For the perfect traditional English high tea experience, you’ll want to ensure you have all the necessary accoutrements to host correctly. High tea is not just any old afternoon cup of tea and biscuits – it’s an event. Served between 3 pm and 5 pm, high tea traditionally consists of miniature sandwiches, scones with jam and clotted cream, sweet pastries, and a selection of quality loose-leaf teas. While “high tea” and “afternoon tea” are terms often used interchangeably, high tea was served later, around 5 pm, as a light supper for the working class in England. For an authentic high tea, look for a classic porcelain and bone china tea set from https://www.teasetbox.com/collections/tea-sets/english-tea-sets/ to serve the treats. With the right setting and delicious fare, you’ll be well on your way to an afternoon of refinement and indulgence. Prepare to transport yourself to a bygone era of civility and grace. Your high tea awaits.
High Tea or Afternoon Tea: What’s the Difference?
To properly host a traditional high tea, it is crucial to understand the difference between a high tea and an afternoon tea.
High tea originated in Britain in the 1800s and was a heartier meal served on a high table, meant to bridge the gap between lunch and dinner. It typically consists of more substantial fare like meat, eggs, and stews. High tea is usually served between 5 and 7 pm.
In contrast, afternoon tea is a more delicate affair focused on finger sandwiches, scones, petits fours, and tea. It was made famous in England in the 1840s by Anna Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, who would take tea and snacks in the afternoon to bridge the gap between lunch and dinner. Afternoon tea is traditionally served between 3 and 5 pm.
For a proper high tea or afternoon tea, you will need to acquire the necessary accoutrements:
- A stylish tea set – Look for a classic porcelain set with a teapot, sugar bowl, milk jug or creamer, and cups and saucers for each guest. Silver sets are also an elegant, luxe choice.
- Linens – Have on hand linen napkins, doilies, and tablecloths to place under the tea set.
- Serving trays – Use tiered stands to serve the treats or large serving trays for scones and finger sandwiches.
- Tea strainer or infuser – Needed for loose-leaf teas. Tea bags can also be used for convenience.
- Cake stands – Essential for showing off your sweet treats and pastries.
- Additional items – Include teaspoons, butter knives, dessert forks and plates, jam, lemon wedges and whipped cream.
With the proper accoutrements and delicious fare, you’ll be hosting the perfect high tea in no time! Be sure to also brush up on tea etiquette to make a good impression on your guests.
The History of Afternoon Tea: How the Tradition Began
As an honoured British tradition, afternoon tea has a long and storied history. Originally known as ‘low tea,’ the custom began in the 1840s when Anna Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, started taking tea and snacks in the afternoon to bridge the gap between lunch and dinner.
The duchess began inviting friends to join her for this repast, and soon afternoon tea became an elaborate social event. Upper-class men and women would get together to gossip, catch up on the news, and show off their finery.
Afternoon tea later came to encompass dainty finger sandwiches, scones, pastries, and petit fours in addition to the tea. As its popularity grew, the tea was moved to later in the day, giving rise to ‘high tea.’ High tea was a heartier meal for the working classes. Today, the terms afternoon tea and high tea are often used interchangeably.
Every afternoon tea is complete with a proper tea set. You’ll need a teapot, teacups and saucers, milk and sugar containers, and tiered stands for the food. A linen tablecloth, linen napkins, and silverware are also traditional. For an authentic experience, choose a classic English fine bone china set. Wedgwood, Royal Albert, and Royal Doulton are renowned brands that produce tea sets in the English style.
Afternoon tea remains a time to connect with friends and family, transporting us to a bygone era of refinement and leisure. By understanding its origins and traditions, you can host your afternoon tea that would make even the Duchess of Bedford proud.
What Time Is High Tea Usually Served?
Traditional English Afternoon Tea
Traditional English afternoon tea, or ‘high tea,’ is usually served between 3 pm and 5 pm, and the period originated in 19th century England when the Duchess of Bedford introduced the concept of afternoon tea. She would invite friends to join her for tea, sandwiches, and cakes in her boudoir during the afternoon. The custom soon spread amongst aristocratic circles and beyond.
A Light Meal Between Lunch and Dinner
High tea bridges the gap between lunch and the late dinner that was common during that era. It consists of delicate finger sandwiches, scones, tea cakes, and other light fare served on a three-tiered platter. The top tier holds sandwiches, the middle tier holds scones and tea cakes, and the bottom tier holds jam, lemon curd, clotted cream, and other spreads. High tea is meant to stave off hunger until the evening meal without being too filling.
The Formality of High Tea
High tea is a more formal occasion than casual afternoon tea. Guests traditionally dress up in gloves, hats, and their Sunday best. The table is set with linens, silverware, and fine china. Fresh flowers and candles help set the mood. Although less formal versions have emerged, a traditional high tea aims for an air of civility and grace. It is as much a social event as a dining experience.
An Enduring Tradition
While afternoon tea and high tea were once interchangeable, high tea now often refers to a grander, more formal version of the mid-afternoon repast. However, the tradition of an afternoon meal, including tea, sandwiches, scones and pastries, endures. High tea remains a beloved ritual for its atmosphere of refinement and fellowship. Whether enjoying a casual or formal version, high tea allows us to slow down, connect with others, and savour simple pleasures.
How to Host the Perfect High Tea Party
Selecting a Theme
To host the perfect high tea party, choose a theme to set the mood and guide your menu selections, decorations, and activities. Popular high tea themes include:
- Use fresh flowers and floral patterns.
- Serve petite fours, tea sandwiches, and scones with jam and clotted cream.
- Play garden-themed classical music.
- Use antique furniture, lace tablecloths, and floral china.
- Serve traditional high tea fare like cucumber sandwiches, scones, and tea cakes.
- Ask guests to dress in Victorian-era clothing.
- Play music from 19th-century composers.
- Use stuffed animals, toys, and books as decor.
- Serve kid-friendly fares like tea sandwiches, cupcakes, cookies, and fruit.
- Play children’s music and read stories.
This theme works well for a little girl’s birthday or bridal shower.
Creating the Menu
Once you have a theme, carefully curate a menu of tea sandwiches, scones, cakes, tarts, and other dainty finger foods to serve your guests. Cucumber and egg salad tea sandwiches are always a favourite for savoury options. For sweets, include scones with jam and clotted cream, petit fours, madeleines, macarons, tea cakes, or fruit tarts. And, of course, offer an assortment of premium loose-leaf teas for your guests to sample.
Arranging the Tablescape
An elegant tablescape is essential for a chic high tea party. Use your finest bone china teacups, saucers, tiered serving trays, linen napkins, and silver cutlery. Fresh flowers, candles, antique vases or birdcages also help create a stylish vignette. For added whimsy, consider mismatched vintage teacups and a colourful assortment of linens.
A memorable high tea party celebrates timeless traditions while embracing your style. By focusing on an engaging theme, delectable menu, and opulent decor, you’ll transport your guests to a bygone era of civility and grace. With the perfect blend of ambience, fare, and friendship, your high tea party will surely delight you.
Where to Buy an Elegant High Tea Set
Several reputable online retailers offer elegant high tea sets. Fortnum & Mason, an upscale London department store, is a premier source. They provide a variety of fine bone china sets in classic patterns like Pink Garden and Buckingham Palace. Sets contain cups, saucers, teapots, sugar bowls, and cake stands. Harrods, another prestigious UK retailer, sells luxurious high tea sets from brands like Wedgwood, Royal Albert, and Spode.
Visit a local speciality shop focusing on fine china, linens, and home decor. These boutiques often carry high-quality, high-tea sets from renowned English brands and artisanal producers. Shop owners can guide you to help you select a set that complements your tastes and style preferences. They may offer extras like embroidered napkins, tea cosies, and tiered cake stands.
Auction houses frequently offer vintage and antique high tea sets that provide a sense of tradition and history. Sets from the Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian eras are especially coveted. Brands like Royal Crown Derby, Worcester, and Spode are highly prized. While auction items may require cleaning or repair, their provenance provides a unique story that modern sets cannot provide. Check sites like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and smaller regional auction houses for upcoming sales.
Thrift and Antique Shops
Search thrift stores, antique shops, and estate sales in affluent neighbourhoods. You may find a hidden gem high tea set at a fraction of the cost of a new one. Look for sets made of fine bone china with delicate patterns and gilding. Check that all pieces in the set are accounted for and free of chips or cracks. For a vintage set, consider having new pieces made to match by a china replacement service if needed. With patience, you can find a lovely set at a bargain price.
In summary, elegant high tea sets can be purchased through various channels. Buy a new set from a prestigious retailer, shop local boutiques, browse auctions, or hunt for china treasures in thrift and antique stores. The perfect set is out there—you must pour yourself a cup of tea and start searching.
As you have discovered, high tea is a delightful tradition with a storied history. When done correctly, it is an experience to be savoured. With the correct set of essentials – quality loose-leaf tea, scones, sandwiches, and sweets – you’ll be well on your way to hosting an unforgettable high tea. Do your research to determine what is traditional and appeals to your tastes. Shop from reputable brands that value high-quality, organic ingredients.
Most importantly, invite friends or loved ones to join you, as high tea is best enjoyed in good company. By following these tips, you’ll be hosting high tea in style quickly. Sip, savour, and enjoy this time-honoured custom. Your guests are sure to thank you.