The Highs and Lows of Tea

Quick: what’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone says the word “scone”? Other than sawdust, I mean. Right: English tea. Or more specifically, the ritual of English afternoon tea. Erroneously called “high tea” here in the States (probably because of the formality that’s associated with it), the meal is actually, technically, “low tea.”

Oh blast those infernal Brits and their fussy, high falutin’ terms! Yet the words do have a specific meaning, and unlike what we Colonials think, they have nothing to do with the status of the meal. Rather they have to do with the location at which they’re taken. “High” tea is taken at the “high”, i.e. “main” table, the dining table. “Low” tea is taken, well, pretty much anywhere else.

The tradition can be traced back as far as the 1760’s among the British gentry, where it was thought to be a kind of stop-gap meal between lunch and the “high” meal, which typically took place around eight. Yet it really didn’t come into its own until the mid-1800’s, the golden age of British rule in the far East, when the so-called “Orientalist” craze that swept the Commonwealth. British afternoon tea, some say, may be an Anglified version of the Japanese tea ceremony.

There are as many afternoon tea traditions as there are counties in Britain. Yet one of the most famous is that which occurs the county where I once lived: Devon. There, afternoon tea was called “cream tea”, and well, you can pretty much imagine what went on. Devon is rich and rolling farm country, known for its dairy herds, which are said to produce a higher fat milk than is typical in the rest of the British Isles. Dairy folk in Devon make a one-of-a-kind indulgence out of it, known as “double” or “clotted” cream. It’s thick as mud, the perfect sinful spread for a scone.

I can still remember the gluttonous joy of those teas: split the scone, slather on the cream, add a dollop of jam for color, extend the pinky and…madly stuff the whole thing into your mouth. People have been doing that as long as there’s been tea in Devon. Of course they do the same thing just down the coast in Cornwall, only there they put the cream on top of the jam instead of the other way around. Animals.

4 thoughts on “The Highs and Lows of Tea”

  1. We don’t get clotted cream in New Zealand, although you CAN make it yourself if you’re so inclined. Our afternoon tea scones have butter first, then jam, then whipped cream. Delicious, and easily do-able in America.
    And your “high tea” term has made its way here as well, thanks to TV cooking shows I think, or possibly the ubiquity of American hotel chains. I fight against it, but it’s a losing battle. High tea is supposed to have hearty things like bacon and egg pie, or pork pie, and a loaf of bread on the table for father to slice and flip to the kids from the end of the knife (that is my Dad’s description of tea time when he was young).

    1. Oh sure, blame us for everything! 😉

      But yeah, it’s a little annoying…

      – Joe

  2. A question : Are the scones supposed to be warm at the time of serving in both Devon and Cornwall, and does that have anything to do with the texture of the cream itself as opposed to being simply a regional preferance? I’m thinking the higher the butterfat in the cream the more it will benefit from a slight temperature rise.

    1. Funny you should mention that, Dani. Yes, ideally scones are served warm at a cream tea. Fresh from the oven is pretty much perfect.

      – Joe

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