Aristocratic homes served Low tea in the afternoon with gourmet tidbits like cucumber sandwiches rather than solid nutrition. The emphasis in Low tea was on the presentation and socializing. High tea (sometimes called “meat tea”) became a bourgeois custom, serving as the evening meal and consisting mostly of leftovers from a huge lunch that were served with tea. High tea or low, it was sure to be a cozy interlude. William Cowper, a fine poet unjustly neglected today, summed up all it stood for:
Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
Afternoon tea in its more refined, Low tea, form has proved to be one of England’s best loved exports, no less enjoyed because it is not everywhere understood. “Five O’Clock Tea Served at All Hours” says a sign in a hotel in Japan. Certainly English-style tea would have mystified China, where an old author long before Anna’s day had written: “To pour tea around again and again from a big pot, and drink it up at a gulp, or to warm it up again after a while, or to ask for extremely strong taste would be like farmers and workmen who drink tea to fill their belly after hard labor; it would then be impossible to speak of the distinction and appreciation of flavors.” With the Chinese it is important that the guests be few. “Many guests would make it noisy, and noisiness takes away from its cultured charm,” the old author continued. “To drink tea alone is called secluded; to drink between two is called comfortable; to drink with three or four is called charming; to drink with five or six is called common; and to drink with seven or eight is called (contemptuously) philanthropic.”