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In the interests of full disclosure (and because an afternoon tea was the topic of a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory) I should begin by stating that not all British people have personal experience of what goes on when taking what is internationally known as a high tea. In fact, if you were to launch into some mock stand-up routine about the phrase high tea, raising fine chinaware to an elevated level and then struggling to drink, with some exaggerated mime about spilling your steaming hot beverage down your face and scalding your chin, the Brits would be laughing as hard as anyone.
So, to the uninitiated, a high tea is a mysterious rite that may or may not involve wearing a tiara and acting like a member of the royal family.
However, the first and most important thing to say is that the swanky affair with the bone china and the little cakes on a plinth is not a high tea. It may seem like the kind of thing that should be called a high tea, but it is not. That’s an afternoon tea, as partaken of by Lords and Ladies sitting in relaxing armchairs. The components of an afternoon tea are simply a pot of tea and a selection of sweet things, possibly with cucumber sandwiches as a garnish. There may also be scones and clotted cream and jam, in which case it’s a cream tea.
The high in high tea refers to the time at which the food is served, it’s not high as in high and mighty, but high as in high noon. A high tea is a later version of the afternoon tea, created by the English working classes, and one that shares a lot of characteristics with an evening meal and is eaten at a table, rather than on comfortable chairs.
The terms comes from an era when the hours between luncheon and dinner needed breaking up with a minor repast. So afternoon tea was to the evening meal what elevenses is to the midday meal: a pitstop to refuel.
But if you were not of a class that had the time to spare in the afternoon, and did not get home until 6pm, you’d need to eat as soon as you got home, and so high tea became that meal. This was not a meal that took a lot of time to prepare, so bread and cheese and (yes) tea would be served, as well as meat pies, crackers, various pickled items, and maybe something starchy and potato-based like fritters or bubble and squeak.
Note: bubble and squeak is a kind of fritter made from potato and vegetables left over from a roast dinner. There are as many different types and consistencies of bubble and squeak as there are amounts of uneaten veg, but essentially it’s a quick way to make good use of leftover food. And sometimes it appears in tea and sometimes it appears in a fried breakfast.
Ironically, the upper classes rather liked the idea of eating something akin to proper food at six-ish, and developed their own high tea, with savory dishes like Welsh Rarebit (cheese-on-toast with A-levels), English muffins (known in the U.K. as muffins, obv), buttered crumpets (pancake batter plus baking soda: an amazing innovation in toast technology) or an omelet.
They then went off around the world, at the height of the British Empire, confusing all and sundry with demands for both afternoon tea and high tea, with the result that the international understanding of the latter term is so far removed from its working class origins that swanky British hotels have been know to rename their afternoon tea, calling it a high tea just to avoid confusion.
Meanwhile, the working classes, particularly in the north, began to refer to their evening meal as tea, and their lunchtime meal as dinner. I’d like to be able to say this was also to avoid confusion, but as there are also those who refer to lunch as lunch and tea as dinner, that’s clearly not the case.
Fancy a cuppa?
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Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic