High Tea Traditions: Origins & History Of The British Custom
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The custom of high tea – made trendy and relevant again thanks to shows like Bridgerton – isn’t just limited to being an English custom of prim and proper tea sipping. Given how fancy and particular the concept of a high tea is, the beverage is as intrinsic to Indian culinary traditions as it is in other parts of the world. Peppered with dainty finger sandwiches, bite-sized confections and a steaming pot of freshly brewed tea, the common misconception surrounding the custom is that it derives its name from the social class which engaged in the activity. Contrary to this, high tea does not derive its name from high society individuals but in fact, from the high tables and chairs on which the wealthy perched to enjoy their beverage.

Some parts of history also attribute the name of the custom to the high-backed chairs which became a fixture at these gatherings – unlike the low-set coffee tables that most of us might be familiar with. Although many enjoyed being seating on a couch while sipping tea and snacking on the nibbles, the high tea was considered to be a relatively formal affair which involved considering it as good as a meal. When the concept came about in 1840’s England, high teas weren’t restricted to just the wealthy. Sure, they did have a larger assortment of foods to choose from; however, even working-class individuals at the time made sure to pack a scone with some jam or a sandwich to enjoy with their beverage in the evenings at a time close to supper.

Aside from the star beverage of the show, a high tea affair was also about the spread of snacks that ranged from cold cuts, ham sandwiches, cheeses, quiches, tiered cakes, tarts and even freshly baked scones with jam and clotted cream. Considered to be a light meal that was served between 4pm and 6pm, the old-fashioned custom also enjoyed popularity in Australia – where the concept was borrowed from the British afternoon tea. Introduced by the seventh Duchess of Bedford to England, her request for a light meal with a cup of tea gave the Earl of Sandwich an idea to put some filling between slices of bread and butter before the Duchess was served tea in her quarters.

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Soon, as high tea evolved into a fashionable social event through the ages, a dress code was introduced for women who were expected to don gowns, corsets and hats to engage in the experience. With time, the experience remained as the dress code evolved into a more relaxed but luxurious look – involving breezy linens and sunglasses. For those who decided to opt out of drinking tea, bubblies like champagne were served, to keep the feel of it light but also fancy. The edible details incorporated local ingredients based on the geography in which the custom took place, all the while retaining its essence of offering hot tea and nibbles packaged into a chic, sociable experience.