Is it High Tea or Afternoon Tea?

Cream tea. Photo: Monica, Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 License

Tea, as an event, rather than an everyday part of life, is becoming more and more popular in the United States, due to the stressful and hurried nature of most 21st century life. Setting aside some time to socialize and relax over an elegant and beautiful assortment of snacks and sweets is an excellent way to stave off the adverse effects of stress, and good practice in “being civilized,” something that is noticeably missing from many aspects of modern society. Enjoying a nice pot of tea is also considerably less expensive than taking a trip to some tropical resort!

Having a cup, or pot, of tea as part of a daily break from the normal routine, has been a traditional part of life in many countries of the world. In England, and the former British Empire, tea is a customary part of any and every meal and mid-day snack, and many of these “tea-times” are treated as a meal of their own, with their own vocabulary. Several terms have made the trip from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, to North America, and have been adopted by many tea-lovers, as well as most tea parlors or tea shops. Unfortunately, many people don’t understand the concept of taking tea at different times in the same day, and confusion can result when talking about tea. Even tea business owners have been known to use the terminology incorrectly, treating the words as if they’re interchangeable.

So, if we’re going to cut through all the confusion, we need to have a basic glossary. First things first: what is tea, anyway?

Tea: the beverage prepared with leaves from the tea plant, which is a variety of the Camellia. It can be served hot or iced, in innumerable varieties, flavors, or blends, and at any time of day. It is usually served black (without any additions), white (with milk, or milk and sugar), with sugar or honey and lemon, or with sugar alone, depending on the desire of the person drinking the tea. Tea contains caffeine, unless it has been decaffeinated. “Tea” is also the most basic term for what happens when a person sits down, casually, with a cup or pot of tea, whether or not there is food on the table as well.

If the beverage that you are drinking does not contain actual tea leaves, then it is not tea. It is something called a tisane, also called “herbal tea.”

Tisane: an herbal infusion that does not contain any actual tea leaves. It is made with culinary herbs, edible flowers, fruits, and/or spices, and can be served hot or iced, with or without sweetener. Most tisanes are naturally decaffeinated. Certain tisanes can be taken for medicinal reasons as home remedies for things like coughs, runny noses, and upset stomachs.

And now we come to the English-style “tea-time” vocabulary, indicating a break in the day in between the regular breakfast, lunch, and dinner hours.

Elevenses: a small mid-morning snack of a cup or mug of tea and a cookie or two, or some bread and butter, or toast and jam. A casual event, like a morning coffee break, it can be taken at home, or at work. Traditionally taken around 11 a.m.

Afternoon tea: a snack taken mid-afternoon, consisting of tea, served hot or iced, with bread and cake. “Bread and cake” is most often interpreted to mean scones with jam, sandwiches, and small cakes or pastries. If several sandwiches or “savories” are included on the menu, it can substitute for lunch. Cream teas are a variety of afternoon tea, prominently featuring whipped cream, clotted cream, and other dairy products. Traditionally served between 2 and 4 p.m.

High tea: often mistaken for afternoon tea, or a fancier version of it, high tea is actually a hearty, casual, supper. It is often served as a buffet, with meat pies, cheese, fruit, and other filling foods, rather than the pastries and delicacies associated with afternoon tea. Traditionally served between 5 and 7 p.m., it began its existence as the early evening supper of the working classes.

So now you know what to expect when you are invited to a tea shop or a private home for tea!

Copyright 2011, Elizabeth Urbach.

Sources and Further information: “Tisanes, or ‘herbal teas’: what are they and how do you make them?”
“Iced tea and how to make it.”
“How to brew a pot of black tea, part 1”

“How to brew a pot of black tea, part 2”

“Can you really de-caffeinate your tea in 30 seconds?”
“What should I keep in the pantry for tea parties?”


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Filed under Glossary & Terminology, History, Menus, Party Ideas

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