Scottish High Tea & Its Historical Development
By Donna Sue Berry
Those dripping crumpets, I can see them now. Tiny crisp wedges of toast, and piping-hot, flaky scones. Sandwiches of unknown nature, mysteriously flavored and quite delectable, and that very special gingerbread. Angel cake that melted in the mouth, and his rather stodgier companion, bursting with peel and raisins. There was enough food there to keep a starving family for a week.”
Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca (1940)
The origin of Scottish high tea as a meal
Despite its aristocratic name, the truth is that ‘High Tea’ began as another name for a workman’s supper, and was far from an elegant meal. Relegated to the working lower classes in the early days of tea drinking in the 1600s, afternoon or high tea was served on a high table at the end of the work day, around five or six o’clock.
For working families returning home exhausted, it was a substantial meal consisting of the most common dishes, such as kidney pie and steak, cheeses, pickles, and breads.
By legend, low tea began because the Duchess of Bedford, one of Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) ladies-in-waiting, suffered from “sinking feelings” around four o’clock in the afternoon each day, as noon meals. The story has it that she would have her servants sneak pots of tea and breadstuffs to her. Eventually, she began inviting friends to share not only her tea, but also small cakes and butter sandwiches, served on low tables. The practice became so popular with other hostesses that it went down in history as the social event that we still recognize today.
Today in Scotland, high or afternoon tea is generously served in most luxury hotels. At the Glasshouse, a stylish five-star hotel in Edinburgh’s city center, afternoon tea is served most days from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Andrew Brown of the Glasshouse recently shared his thoughts about high tea with Regina Magazine.
Q. Would you explain to us what afternoon tea or high tea is?
Afternoon tea is a tea that was traditionally served later in the afternoon, usually amongst the more affluent members of society. The key difference between afternoon tea and other meals, such as lunch, lies in tea’s being viewed as social experience. It’s rarely enjoyed alone, and is enjoyed at leisure over the course of a couple of hours.
Q. I’ve often heard that high tea consists of scones or finger sandwiches. Would you tell us what is typically served in Scotland?
High or afternoon tea is a loose term. Depending on where you’re from, even within the UK, it can range from something as simple as scones and tea, to the more accepted version, which now consists not only of tea and scones, but also a selection of finger sandwiches, alongside small cakes, pastries, and sweet treats.
Q. Is there a particular time when high tea is served?
Traditionally, it was consumed in the late afternoon, between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Modern afternoon tea, however, can be enjoyed at most establishments between noon and 5 p.m.
Q. Do men come to high tea, or is this meal predominantly for women?
Men do come; however, more often than not women accompany them. The meal long was considered a gentle afternoon activity for ladies of leisure.
Q. Would this be an occasion for which people would dress elegantly?
It can be, and certainly was in the 19th and early 20th century. When women entertained close family and friends at home they often wore tea gowns. These elegant gowns were more loosely fitted and designed to be worn without corsets. People still do enjoy getting dressed up for their afternoon tea, and again many Establishments do make tea into a more formal occasion, often with live music or ornate private dining rooms.
Q. Is high tea an everyday occasion, or a special a time to get together with friends once a week or once a month?
It is a social offering, so it’s not something that people generally would do daily. It is often a special treat, perhaps for a birthday, anniversary, or even a long-awaited catch-up amongst friends and family. As afternoon tea has come back into fashion, chefs have become more daring and extravagant, with the items they include in their tea.
Themed afternoon teas are commonplace, with items crafted based on the occasion. For example, during the tennis matches at Wimbledon, it’s possible to enjoy tennis-ball cakes, tennis racquet brownies, or center-court-styled Battenberg cakes, a light sponge cake with the pieces covered in jam. The cake is covered in marzipan.
Q. Would you tell us about the menu for the high tea that the Glasshouse Hotel serves?
Afternoon tea is a recent addition to the offerings here at the Glasshouse. Our menu consists of the full complement of loose-teas, scones, sandwiches, and other sweet treats, and is priced at £20 per person (about US$34). Customers can consume tea at a variety of locations within the property, such as at The Snug, with its roaring open fire, or (weather-permitting) outside on our two-acre roof garden.
Smoked salmon and chive cream cheese in a crisp filo tartlet
Coppa de Parma and goat’s cheese on crisp bread
Free-range egg and rocket (arugula) with a warm granary finger
Roast beef and Dijon mayonnaise, English-muffin sandwich
Brandy snap basket filled with strawberries and cream
Rhubarb-and-ginger scones with cinnamon cream
A selection of bespoke teas will be offered on the day