Afternoon Tea Brings Britain to the Coffee Table

If you’re a dedicated Anglophile, lover of tea or just want to do something different with your next social gathering, take inspiration from across the pond and treat your guests to afternoon tea or high tea.

These two occasions are frequently confused for each other in the U.S. and other nations, but just remember that “high” describes not the level of formality but the table on which high tea is served and you’ll be able to keep them straight.

Afternoon Tea

This is the one that Americans tend to call high tea, the one with tiers of finger sandwiches and scones served to society ladies who may debate whether to stick their pinkies out or down (the consensus of opinion is down).

It’s usually held in mid-afternoon between 3 and 5 p.m. and is also called “low tea” in Britain because it traditionally is served on a lower surface such as a coffee table. There is no official governing body overseeing afternoon tea so using a dining table won’t get you banned, but if you have a coffee table you might as well use it.

Lovely teacups, either a single set or a curated selection in complementary colors with saucers, preserve the quaint, dignified aura of an afternoon tea, and they should be filled with liquid from the finest leaves you have access to.

Bold black teas like Earl Grey and Assam, more delicate mint green or gunpowder green teas and lavender and lavender blend teas are all classic and popular choices.

While the tea sets the foundation for these afternoon events, it’s the dainty yet decadent treats that provide the structure, much like the three-tiered trays they are typically served on. The traditional three-course light meal is served in the order the foods are arranged, from bottom to top.

The bottom tray bears the dainty, crustless finger or tea sandwiches, two or three bites of bread featuring fillings including salmon, cucumber, egg salad, tuna salad or other savory delights.

The second course and middle tier consists of scones and cream, which are must-haves for any afternoon tea and you get extra points if you can procure or prepare the Brits’ favored “clotted cream.” Strawberries and other fruits often are added, either fresh or as preserves. The top layer is for dessert, the true sweets including cookies, mini-eclairs, cream puffs, brownies and small cakes.

This is a basic primer to help you set up a pleasant afternoon tea, but merely scratches the surface of the history, etiquette and expectations that have grown up around over the past 200 years.

High Tea

This is a much more relaxed, less ritualized practice, historically for working class families who reunite after a long workday to drink warm tea with heartier food like meat pies and fish dishes, crumpets, baked beans, casseroles, potatoes, veggies and cakes.

Still, some American and even British hotels and tea houses advertise “high tea” service that follows the conventions of afternoon tea.

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