question might already be, afternoon tea? What about a high tea? What’s the difference? So that’s exactly what we’ll be diving into today, before sharing a review of my afternoon tea with you and finally, of course, an analysis of the science of a British afternoon tea!

Afternoon vs high tea

Since we had had a big breakfast that morning, we decided to skip lunch. However, around 3 or 4 o’clock and quite a long walk, we started getting hungry, but not hungry enough for dinner. So, we thought of going for a ‘high tea’! High tea in the Netherlands refers to a long relaxing event where you drink tea and eat  a lot of small savoury and sweet snacks. However, we quickly realized, that the British do not call what we thought to be high tea a ‘high tea’. Instead, it’s an afternoon tea.

We arrived at that conclusion pretty quickly, so decided to go for the afternoon tea of course.

Back home, I wanted to know what the difference between the two actually is. Some further research learned me that a high tea and an afternoon tea are actually two pretty different occasions!

Afternoon tea for the wealthy

Back in the 19th century, the eating patterns and schedules were pretty different than nowadays. The wealthy would have a meal late in the morning and one late in the evening, around 8 pm. The time between the two meals is pretty long and over time a tradition occured to drink tea with some little snacks around 4 in the afternoon.

This is what is called the afternoon tea in the UK and in most other countries high tea. With the tea a lot of snacks would be served. Since there would often be visitors to join for tea, these probably had to impress visitors. There would be sweet snacks such as cakes and savoury sandwiches and breads.

Tea at the time was still considered pretty expensive. It had only been introduced to the UK in the 17th century and of course had to be gotten from far away, India for example. Tea played a large role in British society.

High tea for the poor

An afternoon tea used to be a meal for the wealthy, an afternoon tea would also be called a low tea. A high tea on the other hand wasn’t a luxury, it would be a meal for the ‘common’ people, around dinner time, often well before 8 pm. The common people were hungry at the end of the day and needed a good meal to regain their strengths.

Instead of little light snacks, a high would consists of more filling foods such as meats, pies and breads.

an afternoon tea at the Bel and the Dragon
An afternoon tea (@The Bel and The Dragon)

What’s in an afternoon tea?

Now that we know the difference between the two, we decided to try out an afternoon tea at the Bel and the Dragon. It was a great afternoon tea, so we’ll use it as an example for any afternoon tea you can get in the UK.

An afternoon tea will typically contain some sandwiches, cakes as well as a scone with jam and clotted cream of course. It’s the combination of sweet and savoury that makes it special and delicious. All these sweet and savoury snacks are typically served in small portions, so you can eat sweet and savoury interchangeably and mix everything up all the time!

Savoury sandwiches

The afternoon tea at the Bel & The Dragon contained three different types of sandwiches, all three of them pretty typical for an afternoon tea: egg, salmon and cucumber salad. These sandwiches aren’t served with any crust which makes them very delicate, but it also shows that the bread typically isn’t the highlight of these sandwiches, no great crunchy crusts, it’s all about the toppings on the sandwiches.

Scones

No afternoon tea without a good scone with clotted cream and jam. A good scone is crumbly and pretty bland in flavour which is why you need a sweet jam with a rich (but plain) clotted cream. The Bel & the Dragon served a nice balance of the three actually.

Cakes

The sweet element, the cakes can vary quite a bit. At the Bel and the Dragon you’ll get a delicious gooey chocolate brownie (is that very British?) with a great lemon cake (sounds more British!). Last but not least, they served a carrot cake with some nuts and a little hint of orange. By eating the sweets in between the savoury, it never becomes either too sweet or too boring flavourwise.

The biggest disadvantage: The Tea

The Brits drink their tea dark, very dark, and thus pretty bitter. Despite all the sweet snacks in the afternoon tea, the tea still is very bitter. If you’re used to drinking your tea black, without any sugar or milk and not too strong, this can be quite intense. We Dutch tend to drink our tea a pretty moderate darkness and strength, so the British tea might be the only disadvantage of such an afternoon.

Wondering why it’s so bitter though? We’ve looked into the bitterness of tea in a separate post.

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