FOOD HISTORY: British Tea Traditions.

While the history of tea goes back 4750 years to China, the British association with tea  is only 350 years old. It is thought that tea was brought to Europe, in the early 16th century, by Portuguese merchants returning from China, but the real commercial tea trade started in 1637 by the Dutch East India Company; founded in 1602. From Holland, tea drinking spread all over Continental Europe but the high prices made it a drink only for the wealthy. Britain, initially, rejected the fashion of tea drinking and while tea was available, drinking it was unusual. In 1662 Portuguese Princess Catherine of Bragaza married king Charles II  of England, brought a chest of tea with her and introduced tea drinking to the English court. Thus, tea became a fashionable drink but was heavily taxed and, therefore. only available to the very wealthy aristocrats. However, demand for tea across all  social classes caused a "black market" in smuggled tea.to arise. Because of this,  Prime minister William Pitt slashed the tax, significantly, which made tea more affordable and stopped the smuggling.  By the 18th century, tea became the preferred drink of all classes  in Britain. In the 1840's Anna Maria, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, because of the long time between breakfast and the evening meal, complained of "having that sinking feeling" in the late afternoon. At that time it was usual for people to take only two meals a day; a small breakfast and dinner round 8 PM. To solve this problem, the Duchess had a pot of tea and some light refreshments served to her, around 4 PM, in her room at her residence, Woburn Abby. Since she wanted just to satisfy her hunger until dinner, only small sandwiches and small cakes and pastries were served.* Soon after, she started to invite friends to join her to sit around in comfortable chairs, exchange news, tell stories and share the tea and refreshments served from a LOW, lounge table. Over time, this AFTERNOON  tea was copied by others in the upper class. However, for the working class in the newly industrialized Britain of the 1800's, "teatime" had to wait until work was completed and, after a hard days work, this  meal was more substantial. It  may have included  a variety of meats, bread, vegetables, cheeses, fish, perhaps meat pies, potatoes and crackers. Because of its hardy nature, this kind of tea time was sometimes called  "MEAT" tea. Further, this tea was served with the worker and family seated at their HIGH kitchen table.While the AFTERNOON tea of the upper class took place in "tea" rooms of wealthy estates where people sat in comfortable chairs and had their tea and delicate foods served from LOW tables while the working classes more substantial "MEAT" tea was eaten sitting on chairs at a kitchen or "HIGH" table, the names of  ways in which the two different classes of Britons took their tea became named for the type of table from which the tea was served; AFTERNOON ( LOW) tea  for the upper, wealthy class and HIGH ((MEAT) tea for the working class. People in the US misunderstand the origins of British tea traditions and when they imagine British HIGH tea, they  think it is tea served in fine china, with small, delicate sandwiches and small, fancy cakes served in elegant surroundings. In  fact, they really are referring to AFTERNOON or LOW tea. AFTERNOON (LOW) tea tradition is still practiced  in Britain but now is available to anyone who can afford it and HIGH (MEAT) tea still exists in Northern England and Scotland.

*Among the items which may have been served are: a selection of finger sandwiches including cucumber, cress, smoked salmon, chicken egg, etc., scones with butter, clotted cream and jams and a variety of small cakes and pastries.