In the United Kingdom, tea is a drink, a snack, and a meal. Tea parties are a wonderful way to entertain and suitable for many gatherings. Little girls, and older girls, who are bored with, or think themselves too old for, the traditional children’s birthday party would enjoy the dainty feminine elegance of afternoon tea with their girl friends. Making afternoon tea on Mother’s Day might be an elegant treat for a Mum. Afternoon tea would also make a very elegant wedding reception for an afternoon wedding or a reception after a christening. It would also be less expensive than a traditional wedding meal. Afternoon tea is also a lovely way for female friends to enjoy one another’s company. The more hearty High Tea is great for informal entertaining, especially for family gatherings.
The history of tea parties in the United Kingdom, explains clearly the difference between high tea and afternoon tea. In the United Kingdom, for centuries, all households, rich and poor, served two meals a day, “dinner” at between 10am and 11am and “supper” at sunset.
When reliable artificial light became available to wealthier families, they began following the French fashion; mealtimes became later and changed their names. Wealthy households served “lunch” at 1 pm and dinner between 9pm and 11pm, the more fashionable the family, the later they ate dinner. Eight to ten hours is a long time to go without food. Upper-class ladies began to have a dainty snack with a cup of tea between 3pm and 4pm and invited their female friends to share this elegant snack. Men were all busy at “business”, running their estates, at the House (Parliament) or conquering the empire and it was rare for a man to attend afternoon tea parties. Commentators often erroneously name Anna, Duchess of Bedford as the inventor of afternoon tea, as a top society hostess, she simply adopted a growing fashion.
Afternoon tea was always a ladies’ meal. The traditional afternoon tea reflects this femininity. A typical afternoon tea menu includes, tiny triangle sandwiches without crusts, bread and butter, tiny “penny” 1 inch diameter scones, jam (jelly), slivers of very light cake, such as a Victoria Sponge cake, and miniature cream cakes. In winter, toasted English muffins, (not the large fairy cakes called muffins in America and Canada) or toasted crumpets would be served at afternoon tea. The drink is tea, of course, in a delicate fine china teapot. Pour the tea into porcelain or bone china cups with saucers, never mugs. China tea services usually include cups, saucers, tea plates, a serving or sandwich plate, milk jug and sugar bowl, they may also include porcelain cake stands. Ladies sat in armchairs and tea was served on low occasional tables, thus afternoon tea was called low tea to distinguish it from high tea.
High tea is an altogether heartier and more prosaic affair. Historically, the lower orders ate at sunset, when men returned from the fields or their trades and businesses. Men took lunch to work, usually bread with jam, dripping or, in good times, cheese and needed something substantial on their return home. High tea traditionally includes a hot dish. Bread and butter and homemade jam is a filler and stretches the hot dish. A simple filling cake, such as a farmhouse fruitcake finishes high tea properly. Historically, high tea is a working class, or peasant meal, and is still served in many working class homes, especially in the North of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. A good High tea is a wonderful sight, and, in the North of England, the highest compliment one can pay a North Country housewife is to say, “She serves a fine high tea”.
Hosting an elegant afternoon tea party requires formal invitations. Although afternoon tea is traditionally served on low occasional tables, it might be more convenient in these days to serve it on the dining room table with guests sitting up to the table to enjoy their tea. You could also serve afternoon tea on the balcony, veranda or in the garden in suitable weather. Set the table with a pretty tablecloth, lace tablecloths are especially suitable and traditional for afternoon tea. Pretty china services are the best crockery for afternoon tea. Set your table with butter knives, cake forks, teaspoons and linen or paper napkins.
Tea is preferable for afternoon tea, Darjeeling, Ceylon, or English breakfast teas are excellent choices. To make English tea, put one teaspoonful of tea leaves for each person plus one “for the pot” into a warmed teapot and pour boiling water straight onto the tealeaves. Keep the teapot warm with a tea cozy, leave the tea to ‘brew’ for a few minutes and serve according to taste, depending on whether you like a strong “builders’ brew” or a rather weaker brew. Serve with milk (not cream) and sugar if required, have lemon slices handy for those who prefer lemon to milk.
When catering for a traditional English afternoon tea, dainty and light are the watchwords. Tiny sandwiches with light fillings and no crusts. Thinly sliced fresh bread is necessary for dainty sandwiches, use tiny bridge, or miniature finger bread rolls. Fillings should be light; cucumber is traditional, as is smoked salmon, chicken, egg mayonnaise and many others. For more ideas for sandwich or roll fillings go here.
Scones are light floury, barely sweet, cakes with a texture similar to a light bread. They are simple to make and best eaten very fresh. Use a 1-inch cookie cutter for tiny elegant scones or a larger one if you prefer.
Slivers of a very light cake are an important feature of afternoon tea. Victoria sponge or sandwich cake is very traditional but coffee and walnut gateau and many other light cake recipes would be wonderful. Tiny chocolate or coffee éclairs or other tiny cream filled cakes would delight your guests. Place paper doilies on the plates before placing food on them.
A high-class bakers or patisserie shop should be able to supply dainty elegant cakes to order for those who do not want to, or cannot, bake cakes at home.
Afternoon tea, after many years of being only for elderly ladies on day trips or tourists, is again fashionable in the United Kingdom. The people are again realizing that hosting an afternoon tea party is a sophisticated, but inexpensive, way to entertain on any occasion.