Think those little three-tier racks of sandwiches and scones and petit fours at fancy hotels are all about traditional High Tea? Or the British aristocracy, for that matter, at least in history?
Forget it. Wrong on both counts.
Tea expert Caroline Hope, owner of the “A Magical World of English Tea Time” tour and tasting organization in London, http://www.teaandscones.co.uk , recently spoke about the origins of the tea culture in Britain at Edible London, a four day gastronomic fest sponsored by Les Dames d’Escoffier London, http://lesdameslondon.org/.
The “tea time” culture actually originated in the 1700s at the time of the Industrial Revolution.
Prior to that, the aristocracy had been early adopters of the hot new beverage suddenly being imported from China, but this was, by no means, a national pastime. We think of tea as an inexpensive, easy beverage, but that was hardly the case when it was first imported to Europe.
The newly minted commercial class was anxious to mimic the landed gentry, so they started to adopt their customs. They began imitating the custom of offering tea to their guests, very much showing off that they were people of means who could afford this exotic beverage.
Royalty and the really old money had beautiful tea sets, including sterling silver serving pieces and porcelain pots and cups imported from China. The nouveau riche had lovely English made porcelain with Chinese designs, often blue motifs on white, and all young brides wanted a tea set for their new homes.
Unwritten rules emerged that separated the well bred from the gauche: Only the lady of the house was allowed to touch the tea service, never a guest. The tea kept coming unless the guest’s spoon was put into the cup (or the cup placed upside down, which sounds odd by modern standards). Many a French and American guest landed in hot water for not knowing these things.
People would have served guests a tea compatible munchie, maybe a cucumber or watercress sandwich, with the beverage, but that was not the point. This was not a meal, it was an opportunity to socialize and show off the silver and porcelain.
The (wonderful) notion of scones and clotted cream with tea was regional, and they never would have appeared with other distractions such as those little sandwiches or cookies or petits fours. And, the goodies never would have come out on a tiered stand, the type we love so much at “tea time”.
High Tea is probably the most misunderstood concept.
In the past, High Tea had nothing to do with a fancy and expensive afternoon outing where one sips daintily and indulges in a huge array of fancy pastries. It simply referred to supper (a light evening meal that happens to be served with tea).
When you think of High Tea, think of granny saying to a little kid “Eat your tea!,” not of the Dowager Countess with her pinky sticking out. Or, at least remember the old meaning when you put on a fancy hat and accept that invitation to High Tea at the Ritz.