Legend has it that traditional English afternoon tea, often referred to as high tea, was started in the mid-1800s by the Duchess of Bedford. Around this time, kerosene lamps were introduced in wealthier homes, and eating a late dinner, around 8:00 or 9:00 p.m., became fashionable. The story goes that this increasingly late mealtime caused the Duchess to have a “sinking feeling.” This was likely fatigue from hunger during the long wait between meals. She decided to invite friends over for assorted snacks and tea, and the idea of an afternoon tea gathering spread across high society. Not only has traditional afternoon tea continued to be a staple throughout England, but it has begun to infiltrate the United States as well, possibly due to the popularity of such television programs as Downton Abbey and Bridgerton.
"Americans have always loved British traditions; in fact no matter what nation a tradition comes from it is always interesting for an outsider,” said Lisa Worthington, Head of Marketing for Spicers, a subsidiary of Harris Tea. “Plus, [high tea] is something different from the regular coffee routine.”
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So, what exactly makes for a proper afternoon or high tea?
“It’s something savory, followed by something sweet and always accompanied by tea,” Worthington said. “It also has to always be served in a teapot with a saucer and teacup, never a mug.”
Traditionally, some of the most popular varieties of tea to be served during afternoon tea include black teas like Earl Grey, Darjeeling, and Assam as well as herbal teas like chamomile and mint. It is recommended to use loose leaf tea rather than tea bags.
And of course, the food is just as important as the tea. Traditional pairings for afternoon tea include small sandwiches, scones with Devonshire or clotted cream, and other small desserts.
Proper Etiquette for English High Tea
All teas should be served decanted and hot. A selection of teas should include a minimum of one black tea, one green tea, and one herbal infusion. Enhancers for the table should include sliced lemon, sugar cubes, honey, milk, Devonshire or clotted cream, and preserves. Optional: Assorted nuts (raw or salted), and/or lemon curd.
The host/hostess or wait staff pours the first cup of tea for the guest. Prior to pouring, always ask the guest if they prefer milk and/or sugar—one lump or two.
As for the accompanying foods, the proper placement of items on a tiered stand include:
- Top Tier: scones, seasonal breads, and cheese sticks
- Middle Tier: sandwiches and savories
- Bottom Tier: sweets
- Trifles and puddings are served individually as a separate course, if desired.
The proper order for consuming food, accompanied by tea of course, is:
- First Course: sandwiches and savories
- Second Course: scones, seasonal bread, and cheese sticks
- Third Course: sweets
- Separate Fourth Course: trifle, pudding, and seasonal berries
A few dos and don’ts when hosting a proper English tea:
- Don’t ever serve tea in a mug
- Do present your table beautifully
- Don’t serve large portions
- Do use small utensils
In recent years however, more restaurants and hotels are opting for a non-traditional approach to afternoon tea: rather than small sandwiches they are embracing open-faced bagels, soups, and in some cases even mini pizzas; and, in addition to a cup of hot tea, cocktails and bubbles such as cava are also being added.
he Apnes Tea Punch cocktail includes bourbon, brandy, pear puree, butterscotch cordial and black tea. Photo courtesy Cochon
Worthington said she has begun seeing a divergence from traditional tea varieties in favor of unique pairings, such as incorporating an Indian tea, such as a chai, with mini samosas, honey cakes, and other Indian-influenced bites. Another idea: embrace the growing vegan trend by pairing herbal teas with bruschetta or vegan cakes.
“You can be as creative as you want to be,” she said. “The basic elements are tea, something savory and something sweet, but so many people have taken that tradition and put their own spin on it.”
Traditional high tea has been a staple in England for many years, but now it is starting to become popular in the United States as well. Photo courtesy Harris Tea
Making an event out of it
When executing a proper high tea, there’s an element of romanticism and elegance that can’t be denied. In fact, hotels, event planners and caterers are capitalizing on this draw by hosting specialized tea parties for Mother's Day (which is Sunday!), birthdays, bridal or baby showers, anniversary celebrations, and in Jaime Peterson’s case, Bat Mitzvahs.
“There’s this element of fancy that is so fun, and so elegant,” said Peterson, who is the Sales Team Manager for Saz’s Catering in Milwaukee, Wisc. “We all got used to the big parties, the standard décor, but now you can have this intimate party and have it be really, really beautiful and simple.”
Peterson recently put together a high tea menu for a client’s Bat Mitzvah. The menu included individual tea pots for each guest with their choice of tea, an assortment of tea sandwiches (deviled egg, smoked salmon, and cucumber & cream cheese), grilled salmon over a Caesar salad, tomato soup, fruit kebabs, and bite-sized desserts (mini cannoli, macarons, mini cupcakes and mini scones).
Saz Catering hosted a high tea for a Bat Mitzvah that included an assortment of tea sandwiches (devilled egg, smoked salmon, and cucumber & cream cheese). Photo courtesy Jaime Peterson
Both Worthington and Peterson agree that high tea has the potential to be the next big event trend going forward because it’s a perfect option for the small gatherings of the moment.
“People are desperate to spend time together,” Worthington said. “and afternoon tea provides the perfect opportunity to that.
“There’s something really special about afternoon tea because it’s quite an unusual thing to do.”
1 cup strongly-brewed Earl Grey tea, brewed with ½ tsp dried lavender
½ cup steamed milk
1 T granulated sugar or other sweetener
¼ tsp. vanilla extract
- Brew Earl Grey tea and lavender together, and steep for 3 minutes
- Remove tea bag and strain out the lavender.
- Stir in remaining ingredients until combined.
- Serve warm.
½ tsp Chamomile loose tea leaves
4 oz boiled water
2 oz gin
½ oz honey
1 oz fresh pink grapefruit juice
- Infuse loose Chamomile tea leaves in 4 oz of boiled water for 5 minutes.
- Strain loose tea leaves, refrigerate to cool.
- Combine 1 oz cooled chamomile with all other ingredients.
- Shake over ice, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Bridgerton Lavender & Rose Tea
Ingredients for Lavender Simple Syrup
½ cup water
½ cup white sugar
1 teaspoon fresh lavender
- Boil water, sugar, and lavender in a pot. Boil for about 8-10 minutes, until the water has reduced.
- Remove from heat and let cool until thickened, about 15 minutes.
Ingredients for rose tea
2 black tea bags
½ tsp honey
½ tsp rose water
- Boil 2 cups water, honey, rose water with tea until dark, until stepped.
- Add one tablespoon of lavender syrup to the bottom of your glass.Layer with 1 cup of black tea, and top with milk.
- Stir and drink immediately.