Tea (meal)

This article is about meals referred to as "Tea". For the beverage, see tea.
"Tea time" redirects here. For the Cantonese Chinese practice of "drinking tea", see Yum cha.

Tea (in reference to food, rather than the drink) has long been used as an umbrella term for several different meals. Isabella Beeton, whose books on home economics were widely read in the 19th century, describes afternoon teas 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 the tea meal is usually eaten, which is late afternoon to early evening.[2] Tea as a meal is associated with Britain, Ireland, and some Commonwealth countries.

Afternoon tea

Afternoon tea with bread and butter, jam and little cakes at the Rittenhouse Hotel, Philadelphia.

Afternoon tea is a light meal typically eaten between 4 and 6pm. Observance of the custom originated amongst the wealthy classes in England in the 1840s.[3] Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, is widely credited as transforming afternoon tea in England into a late-afternoon meal whilst visiting Belvoir Castle. By the end of the nineteenth century, afternoon tea developed to 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."[4]

For the more privileged, afternoon tea was accompanied by delicate savouries (customarily cucumber sandwiches or egg and cress sandwiches), bread and butter, possibly scones (with clotted cream and jam, as for cream tea), and usually cakes and pastries (such as Battenberg cake or Victoria sponge). The sandwiches usually have the crusts removed, and are cut into small segments, either as triangles or fingers (also known as tea sandwiches). Biscuits are not usually served.

Nowadays, a formal afternoon tea is more of a special occasion, taken as a treat in a hotel.[5] The 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.[6][7][8] Afternoon tea as a treat may be supplemented with a glass of Champagne or a similar alcoholic drink.

A less formal establishment is known as a tearoom, similar to a coffee shop. These used to be common in the UK, but these establishments have declined in popularity since World War II. 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.

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

Cornish cream tea, comprising tea taken with scones, clotted cream and jam
Main article: Cream tea

This snack is associated with the West Country, i.e. Cornwall and Devon. It usually consists of scones, clotted cream, strawberry jam, plus of course tea to drink. Some venues will provide butter instead of clotted cream.

Tea as the evening meal

Tea (also known as high tea or meat tea) is one name for the evening meal. It is associated with the working class and is typically eaten between 5 pm and 7 pm. In the North of England, North and South Wales, the English Midlands, Scotland and in rural and working class areas of 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).[9] This differentiation in usage is one of the classic social markers of British English (see U and non-U English).

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[10] than afternoon tea.[11][12]

A stereotypical expression "You'll have had your tea" is used to parody people from Edinburgh as being rather shortcoming with hospitality. A BBC Radio 4 comedy series of this name was made by Graeme Garden and Barry Cryer.

Tea break

Main article: Break (work)

Not a meal as such, but a chance to "down tools" (or get away from the computer) and relax from work for 10-15 minutes. This may occur mid-morning (see elevenses) or mid-afternoon. It may equally involve coffee, and almost inevitably, biscuits. Once upon a time, the drinks were served by the workplace's tea lady, a position that is now almost defunct. The British habit of dunking biscuits in tea has been exported around the globe.[13]

Australian usages of the term

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".[14]Most Australians are unaware of the origin of the term "high tea". In Australia, 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 6pm, and supper is either a very late meal at night, or food served at night at a social function, such as the town's annual Christmas dance and supper.

See also


  1. Beeton, Isabella (1901) Mrs Beeton's Cookery Book, new ed. London: Ward, Lock; pp. 282–83.
  2. It's Time for Tea – by Dawn Copeman – Time Travel Britain
  3. p. 209, Pool, Daniel (1993) "What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew," Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, New York
  4. Pettigrew, Jane (2001). A Social History of Tea. London: The National Trust. pp. 102–5.
  5. "Afternoon tea is more popular than ever as more hotels get a huge boost in business thanks to the brew". The Daily Mail. London. 6 April 2011. Retrieved 21 November 2012.
  6. Mason, Laura; Brown, Catherine (1999), From Bath Chaps to Bara Brith, Totnes: Prospect Books.
  7. Pettigrew, Jane (2004), Afternoon Tea, Andover: Jarrold.
  8. Fitzgibbon, Theodora (1972), A Taste of England: the West Country, London: JM Dent.
  9. "Tea with Grayson Perry. Or is it dinner, or supper?". The Guardian. London. August 2012. Retrieved 2013-08-15.
  10. English Dictionary (2nd ed.), Oxford.
  11. 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 8pm.
  12. 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).
  13. "Crunch time: why Britain loves a good biscuit". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 December 2014
  14. "It's love in the afternoon as Australians lap up 'high' tea". The Age. Retrieved 6 January 2015.
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