The Difference Between High Tea & Low Tea
We British are famous worldwide for our so called ‘traditions’ of High Tea and Low Tea, but if you’ve never heard of them, or don’t know the difference between them, you are definitely not alone. It is a stereotype, of course. All British men wear top hat and tails, English ladies only communicate by handwritten letter and everyone, from scruffy students to busy billionaires, have tea in the afternoon. It may no longer be a tradition here in the UK to take tea in the afternoon, but millions of us eat tea every day as a main meal. Here we explode the myths about taking tea in Britain and reveal the big differences between High Tea and Low Tea.
Contrary to popular belief and the aristocratic sounding name, High Tea did not originate amongst upper classes. In fact, the opposite is true; High Tea is a predominantly working class meal that was traditionally taken between 5 and 7pm – the time that labourers would arrive home from their physically demanding jobs. It was called High Tea because, in contrast to the cakes and tea at low coffee tables of the upper class Low Tea, High Tea was enjoyed at a high table – the dining table.
The foods enjoyed at High Tea were diametrically opposite to those at Low Tea. Low Tea was intended as a light snack to tide someone over until dinner. High Tea was an energy packed meal designed to sustain those who worked hard all day long. Instead of crustless cucumber sandwiches and petit fours, workers would dig in to meat pies, pickled salmon, cold cuts, bread and butter and jam. Tea, the beverage, was also drunk in copious quantities.
In the mid-1830’s, the Duchess of Bedfordshire was suffering from what we might today call a mid-afternoon slump. With a long gap between mid-morning breakfast and dinner at 8pm, she began to take a light meal in the afternoon, which consisted of tea, sandwiches and cake served at a coffee table in her room. She began to invite her friends to enjoy this meal with her and before long the practice had spread to the rest of the country as a social, afternoon meal.
And so Low Tea was born - the high class and quintessentially British tradition that is also known as Afternoon Tea. It couldn’t sustain a working class labourer, but was enough to tide over the leisure-loving ladies of the upper classes until their evening meal. The tradition is enjoying somewhat of a revival amongst the British public, but is used only as an occasional treat rather than a regular meal.
The differences between High Tea and Low Tea reflect some of the differences between the classes. Working people didn’t have time to take leisurely afternoon meals, in the same way the non-working classes couldn’t face a heavy meal at five o’clock when dinner was served at eight. Even today, modern workers tend to have ‘tea’ at around 6pm after work, with a biscuit and a cup of coffee to get them through the afternoon. These days, Afternoon (Low) Tea is the preserve of smart hotels for birthday treats, whereas High Tea (minus the actual tea) is still an everyday meal taken by millions of people.
- Katie Beresford