Last month during the comment contest, Anonymom asked a number of very good questions. Here was one of them:

“When we were in London 10 years ago, we ordered tea but I suppose it was not “high tea” time because when we also asked for a platter of finger sandwiches and sweets to go along with our Earl Grey, the concierge replied to my father, “Sir, you want tea…with tea.” Can you explain that? “

From what I understand (and I encourage my readers to chime in) the English definitely make a distinction between tea the meal and tea the drink. Many people mistakenly ask for “high tea” in England when they mean they want “afternoon tea”, which is closer to Anonymom described above…served with sweets and scones. If you asked for high tea, which is not a fancy tea, but a meal tea (served on a “high” table), it might help explain the concierge’s response.

Afternoon tea became the fashion in England, the story goes, through Duchess Anna of Bedford. The English at the time ate at strange hours, with their main meal of the day taking place late in the evening. The Duchess, like many of us, experienced a dip in her blood sugar and asked her butler to bring her a bit of bread and butter with her tea in the late afternoon. Soon she invited her friends to join her and the tradition of afternoon tea began.

When one travels through London, many places including the countryside cottage advertise a “cream tea”. The cream tea consists of a pot of tea with scones. The cream, as we learned yesterday, does not reference cream for the tea, but cream for the scones…gloriously rich, clotted cream. Clotted cream is not available commercially in the United States and many tea rooms substitute with a form of whipping cream, sour cream, or cream cheese. Sometimes one can find jarred Devonshire cream (cream from Devon, England) in stores that carry English products, including on-line stores. Devonshire cream is the closest to authentic clotted cream one can find, often. Would anyone like to share their source?

Many people also think tea grows in England. In fact, tea needs the sub-tropical climates England (and America, except for one exception) can’t provide. The top five tea-growing countries are India, China, Japan, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan. All tea drunk in England has been imported to England. It is not the English, however, who drink the most tea per capita. That honor belongs to the Irish.

Some rumor the English find our (Americans) emphasis on the Victorian aspects of afternoon tea a little comical. Men and women alike enjoy afternoon tea in Great Britain. One famous Brit, is oft quoted:


You can’t get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me. ” –C.S. Lewis

I’m almost positive Narnia’s creator and J.R.R. Tolkien’s friend did not need doilies or chintz to enjoy his daily ritual. :-).

Like much of the globe, the English tradition of taking an afternoon break struggles not to fade as life “speeds” up. It takes deliberateness to practice tradition, value relationships over productivity, and not throw out “quaint” for the new fads. I hope when I finally have the chance to visit England to find the cream tea in the countryside, not paper Starbucks’ cups in everyone’s racing hands. We’ll see!

If you’ve visited England (or live there!) and taken tea, we’d love to hear about your experience.