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What is High Tea?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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High tea is an English meal that gained popularity in the 1600s, especially among laborers. It was often substantial, contrasted with other types of tea where a few cakes might be served. The meal was often called meat tea because hearty dishes were served, including meat sandwiches and hot cooked food, like meat pies and Welsh rarebit. Cold meats, bread, cheese, crackers, and a variety of desserts like cakes could make up part of the menu.

For the laboring class, high tea was usually a part of the evening meal, taken after sunset. In this case, cooked meats, stews, and the like might be part of the meal. Unlike the tea traditionally served at 4 or 5pm, farming and laboring families tended to eat between 5 and 6 pm, and the meal was usually more closely related to dinner or supper. Substantial food was needed at this time, particularly since families might need to resume work afterwards.

For laborers and farmers, this was a daily traditional meal, not something consumed only occasionally. The definition has recently undergone some changes, however, especially for non-UK countries. Now, high tea often refers to a more traditional tea with lighter meal and dessert offerings. This is often how the term it is used outside of England.

The modern version is more closely related to afternoon tea. Light sandwiches, like watercress or fish paste, may be offered. Even bread and butter sandwiches are quite popular. Scones and clotted cream are common, and cakes, pastries, petit fours, or a number of other dessert items can make up the offerings. When scones and clotted cream are served, the meal might also be called cream tea.

Even in England, where having afternoon tea was traditional, an elaborate cream tea is usually for special events only. Sometimes, afternoon tea is a weekend meal, or one might go to an afternoon tea at a restaurant, teashop, or hotel. When restaurants outside of the UK feature high tea, they are usually referring to afternoon or cream tea, and will feature many fancy cakes or pastries in addition to finger sandwiches.

In the UK, it still may be common to have a quick snack and a cup of tea at 4pm as a restorative. Especially with children arriving home from school at about this time, an afternoon snack is usually fairly desirable. High tea, as the term is now used, would not be regularly served and might only occur on weekends, at parties, or on special occasions.

The recent switch to the use of high tea in the US, which occurred in the 1950s, comes primarily from the word “high” being used as a synonym for “elegant” or “formal.” Given its history as a laboring class meal, it’s somewhat ironic that the restaurants and hotels that boast of this specialty are often exclusive and expensive. In the UK, if someone is looking for this type of meal, he or she may want to look instead for cream tea or afternoon tea, which are still more commonly used to suggest a fancy tea.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon1001233 — On Mar 31, 2019

Strange how in some areas outside the UK, the name “high tea” has caught on as a social event, when in fact it is a basic simple meal at the end of a working day and eaten round the family table. This term would never be used in the UK for an elegant affair! The social event which takes place mid to late afternoon is “Afternoon Tea” and consists of tea, sandwiches, scones (often with jam and cream) and pastries. A glass of Champagne might be added for a special celebration.

By anon955326 — On Jun 06, 2014

@anon162590: I can't vouch for anon93692's description of it being a mainly Scottish thing but the types of foods consumed at a high tea that s/he described are accurate. The type of tea you are referring to (with small desserts, pastries, and things like that) is afternoon tea.

Yes, the term "high tea" is sometimes used when referring to afternoon tea, true. But this is nor the correct usage of the term, or the correct way to refer to it.

@Author of the article: Because I used to host an afternoon tea for an historical society, I've been to (or at the very least highly researched) all of the spots around Chicago (where I live) which serve afternoon tea, including tourist traps, quaint shops run by British ex-pats, and expensive hotels serving it at over $50 per head. I know of only one place, in a far-flung suburb, that refers to it as "high tea" in a serious way (others may mention it in quotation marks, but still label it "afternoon tea").

Whether a place refers to it as "high tea" or "afternoon tea" is usually a good indication of its authenticity and quality. A place that labels it as "high tea" is usually trying to cash in on bridal showers and girls' days out (and the quality reflects that), whereas places that refer to it correctly as "afternoon tea" are the ones that get it right.

Also, a cream tea is only tea and scones with clotted cream and jam or curd. Nothing else. There is no such thing as "an elaborate cream tea" because once you start adding other foods, it's no longer a cream tea.

A "fancy tea" in the UK is never referred to as a "cream tea" (unless your idea of "fancy" is a cuppa and a scone, because that is what they'll bring you if you order a cream tea).

By anon266854 — On May 08, 2012

I have an assignment that asks me to research high teas and it sounds like fun, and hopefully in the future I will go to one. This really helped me but I'm still trying to find some rules when you go to a high tea party.

By cameronm — On Jan 30, 2012

That's a really nice description. I myself am into the high tea and I really like this post. I learned something new.

By anon162590 — On Mar 24, 2011

@anon93692: I don't think you are right because I have been serving high teas for a few years now and I know that when I learned how to make them, there was never anything that said that it consisted of main meals like fish and whatnot.

The one I learned to make consists of: Scones, slices, sandwiches, tarts and flans, small cakes and cupcakes, and other pastries.

By anon154908 — On Feb 22, 2011

Thanks for this article! Someone invited me to "high tea" here in the U.S. and it sounded a bit pompous. I asked him what the difference between inviting me to "high tea" and to just "tea" was.

He replied that "tea" would just be a cup of tea with nothing else, while "high tea" would be as in England, with crumpets. Hmmm. I suspected there was probably something more to it, and surfed my way from Google to you. Thank you for informing me!

By anon93692 — On Jul 05, 2010

High tea is a Scottish meal, not English. To my knowledge it is not served in England. It is still commonly served in cafes and restaurants throughout Scotland, however. It is normally served later than afternoon tea (cakes, scones, etc) and comprises a main course such as fish and chips, meat pie and vegetable followed by cakes and scones. The accompanying drink is always tea, of course. For more information I recommend searching 'high tea Scotland' Jebedee.

By christym — On Jul 04, 2010

@cmsmith10: I think that is a wonderful idea and a “high tea” fits in perfectly with a poetry club. I have hosted three “high teas”. Whereas there are no specific rules on how to do it, these are some tips that I used:

First of all, the accepted time for a high tea is 4:00 p.m. Next, you want to make sure that the atmosphere is suitable for a high tea. Set aside a specific area in your home to gather. You should have a nicely decorated table in the center of your gathering point. Seasonal flowers are always a nice touch to decorate your table. I like to use lace doilies under my plates, bowls, or cups. I also try to keep soft, classical music playing in the background. Your teapot is a huge focal point so get out your best China. Floral designs are a big hit. Make sure that you have enough place settings for the number of guests that you have. It is traditional to have a creamer bowl and a sugar bowl set out.

The most important part of your high tea is, of course, the tea. Choose a tea that everyone would enjoy. I always offer a variety of teas so that my guests have a choice. I use tea bags instead of loose tea.

If you choose to serve food at your high tea, light snacks or desserts are acceptable. Finger foods are the most popular. I serve finger sandwiches, breads, cakes, or fresh fruit. I wouldn’t recommend a big bowl full of candy bars!

Make the environment as relaxing as possible. Enjoy!

By cmsmith10 — On Jul 03, 2010

I am a member of a poetry club and we take turns hosting readings at our homes. This month we are celebrating some of the writers from England and I thought it would be a good idea to have a "high tea". Does anyone know where I could get some information on how to go about this?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia...
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