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  • Writer's pictureNancy, Hostess of Cup & Crown

I Think You Mean 'Afternoon Tea'

On three different occasions in recent weeks, friends of mine referred to the "high tea" they recently enjoyed. I smiled politely and said in my most humble tone, "Actually, that sounds like 'afternoon tea.'"

I swear, I really did say it humbly and only in an effort to inform them. Nonetheless, my comment earned me a hard, blank look, and I swear I heard a record needle screech across the vinyl somewhere. One of those friends even remarked, "Oh, whatever, it's the same thing!"

Most Americans aren't aware that there is a distinction between afternoon and high tea; and even fewer have ever heard of a cream tea. This is understandable as taking tea is quintessentially a British custom. In the words of Eileen Donaghey, The Afternoon Tea Expert, "While they do have similarities, if you went into a hotel and ordered cream tea you could be disappointed if you were expecting an afternoon tea."

So let me explain - and only in my most humble tone and as a means to educate - the differences among the teas...

HIGH TEA: To Americans, the word "high"is often synonymous with "elevated" or "upper"... as in upper class or a reference to things that are considered most elegant. This is why many people mistakenly refer to their afternoon tea as high tea, even though the opposite is true. High tea earned its name because it was served at high tables for the lower classes. Instead of being a light meal between lunch and dinner, high tea was the meal. It consisted of hardy, heavy dishes that included meat, potatoes, beans, and soups or stews, served on everyday ware, and meant to nourish after a long day of hard labor.

AFTERNOON TEA: The British upper classes would often eat lunch around 1:00 p.m. and not dine until 8:00 p.m. Afternoon tea, as it became known in the 1800's, was served at 4:00 p.m. and intended to be a sort-of snack to tide them over between that long span between meals. This event's offerings include finger foods, like small sandwiches, savories, and scones with spreads and jams. Sometimes afternoon tea is referred to as "low tea" because guests would eat whilst sitting at low tables on comfortable chairs or sofas. In America, this is the event most commonly attended and desired when wanting a British tea party. It is also most commonly and mistakenly called high tea.


CREAM TEA: Cream teas consist of tea served with a side of scones with their delectable spreads. No dainty sandwiches, no stews, and no matter the high or low tables... just simple tea and scones. Surprisingly, the "cream" in cream tea does not refer to adding cream or milk to tea, but rather for the clotted cream spread on the scones. This tea is sometimes called Devon Cream tea or Cornish Cream tea because both areas in England claim to have invented the cream as well as the way to prepare and eat a scone. I could expound on this difference, too, but I'll save the juicy details of that age-old dispute for another day and another blog.

If you would like to know more about a proper afternoon or cream tea, I highly recommend a perusal through The Afternoon Tea Expert's website, Facebook page, and Instagram where Eileen shares her knowledge about the subject - everything from "Is it milk or tea first"? to "Where is the best place to go for afternoon tea in London?" If you're in the Washington D.C. area and are interested in holding an Elegant English Afternoon Tea or a Crowning Cream Tea for your friends and family, please view my "Tea Parties" page and call me to schedule your event.

Cheers from Cup & Crown!

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