high tea with tiers

Discovering High Tea 

Some years ago, I introduced a co-worker to Earl Grey tea; she was so delighted with this addition to her bag of culinary knowledge, that she began referring to me as her “guru of gastronomy”. Via a friend of hers, who worked at a newly opened office park, she garnered an invitation for herself and a guest (me) to a tea seminar being held at the newly opened flagship restaurant of said office park. A few days before the seminar, my hostess was called away on a family emergency, leaving me to attend the event solo.

The keynote speaker, a member of the Twining Tea family, made two statements that totally eclipsed the rest of the afternoon’s activities for me.

Statement I:  Tips

At one time in London, just inside the doorway of most restaurants, there was a slotted box attached to the wall; on or near the box there was a sign announcing: “to insure prompt service”.  This not so thinly veiled request for up-front money became the acronym “t.i.p.s.”, which morphed into the “tip” we leave today, at the conclusion of a restaurant meal.

Statement II: High Tea

In a totally unscientific survey, I asked some diner/traveler acquaintances of mine to define “high tea”.  The general consensus was that “high tea” denoted a formal, late afternoon meal, which traditionally begins with a glass of sherry and proceeds on to fancy sandwiches, scones with butter and preserves, delicate cakes, and in season strawberries and clotted cream. Tea, freshly brewed using loose tea, never teabags, filtered through a tea strainer to catch any errant leaves before they reach the cup, is drunk throughout.

Prior to attending the seminar, my definition of high tea was in agreement with that of my interviewees. I might have added, based on my personal experience, that high tea is frequently taken in the lobbies of upscale hotels, or the dining rooms of upscale department stores and specialty shops.

The Twining representative soon disabused us of our clichéd notion of a proper “high tea”, explaining that, historically, “high tea” had nothing to do with menu or ambience, and was, in fact, simply a working class synonym for supper!

It took a few moments to digest that little bombshell, but after some contemplation it made sense.  Imagine London on a wintry evening, a few hundred years ago, no streetlights, no sewers, and no central heating.  The dark outside would be total, and unless you had candles, the interiors wouldn’t be much brighter. Under these circumstances, preparing a hot meal would be difficult at best; but as long as there was a fire in the fireplace, water for tea could easily be boiled. It suddenly made sense why, with rare exceptions, no hot foods appear on tea menus.

A further myth dispeller about “high tea” was that the adjective refers not to the meal, but to the actual height of the table at which it’s consumed.  For some reason, I’d envisioned the “high” table being like a bar, until recently when I experienced a “Eureka!” moment while watching the marvelous 1951 film A Christmas Carol, with Alistair Sim.  I’m assuming that in the film, the pictured rooms of poor people were based at least in part on research of the period; though the furniture was sparse, there always seemed to be a conventional dining table, which is “high” when compared to a coffee table or an end table.

For the upper classes, who could afford to illuminate their homes, afternoon tea was not taken at a “high” table, and served merely to assuage hunger until a later dinner.  For the working classes for whom candles bordered on luxury, “high” tea was the evening meal.

The acquisition of this information, with its potential for yielding some excellent conversation starters, had made my attendance at the seminar worthwhile, and I looked forward to sharing my newly acquired tea trivia with the woman who’d invited me to the event.  Unfortunately her family emergency necessitated her moving out of the area; after one cycle of exchanged Christmas cards, I never heard from her again.  I read that the office park where the seminar had been held was to be converted into residential condominiums and an assisted living facility, and the flagship restaurant sank into oblivion upon the expiration of its lease.

Just when I thought I was clear on the whole concept of teatime, I spotted a sign in the window of a small restaurant in London, near the hotel where I was staying, proclaiming, “High Tea served all day!”