High Tea vs. Afternoon Tea – What’s the Difference?
Over time, the phrases ‘afternoon tea’ and ‘high tea’ have begun to be used interchangeably as more and more people fall under the impression that there’s no difference between the two. Although both terms have their roots in British culture, the reality is that they mean two very different things. Below we’ll dive into both of these popular phrases and break down what exactly constitutes ‘afternoon tea’ and what constitutes ‘high tea’.
Afternoon tea is a British tradition that involves sitting down for an informal assortment of sandwiches, scones, cakes and tea. It’s generally served around 4 PM and serves the purpose of filling in the extended gap between lunch and dinner rather than replacing dinner itself. It has its origins in the early 19th century courtesy of Anna, the Duchess of Bedford.
As dinner is now served earlier than it was in the 19th century, afternoon tea has become simply a treat rather than a necessity for hungry stomachs when dinner would often be served after 8 PM. It remains, however, a very British tradition and there are many establishments in London and throughout England that serve world-renowned afternoon tea in its traditional style.
Originally, the word ‘high’ was added to create the phrase ‘high tea’ to differentiate between the traditional afternoon tea (sometimes referred to as ‘low tea’) that was served in the garden or on comfortable and luxurious parlour chairs and the working classes tea that was served at the dining table and on high back dining chairs. While high tea was a sort of snack in-between meals, high tea was served after workers got home in the evening and was essentially their dinner time that included meat, eggs, fish and poultry. The working class did not have the luxury of being at home at 4 PM for a leisurely snack, so they had to make tea a more substantial meal that was hot, filling and revived and energised them after a long day at work.
Throughout history, however, ‘high tea’ has gone from a working-class meal to representing a posh, extravagant assortment of treats, just like afternoon tea used to. Now, high tea establishments serve items such as scones, finger sandwiches, cakes, coffees and teas on fancy serving platters and with luxurious table settings.
The Meaning of “Tea” in Different Countries
The word “tea” also has different meanings throughout the world and can be interpreted in many different ways. In England and Australia, for example, tea can refer to the final meal of the day and be used instead of the word ‘dinner’.
Then, over in Scotland and Northern England, tea instead means a light snack such as cheese on toast or other savoury items. In Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, tea can also refer to an informal social gathering at someone’s house with snacks served. Finally, again in Australia and New Zealand the phrase ‘morning tea’ can often be for the mid-morning break in schools.