Tea (meal)

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Afternoon tea with scones, jam, and little cakes at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong

Tea (in reference to food, rather than the drink) has long been used as an umbrella term for several different meals. English writer Isabella Beeton, whose books on home economics were widely read in the 19th century, describes meals of various kinds and provides menus for the "old-fashioned tea", the "at-home tea", the "family tea", and the "high tea".[1]

Teatime is the time at which this meal is usually eaten, which is mid-afternoon to early evening.[2] Tea as a meal is associated with the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, and some Commonwealth countries. Some people in Britain refer to their main evening meal as "tea" rather than dinner or supper, but generally "tea" refers to a light meal or a snack. A tea break is the term used for a work break in either the morning or afternoon for a cup of tea or other beverage.

The most common elements of the tea meal are the drink itself, with cakes, biscuits or pastries (especially scones), bread and jam, and perhaps sandwiches; these are the pillars of the "traditional afternoon tea" meals offered by expensive London hotels.[3] Other types of both drink and food may be offered at home, under the same name, tea.

Historic usage[edit]

Thé avec des artistes ("Tea with the artists"), Jules Grün, 1929

The timing of the "tea" meal has moved over the centuries in response to the migration of the main meal, dinner. Until the late 18th century dinner was eaten at what is now called "lunchtime", or in the early afternoon; supper was a later and lighter meal. Gradually, dinner began to migrate, amid much controversy, until by about 1900 it arrived at its present timing in the evening. The earliest "tea" meals were often in the early evening, some three or four hours after dinner, or even later, after a supper and before bed. British philosopher Thomas Carlyle and his wife Jane Welsh Carlyle invited guests for 7 pm to their teas in the 1850s, although 'afternoon tea' before dinner was also becoming established by this time.[4]

In 1804 Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière wrote (in French) about afternoon tea in Switzerland:

Towards five o'clock in the evening, the mistress of the house, in the midst of the sitting-room, makes tea herself, very strong and barely sweetened with a few drops of rich cream; generous slices of buttered bread accompany it. Such is the Swiss Tea in all its simplicity. In most opulent houses, however, coffee and light pastries of all kinds are added, many of which are unknown in Paris, preserved or candied fruits, macaroons, biscuits, nougat, and even ice cream.[5]: 54 

Observance of the custom originated amongst the wealthy social classes in England in the 1840s,[6] as the time of dinner moved later. Anna Maria, Duchess of Bedford, is widely credited with inventing afternoon tea in England as a late-afternoon meal whilst visiting Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire.

By the end of the 19th century, afternoon tea developed in its current form and was observed by both the upper and middle classes. It had become ubiquitous, even in the isolated village in the fictionalised memoir Lark Rise to Candleford, where a cottager lays out what she calls a "visitor's tea" for their landlady: "the table was laid… there were the best tea 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."[7]

An informal commercial establishment known as a teahouse or tearoom (similar to a coffeehouse) used to be common in the UK, but they have declined in popularity since the Second World War. A.B.C. tea shops and Lyons Corner Houses were successful chains of such establishments, and played a role in opening up possibilities for Victorian women. A list of significant tea houses in Britain gives more examples.

Afternoon tea[edit]

Afternoon tea on a silver serving tower
Afternoon tea on a silver serving tower
Finger sandwiches: cucumber, egg, cheese, curried chicken, with shrimp canapés at tea.

Afternoon tea is a light meal typically eaten between 3:30 pm and 5 pm. Traditionally it consisted of thinly-sliced bread and butter, delicate sandwiches (customarily cucumber sandwiches or egg and cress sandwiches) and usually cakes and pastries (such as Battenberg cake or Victoria sponge). Scones (with clotted cream and jam) would also be served (as they are for cream tea). The sandwiches are usually crustless, cut into small segments, either as triangles or fingers, and pressed thin. Biscuits are not usually served.

Nowadays, a formal afternoon tea is more of a special occasion, taken as a treat in a hotel. The food is often served on a tiered stand; there may be no sandwiches, but bread or scones with butter and jam, or toast, muffins or crumpets.[8][9][10] Afternoon tea as a treat may be supplemented with a glass of Champagne or a similar alcoholic drink. This is a more recent innovation.

A tea party is a social gathering around this meal – not to be confused with the Boston Tea Party, a mid-December 1773 incident at the beginning of the American Revolution, or the 21st century political movement named after it.

Cream tea[edit]

Devon cream tea, comprising tea taken with scones, clotted cream, and jam

This snack is associated with the West Country, i.e. Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset. It usually consists of scones, clotted cream, strawberry jam, and tea to drink. Some venues will provide butter instead of clotted cream. In Australia, this is commonly referred to as Devonshire Tea.

Evening high tea[edit]

"High tea" is an evening meal, sometimes associated with the working class but in reality enjoyed by all social classes, in particular after sports matches, especially cricket. It is typically eaten between 5 pm and 7 pm. This was also sometimes called a "meat-tea" in the past.[11]

In most of the United Kingdom (namely, the North of England, North and South Wales, the English Midlands, Scotland, and some rural and working class areas of Northern Ireland), people traditionally call their midday meal dinner and their evening meal tea (served around 6 pm), 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 (if informal).[12] This differentiation in usage is one of the classic social markers of British English (see U and non-U English). However, in most of the South of England, the midday meal is "lunch", with "dinner" being the evening meal, regardless of social class.

High tea typically may consist of a hot dish, followed by cakes and bread, butter and jam or to start cold cuts of meat, such as ham salad. The term was first used around 1825, and "high" tea is taken on a high (dining) table; by contrast, low tea, which was more of a light snack, was served on a low table – what would be called a coffee table in North America.[13][14][15]

In The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750-1950, high tea is defined thus:

the central feature was the extension of a meal based predominantly on bread, butter and tea by the inclusion of some kind of fish or meat usually cooked in a frying pan.[16]

A stereotypical expression "You'll have had your tea", meaning "I imagine you have already eaten", is used to parody people from Edinburgh as being rather stingy with hospitality.[17] A BBC Radio 4 comedy series of this name was made by Graeme Garden and Barry Cryer.

Australian, South African and New Zealand[edit]

In Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand, a small informal social gathering usually at someone's home for tea and a light meal (e.g. biscuits, scones, or slices of cake or sandwiches) in the mid-afternoon is referred to as "afternoon tea". More generally, any light meal or snack taken at mid-afternoon, with or without tea or another hot drink, may also be referred to as "afternoon tea". When taken at mid-morning instead of mid-afternoon, the term "morning tea" is used in place of "afternoon tea" in Australia and New Zealand. The term high tea has been incorrectly used to describe formal afternoon teas; it should properly be called afternoon tea, or low tea. Formal afternoon teas are often held outside the private home in commercial tea rooms, function venues, hotels, or similar.[18]

In Australia and New Zealand, a break from work or school taken at mid-morning is also known as "morning tea". A smoko, originally meaning a cigarette break, is also used as slang for a tea break, especially for people working in manual work.

In Australia and New Zealand, the evening meal is still often called tea, whereas the midday meal is now commonly called lunch. In rural areas, dinner is still used quite often for the midday meal; tea is around 6:00 pm, and the term supper is either a late meal at night, or food served at night at a social function, such as the town's annual Christmas dance and supper. These phraseologies have fallen somewhat out of favour amongst young people.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Beeton, Isabella (1898). "Tea". Mrs Beeton's Cookery Book and Household Guide (New and Greatly Enlarged ed.). London: Ward, Lock & Co., Ltd. pp. 263–264. Retrieved 13 March 2019 – via Google Books.
  2. ^ Copeman, Dawn (2006). "It's Time for Tea". Time Travel Britain. Retrieved 13 March 2019.
  3. ^ Teas at the Ritz Hotel, London
  4. ^ Flanders, 229-231
  5. ^ Grimod de La Reynière, Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent (1804). Almanach des Gourmands, Seconde Année. Paris: Maradan. Retrieved 5 August 2021.
  6. ^ p. 209, Pool, Daniel (1993) "What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew", Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, New York
  7. ^ Pettigrew, Jane (2001). A Social History of Tea. London: The National Trust. pp. 102–5.
  8. ^ Mason, Laura; Brown, Catherine (1999), From Bath Chaps to Bara Brith, Totnes: Prospect Books.
  9. ^ Pettigrew, Jane (2004), Afternoon Tea, Andover: Jarrold.
  10. ^ Fitzgibbon, Theodora (1972), A Taste of England: The West Country, London: JM Dent.
  11. ^ Flanders, 231
  12. ^ "Tea with Grayson Perry. Or is it dinner, or supper?". The Guardian. London. August 2012. Retrieved 15 August 2013.
  13. ^ English Dictionary (2nd ed.), Oxford.
  14. ^ Bender, David A (2009). A Dictionary of Food and Nutrition (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-923487-5. 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 8 pm.
  15. ^ 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).
  16. ^ Thompson, FML; Oddy, Derek J. (1990). "5". The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750-1950. CUP. p. 260.
  17. ^ Morton, Brian (26 April 2013). "On Glasgow and Edinburgh, By Robert Crawford". The Independent. Retrieved 25 January 2017.
  18. ^ "It's love in the afternoon as Australians lap up 'high' tea". The Age. Retrieved 6 January 2015.

External links and further reading[edit]