Have you ever wondered who invented high tea? Or is that afternoon tea? I think it depends where you are from. And either way, thank heavens they did!
High tea is a rather glorious tradition. Dainty sandwiches and delicate baked morsels accompanied by carefully brewed tea from a pot and drunk out of a proper tea cup and saucer. This to me is the modern version of high tea. A decadent outing to a swanky hotel for a smorgasbord of old fashioned high sugar, labour intensive, “unhealthy” and therefore luxurious treats. And frankly about the only time that most people would drink tea from a cup and saucer as opposed to a mug.
It is Anna Russell, the Duchess of Bedford who is widely credited with transforming afternoon tea into a meal while visiting Belvoir Castle in the mid 1840s. However there is some debate about this as food historians document evidence of tea being recognised as a meal while Anna was still young, not yet a Duchess and not yet as influential as she was to become.
At around this time, the evening meal was being served later and later. In the early 19th century dinner has been documented as being served at between 7pm and 8:30pm. Luncheon, served around midday was very light. As a result, by 4 or 5 pm everyone was a little peckish. A few baked morsels alongside a fortifying cup of tea was a perfect solution.
In some parts of England, Ireland and Scotland, high tea describes the evening meal for the lower working classes. ‘High’, in this case meaning well advanced, ie later in the day than afternoon tea. It is sometimes called tea time or meat tea. It would usually consist of a hot dish, or perhaps some cold meats, followed by cakes, bread, butter and jam.
Outside of this group, what is called high tea nowadays, harks back to the decadent social occasion that was the Duchess of Bedford's afternoon tea.
The Duchess of Bedford was a friend of Queen Victoria, and a social celebrity. Afternoon tea was a ritual of the Victorian Age. An opportunity to socialise and network. To tell stories and enjoy conversation. Of course, a ritual with rules and etiquette, demanding politeness and decorum. A place for political agendas, scandal, gossip and rumour too, no doubt.
The upper and then middle classes mirrored the behaviour of the celebrities of their time, like Anna Russell and Queen Victoria, as and when tea became more affordable for them. So whether or not Anna 'invented' high tea she certainly played a part in its evolution.
Afternoon tea to me, means a cup of tea and a bicky or two. Perhaps a slice of cake. And most certainly, a good chat. High tea is a decadent special occasion at a fancy hotel. Most probably including champagne. All tea rituals are rather charming I think. I can't be the only one as they have been around for centuries. Good rituals endure.
Explore more of the Tea Time post series here
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