It’s hard not to be entranced by the rich history of etiquette, formalities, pretty kitchenware and scrumptious cakes that surrounds the uniquely British tradition of high tea. These days a high tea is given as an elegant celebration or quiet party, and is the perfect way to spend time with friends in a relaxing and indulgent environment. The traditions trace back to the Victorian era, when the high tea, complete with the celebrated kitchenware, was a daily institution designed to fill the yawning gap between the midday lunch and late night supper.
The Duchess of Bedford, a lady in waiting to Queen Victoria, is reputed to be the daring innovator we can thank for this delightful tradition that is both inherently practical and at times lavishly decadent. The meal has consistently been a light one of mainly sandwiches and cakes accompanied by Darjeeling tea, all served on the finest kitchenware. These days any type of tea is acceptable, as long as it is of the highest quality, and more adventurous choices are sometimes made with the food and kitchenware. The emphasis remains, however, on fine presentation and a lightness of touch.
Among working and agricultural communities, the treatment of high tea has been a little different. This meal became the main meal of the day for many families who could not afford such expensive kitchenware, and was therefore much heavier and included plainer cakes compared to the light and fluffy options served up by the higher classes. The kitchenware used in the working high tea would have been the everyday plates and crockery, rather than the more breakable precious pieces.
Making an effort towards gentility is essential to the spirit of the high tea, however, and was exhibited in all self-respecting communities. This meant using kitchenware such as fresh white table cloths and surrounding the meal with well mannered service, whether in the form of dedicated servants or the polite pouring of tea. The understated elegance in good manners and quiet appreciation of good food, good company and good kitchenware, is probably the most appreciated element of the high tea revival in our modern world that seems too fast for so many.
The terminology of tea can vary greatly and many sticklers for tradition will argue that a high tea is in fact the hearty meal eaten by workers later in the day, whereas the event we enjoy today, complete with buttery scones and decorated cakes served on delicate kitchenware should simply be called an afternoon tea.