Unravelling the teatime differences: high tea, afternoon tea, cream tea, royal tea. With image of afternoon tea at the Handbag and Purse Museum in Amsterdam
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Unravelling the teatime differences

At Tea with Mum, taking tea – with my deceased Mum – is our special-tea. Afternoon tea, high tea, cream tea, royal tea – we love them all. While these and various other terms are often used interchangeably, they are actually quite different. Let’s unravel the different teatime terms and what they mean.

Let’s start by unravelling afternoon tea

Imagine the Dowager Duchess and the ladies of Downton Abbey taking tea in the parlour or the garden in the mid-afternoon. The tea is served in dainty china cups with saucers, probably from a silver teapot. Finger sandwiches and savouries, scones with jam and clotted cream and small cakes are all served, together with a healthy slice of gossip. 

Traditionally, afternoon tea was a privilege enjoyed by the higher classes. Many years ago, when the aristocracy ate late, afternoon tea was a light meal enjoyed between what we would now consider brunch and dinner to fill the gap. 

Many credit Anna Maria Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, as inventing afternoon tea. Legend has it that around 1840, she was feeling peckish and decided to have some tea and snacks between a breakfast feast and dinner. She enjoyed this small repast regularly and invited friends over to partake as well. It quickly became a social gathering.

However, afternoon tea was already quite fashionable well before Anna Russell became Duchess. Lady Rockingham, for example, attempted to forge a political alliance with William Pitt in 1765 by inviting supporters to take tea with her. Perhaps, therefore, the Duchess influenced what was served during afternoon tea or its popularity.

Now, afternoon tea is a treat and not just a snack. Modern lifestyles often don’t allow us to sit down and take afternoon tea each day. Instead, it is something special that we sometimes enjoy on the weekend, often in a reduced format.

Afternoon tea scene from "Downton Abbey" Season Four {Photo credit: Carnival Films}
Afternoon tea scene from “Downton Abbey” Season Four {Photo credit: Carnival Films}. Now there is even a Downton Abbey range of teas.

When is it served?

Around 4 o’clock, halfway between a large breakfast and what would now be considered a later dinner.

What is served?

Crustless sandwiches (e.g. salmon, cucumber, egg and watercress or coronation chicken) and savouries such as curry puffs join scones with jam and clotted cream and a selection small cakes. The food is bite-sized (well, 2-3 bites) and you use your fingers to eat. 

These delicacies are traditionally served on a three-tiered tray, together with a pot of more mild tea. You eat from the bottom tier to the top. You would normally drink the tea from fine china cups and saucers.

Afternoon tea at the Handbag and Purse Museum in Amsterdam; scones and clotted cream and small cakes overlooking the canal

How is high tea different?

So if the higher classes enjoyed afternoon tea, is high tea a more classy version of afternoon tea? Traditionally, this is a misnomer – more on that later.

In the 19th century, blue-collar workers in newly industrialised UK (especially Northern England and Southern Scotland) couldn’t afford the time or money to take afternoon tea. Tea was still reasonably expensive. Instead, they had to wait until after work to enjoy their tea. This was often between 5 and 7 o’clock.

In other words, high tea is dinner or supper for the working classes.

Given the timing, high tea includes more hearty meals, rather than just sweet cakes. In order to revive flagging spirits after a long day’s labour, high tea was a hot and filling meal, washed down with a pot of strong tea. 

High tea was presumably named after the high backed dining chairs that you sat on to eat supper, as well as the later hour. It is also referred to as ‘meat tea’.

When is it served?

Between 5 and 7 p.m.

What is served?

A pot of strong tea and a warm meal, such as meat dishes, potatoes, baked beans, and other heavy dishes. In other cases, high tea will include cold meats, jam, tea cakes, fresh bread, more substantial sandwiches, pork pies, etc. Scones and clotted cream are not part of high tea.

High Tea is usually served on regular dishes instead of fine china. 

What makes Scottish high tea different?

In Scotland, high tea is different again. Scottish high tea is similar to afternoon tea but includes some hot food, such as cheese on toast or other warm savoury goodies.

What is the difference between afternoon tea and upper class high tea?

To add to the confusion, the beau monde soon developed their own more hearty variation of afternoon tea and also called it ‘high tea’. This high tea was easy to prepare and could be eaten when the servants were not available.

The aristocratic ‘high tea’ was a combination of afternoon tea and the lower class high tea. It is basically afternoon tea with the addition of pigeon, veal and salmon as well as fresh fruit.

And what then is low tea?

This is the same as afternoon tea. It refers to the fact that afternoon tea was enjoyed on low tables and comfortable chairs and sofas in the drawing-room or parlour, or out in the garden.

Teatime: The differences between afternoon tea and high tea, set out in a table

Unravelling the other teatime types and their differences

Cream tea

Cream tea is a simplified version of afternoon tea. It has just one course: fresh scones with fruit jam and clotted cream (also called Devonshire cream). Of course, they are served with a pot of tea. 

There is some debate over whether you should put the cream or the jam on the scone first. In Devon, people will put the cream on the scone first and then the jam. In Cornwall, the jam goes on first. I am a jam first girl.

In Australia, cream tea is also called Devonshire tea.

When is it served?

Mid afternoon, like afternoon tea.

Light tea

This is either afternoon tea without the sandwiches and savouries or Cream Tea with some small cakes, biscuits and fruit. 

As the name suggests, this is more of a snack than a meal and is much lighter than afternoon tea. 

Full tea

This is another term for afternoon tea.

Royal tea

Royal tea is a fancier version of afternoon tea, which includes a glass of champagne or similar alcoholic drink. It is also referred to a champagne tea. I had royal tea for my hen’s night.

Tea

Many people in the UK and in the Commonwealth refer to the evening meal as tea. In our family, dinner is still called tea, although we rarely drink a cup of tea with it. 

Elevenses

Elevenses isn’t a type of afternoon tea, in fact, it doesn’t even take place in the afternoon. As the name suggests, Elevenses is tea taken at 11 a.m. This tea (or even coffee!) break may also include a light snack. 

Unravelling the teatime differences: afternoon tea and other types of teatime compared, set out in a table: cream tea, royal tea, light tea, high tea and elevenses

Teatime is unravelled

With so many varieties and synonyms and inconsistent usage, it is easy to get your high teas confused with your afternoon or cream teas. Unravelling the teatime differences shows that they are actually quite different in terms of timing and the foods served. Now that you now know the basic differences, you can enjoy your next afternoon tea/high tea/cream tea/royal tea…

Enjoy sign-off
High tea & afternoon tea: What's the difference; title with image of afternoon tea at the Handbag Museum in Amsterdam overlooking the canal

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