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Afternoon tea is a light meal typically eaten between 4 pm and 6 pm. Observance of the custom originated amongst the wealthy classes in England in the 1840s. Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, is widely credited as transforming afternoon tea in England into a late-afternoon meal whilst visiting Belvoir Castle, though Charles II of England's wife Catherine of Braganza is often credited with introducing tea to the court upon her arrival in 1662. By the end of the nineteenth century, afternoon tea developed to its current form and was observed by both the upper and middle classes: "the table was laid… there were the best things with a fat pink rose on the side of each cup; hearts of lettuce, thin bread and butter, and the crisp little cakes that had been baked in readiness that morning."
Traditionally, loose tea is brewed in a teapot and served with milk and sugar. The sugar and caffeine of the concoction provided fortification against afternoon doldrums for the working poor of 19th and early 20th century England, who had a significantly lower calorie count and more physically demanding occupation than most Westerners today. For labourers, the tea was sometimes accompanied by a small sandwich or baked snack (such as scones) that had been packed for them in the morning. For the more privileged, afternoon tea was accompanied by luxury ingredient sandwiches (customarily cucumber, egg and cress, fish paste, ham, and smoked salmon), scones (with clotted cream and jam, see cream tea) and usually cakes and pastries (such as Battenberg cake, fruit cake or Victoria sponge). In hotels and tea shops, food is often served on a tiered stand; there may be no sandwiches, but bread or scones with butter or margarine and optional jam or other spread, or toast, muffins or crumpets. It was the emergence of afternoon tea that saw Britain regard biscuits as something dunked in tea; a British custom that was later exported around the globe.
Isabella Beeton, whose books on home economics were widely read in the 19th century, describes afternoon teas of various kinds: the old-fashioned tea, the at-home tea, the family tea and the high tea and provides menus. Nowadays, a formal afternoon tea is often taken as a treat in a hotel or tea shop.
High tea typically consists of a hot dish, followed by cakes and bread, butter and jam. Occasionally there would be cold cuts of meat, such as ham salad. The term was first used around 1825, and high is used in the sense of well-advanced (like high noon, for example) to signify that it was taken later in the day than afternoon tea; it was used predominantly by the working class and in certain British dialects of the north of England and Scotland.
In Australia any short break for tea in the afternoon is referred to as "afternoon" tea. As a result, the term "High tea" is used to describe the more formal affair that the English would call "Afternoon tea".
In the North of England, South Wales, the English Midlands, and Scotland, people traditionally call their midday meal dinner and their evening meal (served around 6 pm) tea, whereas the upper social classes would call the midday meal lunch (or luncheon), and the evening meal (served after 7 pm) dinner (if formal) or supper (often eaten later in the evening). In Australia, the evening meal is still often called tea, whereas the midday meal is now always called lunch.
- It's Time for Tea - by Dawn Copeman - Time Travel Britain
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An afternoon meal; may consist of a light meal (especially in southern Britain), or be a substantial meal (high tea) as in northern Britain; introduced by Anna, Duchess of Bedford, in 1840 because of the long interval between a light luncheon and dinner at 8pm.
- Ayto, John (2012). The Diner’s Dictionary (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-964024-9.
Tea seems first to have established for itself a particular niche in the day in the 1740s, by which time it had become the fashionable breakfast drink. It was also drunk after dinner, and as the usual time for dinner progressed during the eighteenth century towards the evening a gap opened up for a late-afternoon refreshment, filled by what has since become the traditional English afternoon tea, a meal in its own right, with sandwiches and cake as well as cups of tea (amongst the earliest references to it are these by Fanny Burney in Evelina, 1778: ‘I was relieved by a summons to tea,’ and by John Wesley in 1789: ‘At breakfast and at tea… I met all the Society’; Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford (1783–1857), famously claimed to have originated the fashion, but as can be seen, it was around well before she was in a position to have any influence over it). In various other parts of the English-speaking world, teatime has assumed other connotations: in Jamaica, for instance, it is the first meal of the day, while for Australians and New Zealanders it is a cooked evening meal—a usage reflected in the tea, and more specifically the ‘high tea’, of certain British dialects, predominantly those of the working class and of the North (the term high tea dates from the early nineteenth century).
- "It's love in the afternoon as Australians lap up 'high' tea". The Age. Retrieved 6 January 2015.
- "Tea with Grayson Perry. Or is it dinner, or supper?". The Guardian (London). August 2012. Retrieved 2013-08-15.
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