Cream Tea, High Tea, and Elevenses

History and Customs of Afternoon Tea in England

Tea is woven into the very fabric of England. From Jane Austin to Downton Abbey, depictions of upper-crust British life are incomplete without the ritual of a refined afternoon tea.

The soft chime of bone china, a teapot emitting earthy fragrance in wreaths of steam, delicate sandwiches, pretty confections, and tender scones topped with a cloud of cream and glistening jam: Who could resist? While English tea is served at hotels and restaurants around the world, it’s a must-do when visiting England.

The History of Tea in England

Tea landed on British shores in 1662 when Catherine of Braganza, daughter of Portugal’s King John IV, married King Charles II. Her dowry included land, money, spices, treasures, and probably tea. Tea was considered a medicine in England, but Catherine’s daily habit influenced fashionable courtiers. A costly import from China, tea remained the domain of the rich for generations. Drinking it displayed wealth: Portraits often included the fine china and accessories accompanying the custom of drinking tea.

Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford and a Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria, launched the ritual of afternoon tea around 1840. Hungry at four o’clock, with the evening meal still several hours away, she requested a tray of tea, bread and butter, and cake to her room. She eventually invited friends to join her, and a women’s afternoon ritual was born. The custom migrated into drawing rooms and outdoors in fine weather, eventually including men. By the 1880s afternoon tea was firmly ensconced in English high society.

The Elements of an English Tea

A proper tea should be lingered over. The high tea menu includes both sweet and savory elements, often served simultaneously in a tiered stand. Small sandwiches, lightly filled, with the crusts trimmed are the first course. Scones with cream and jam are next up: Devonshire clotted cream is beloved in Devon and beyond for its rich, buttery flavor and texture, with double cream or whipped cream other common alternatives. Lastly, an assortment of dainty cakes and pastries concludes the meal. A glass of sherry or champagne may be part of the package.

Teatime Manners in Britain

While manners and customs have traditionally been highly valued among the upper echelons, visitors needn’t worry about committing gaffes as long as they embrace ordinary table manners.

Here are some insider tips to consider:

The question of whether tea or milk goes in the cup first is a common one. Historically, milk was poured first only when the china was of modest quality, to prevent the sudden shock of hot tea from cracking the cup. The wealthy had no doubts about the caliber of their fine bone china, so they put in tea first, then milk.

Is it required to raise a pinky when drinking tea? No, just handle your cup gently and confidently. No slurping!

Which goes first on the scone, the cream or the jam? Different regions have different practices, so watch the locals or just take your chances.

Vocabulary for English Tea

Lastly, some definitions: In America, we’re accustomed to calling a fancy afternoon tea “high tea” – sounds appropriate for a posh high-society affair, right? Actually, that’s what working classes in much of the United Kingdom call their evening meal. This hearty meal is served at a table with chairs or stools, hence it’s “high” not “low.”

It’s also worth noting that vocabulary varies regionally in England. The midday meal may be called lunch, luncheon or dinner, and the evening meal may be called dinner, supper, tea or high tea, depending on location.

 A Guide to Types of Tea:

 Afternoon tea or low tea is the refined upper-class ritual. It was served in drawing rooms, on low furniture, hence the name.

High tea, meat tea, or simply tea is a hearty evening meal among working classes in certain regions.

Cream tea is simply tea with scones dressed with cream and jam. Devon, Dorset, Cornwall, and Somerset counties all proudly identify with a cream tea.

Elevenses is a cuppa and a nibble such as a bun or a scone, around 11 AM. It’s a term unknown before the twentieth century, but a concept with timeless appeal.

This brief primer on tea in England should help you make the most out of your visit. Enjoy a proper English tea in London or beyond, no pinky posing required.