There are innumerable teas in the world. To provide a comprehensive list of them in this blog would be difficult, to say the least.  There are many people, like myself, who have decided to switch from coffee to tea at breakfast because tea just ‘fits’ better in the morning. In a bit, we’ll look at one of the most enjoyable ways to continue your search for a favorite tea – by attending a high tea.  First, a brief history of tea.

History of Tea and Teabags

The act of immersing leaves from a tea bush in boiling water to create a refreshing drink came about serendipitously.  It appears that some 5,000 years ago a Chinese emperor was journeying to a far flung province.  Avoiding risk to his constitution, he liked to partake of his drinking water only after it had been boiled.  On one occasion, a few leaves from an adjacent bush were accidentally blown by the wind into the water boiling pot.  He must have been very thirsty because he chose not to quibble but drink it down.  He found it to be a surprisingly refreshing beverage, and it was here that the drinking of tea was born.  Tea did not reach Europe for another 4500 years.

Interestingly enough, tea bags also came about by chance. In 1908, a New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan started sending tea samples out to his customers in little silk sachets, intending them to be opened and the tea leaves emptied out into the pot.  Some of his customers misunderstood and immersed the silk sachets into the water filled tea pots with their contents still inside. Result – tea bags!

Enjoying High Tea

One of the more enjoyable ways to enjoy tea is to participate in what is called a “High Tea” here in America.

High Tea Set-up

Participating in high teas provides an excellent and enjoyable environment for you to sample a number of teas while enjoying the ‘delectables’ served during the tea. The term “High Tea” has had, and continues to have, a number of meanings, particularly in the UK.   Many tea drinkers in the UK routinely enjoy what they call “Afternoon Tea” which is similar to the high tea we enjoy in the US.

A Brief History of Afternoon Tea

Legend has it that Afternoon Tea was started in the UK in the mid-1800s by the Duchess of Bedford. Around this time, kerosene lamps had been introduced in wealthier homes, and eating a late dinner (8 or 9 p.m.) had become fashionable.  This increasingly late dinner was one of only two meals each day, the other was a mid-morning, breakfast-like meal.

One day the Duchess asked her servant to accompany her pot of refreshing Afternoon Tea with, “Perhaps a few sweet items and maybe a couple of small sandwiches as well”. This certainly did the trick in helping the Duchess and her friends stave off the pre-dinner hunger pangs, and it quickly became a habit.  The Duchess certainly mentioned it to her friend Queen Victoria who introduced Afternoon Tea at court. By the end of the 19th century, Afternoon Tea had become a pastime with social status.

High Tea vs. Afternoon Tea

Outside of the United Kingdom, many people, and certainly in the US, we refer to an Afternoon Tea as ‘high tea.’  Although the idea that high tea here in the US is a meal of foods like scones and finger sandwiches is common, it is not actually correct in a traditional or historical sense.

What, then, is Afternoon Tea in the UK?  Afternoon Tea, is also known as ‘low tea’ in the UK.  It involves things like manners, lace, and dainty foods.  It is typically served in the mid-afternoon and it was traditionally served on low tables, hence its two names.  An Afternoon Tea menu is light and focuses on scones, finger sandwiches. Marmalade, lemon curds, and herbed butter may also be included. Favorite teas for Afternoon Tea include black teas like Earl Grey and Assam, and herbal teas like chamomile and mint.  Historically, Afternoon Tea was considered to be a ladies’ social occasion, and it is more often enjoyed by women than men to this day.

In the past, high tea was a working class meal served on a high table at the end of the workday, shortly after 5 p.m.  It was more a family meal than it was an elite social gathering.  High tea was usually a heavy meal of meat dishes such as steak, kidney pie, and other heavy foods such as baked beans and cheesy casseroles.  A possible explanation why this type of meal was called high tea is the fact that it was eaten at a table. In comparison, Afternoon Tea was taken whilst seating in low, comfortable chairs or sofas.

It is important to add that the Afternoon Tea menu served in the UK today is often referred to as high tea in many other parts of the world. Because of this some hotels, such as The Ritz in London, use the term ‘High tea in London’ to advertise their Afternoon Tea because a large proportion of their customers are from overseas.

I hope that this clears up some of the confusion about high tea.  Normally, here in the US, at ‘high tea’, an assortment of teas are presented for your selection and this should help you in your quest for a favorite tea.  Should you be in the mood for scones, clotted cream, and triangular sandwiches, please ask your server for a menu to be sure you are served the right dish.

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