Afternoon Tea, High Tea, & Elevenses Revisited

Recently, an article was posted (and has been getting shared on social media quite a bit) about the various British tea times, including afternoon tea, high tea, and elevenses. It seems that tea topics recycle every few years, so I thought I’d revisit my articles on this subject for your edification. And I’ve added some info about an essential for tea time: clotted cream. (Note: Articles have been edited from their original form.)

How British Is Your Tea Time?

How British is your tea time? Gauge your set-up against a typical British tea time to see how close you come.

A Fairly Typical British Tea Time

Tea_Blog_Fall-YankT-C002The time of day when you are having tea will determine what is “typical.”

  • Elevenses – Dating from the early 19th Century, consists of a tea break in late-morning (usually around 11 a.m., thus the name). A cup of tea and a biscuit (what we in the U.S. call a “cookie”) or a piece of cake. This had become such a part of English life that fictional characters such as Winnie the Pooh and Paddington Bear took elevenses. Not as popular now, though, in the UK due to busy schedules.
  • Afternoon Tea – The biggee and the one most folks in the U.S. know well. Began during the 1840s in England, held between breakfast and dinner. Ranges from a small meal (similar to an elevenses tea time menu) to those typical English tea offerings (finger sandwiches, cakes, pastries, etc.). Has declined in frequency and shifted to a fancy service at hotels and teashops.
  • High Tea – A large, early evening meal usually consisting of traditional British meat dishes (fish and chips, Shepherd’s pie, ham salads, and so on), giving it the nickname of “meat tea.” The British lower classes considered this their dinner and had it around 5-6 p.m. when getting home from work.

Other Features of a Typical British Tea Time

  • In the UK, black tea still reigns supreme, served it up by the potful – one cup is not sufficient.
  • Getting away from your work or other tasks is part of tea time, no matter when it is held. Gulping that cuppa while vacuuming, waiting on a customer at the store, or other tasks just isn’t British.
  • Fresh or pre-made snacks and cakes are fine, with Jaffa cakes being a favorite.
  • Congeniality is a must. No fist fights or sharp-tongued barbs.

How close are you to holding your tea time in full British fashion? Adding those British touches is an easy thing to do.

Tea Traditions — “High Tea” Then and Now

Tea_Blog_High-Tea“High Tea” has changed since the 1600s. Many tea rooms in the U.S. serve dishes like crab salad with mint and lime, and people dress up fancy, with hats and white gloves. But this is far from it’s origin. The word “high” could be at fault here.

When tea was an expensive luxury enjoyed mainly by the aristocracy in Europe, they usually enjoyed it with simple foods like buttered toast or cake and generally in their drawing rooms or private palace chambers on a low table similar to today’s coffee tables. This was meant to tide them over until dinner, which was served later in the day (from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. or even later as fashion decreed). Tea time for the upper classes/aristocrats came to be known as “Low Tea” or “Afternoon Tea.” As tea became less expensive, the middle class joined in this custom.

Eventually as tea prices continued to fall, the laborers in factories, etc., were able to afford and enjoy it, also. Their tea time was later in the day (around 5 p.m. or 6 p.m.) and considered dinner, including some type of meat dish. This became known as “High Tea” and served at the high table in the kitchen. So, the “high” in “High Tea” did not mean “superior” or “fancy,” as some now think.

Today, “High Tea” is used for a fancy tea time, often where the tea room charges a higher price. It’s hard to tell if they charge more because of the name “High Tea” or because of the menu, which often includes dainty and expensive dishes. The event has been “fancied up” so that it no longer even remotely resembles the original version.

The fancy nature of the nouveau version of the “High Tea” tends to promote the idea that tea and tea time are more for women. A lot of men are turned off by the bite-size portions and dainty atmosphere. One tea room even launched their “High Tea” on Mother’s Day. A price range that averages from $22 to $85 per person can tend to limit such events to the special occasion category. Also, there is a tendency to think that, the higher the price, the more classy something is, but not necessarily so.

Maybe you he-men out there could look at those bite-size bits as being just as manly as a slab of barbecued ribs and tea as a beverage as manly as the stoutest alcoholic brew.

Just a thought. Enjoy!

“Afternoon Tea” vs. “High Tea” — Should We Preserve the Distinction?


The term “high tea” now is pretty much as a synonym for “afternoon tea” (also called “low tea” by some). The question is whether to re-establish that distinction or not of high tea (also called “meat tea”) as dinner.

  • Why We Should – To avoid confusion. If your tea room advertises “high tea,” anyone used to the old dinner style will be shocked if you bring them scones, cakes, and other tidbits with their tea. These are the kinds of foods served at “afternoon tea.”
  • Why We Should Not – The average tea room customer no longer has any idea that the term is being misused. Changing could be more confusing, like trying to get folks to stop using things like “rooibos tea,” “herbal tea,” etc. It’s up to us customers to educate ourselves and learn what is what.
  • One Thing That Would Help – Give enough information about your “high tea,” “herbal tea,” etc., so that we’ll know what you are meaning. Post your menu, for example, for “high tea” or give the full ingredients for your “herbal tea.” Then, we, your customers, can make informed choices and don’t get some rather disappointing surprises.

The Great Clotted Cream Debate Rages On

Jam on top is definitely Devonshire style!
Jam on top is definitely Devonshire style!

Clotted cream is tasty stuff …no joke…stop what you’re doing, go buy some, bake some scones, and plop on some clotted cream. And jam. But wait…which goes first: the clotted cream or the jam? The great clotted cream debate rages on. But first a bit of background information…

The cream tea is in essence an Afternoon Tea where you have scones and clotted cream and jam (often raspberry or strawberry) with your tea. It originated in either Devon or Cornwall in England and is enjoyed about the same time of day that an Afternoon Tea is held (around 4 to 5 p.m.).

To some of us, British food names are a bit of a turn-off. Things like “toad in the hole,” “bubble and squeak,” and “blood sausage” (which is pretty accurate, actually, and rightfully off-putting). Small wonder that they call this stuff “clotted” cream. No marketing sense whatsoever. A lot of folks don’t associate something positive with the word. At least not until they try clotted cream. It’s heavenly – thicker than cream, thinner than butter, a touch of sweetness, spreadable but better plopped on with a spoon.

The folks in Devon find that clotted cream plopped on the scone first and then the jam on top of it is quite tasty and keep the jam from soaking into the scone (which is split in half). The folks in Cornwall do it the other way around, spreading on jam and then putting a nice plop of clotted cream on top of it – apparently of bit of jam soaked into the scone appeals to them. There aren’t strict boundaries here, though. Devonites can plop that jam on first if they want and the Cornish scone lovers can plop on that clotted cream last.

What Is Genuine Clotted Cream?

Tea_Blog_Devon-ClotCrm005One of the wonders of that very special style of British tea time known as the “cream tea” is it’s central figure – clotted cream. Many people here in the U.S. ask what it is and even find the name a bit of a turn-off (I suspect it’s the word “clotted” since it makes us think of blood). Time to take a look at what it really is and the kind that is considered genuine (yes, there is a claim to that effect).

  • What Clotted Cream Is – A thick version of cream that has a fat content of 50% or more. Start with full-cream cow’s milk, heat it indirectly in a steam or water bath, then pour into shallow pans and let it cool slowly. The cream rises to the surface and forms clumps or “clots” that are skimmed off. Production is common in Devon and Cornwall counties in England, with the Cornish firm Rodda’s being the largest commercial producer. (About 16 years ago, “Cornish clotted cream” became a protected designation by the EU – it has to be produced in Cornwall and have a minimum fat content of 55%.)
  • What Clotted Cream Is NOT – Butter, whipped cream, heavy cream. These are substituted for clotted cream at tea time when the clotted cream container is empty. But none quite fills the bill. Butter is not sweet enough, whipped cream is too sweet and not thick enough, and heavy cream – well, it’s pourable, not spreadable.
  • Homemade Clotted Cream – Use heavy whipping cream that isn’t ultra-pasteurized (unpasteurized or pasteurized is fine, though) and has as high a fat content as you can find. Preheat the oven to 180°F. In a heavy-bottomed oven-safe pot pour enough cream into it to come one to three inches up the side. Cover the pot and put it into the oven for about 8 to 12 hours so a thick yellowish skin to forms on top (that’s the clotted cream). Take the pot out of the oven and let it sit to cool. Once it’s at about room temperature, put the pot in the refrigerator for 8 hours more. Once chilled, take the pot out and skim off the clotted cream from the top.
  • Genuine Clotted Cream – The folks at Rodda’s claim that title. Having tasted their products, I would say it’s well-deserved. But I’m hardly likely to jump on a jet to fly over there for a cream tea. So, I settle for the brands available to us here in the U.S. and find them more than satisfactory, not to mention a lot cheaper, considering the cost of airfare these days.

Will the Real Devon Clotted Cream Please Stand Up?

Devon Luxury Clotted Cream
Devon Luxury Clotted Cream

The popularity of Devon Clotted Cream is resulting in a bunch of “wannabes” out there – clotted creams that are made elsewhere and use the name. There is now an effort to get only those clotted creams that are actually made in Devon County, UK, labeled as “Devon Clotted Cream.” And they have good reason to do so. Misnomers confuse and, worse, sully the reputation of the genuine articles.

The folks in Devon are very particular about anything bearing the name “Devon.” They also know their clotted cream is different from the kind made in Cornwall, the other UK county where this dairy delicacy originated. Thus, their concern when the name “Devon Clotted Cream” is applied to products not made in Devon County and which may not be up to the high standards of the folks living there.

The real Devon clotted cream is made to the standards of area producers. For one thing, they use exclusively Jersey & Guernsey cream. Those small, brown, downright pretty Devon Jersey Cows are acknowledged around the world as producing milk with a high butterfat content. Small wonder that those traditional Devon dairy products are likewise renowned, having a luxurious richness seldom found elsewhere.

Double Devon Cream
Double Devon Cream

Along with clotted cream, the folks in Devon (and one farm owner in particular) are trying to get their particular style of tea time declared something “protected” in the European Union. They call it the “Devonshire Cream Tea.” (For the British, the term “tea” can refer to both the beverage and the break time they take to indulge it. Confusing.) I can sort of see the worth of this struggle. If tearooms are serving teas that vary from the standard scones-clotted-cream-jam-tea menu but still call it a “Devonshire Cream Tea,” the public will lose all sense of what that term should mean. They already think that a bunch of dried herbs, flowers, and fruits thrown into boiling water and steeped a few minutes are “tea.” Maybe the owners of tea (Camellia Sinensis) plantations should follow Devon’s example.

As for clotted cream, slapping the name “Devon” on some that is not made in Devon County poses a risk to those producers. If the quality isn’t as good, the name’s reputation can suffer. I bought a small jar of such a clotted cream, labeled “Devon” but actually made elsewhere. Fortunately, the taste was delectable. Unfortunately, not having access to real Devon Clotted Cream and not having had the real thing for many years now, I don’t know how this one compared. But the fact that it didn’t, as California Valley girls say, “totally blow” is a good sign.

Time to go steep a pot of black tea, bake some scones, and pop open a jar of clotted cream, real or not. Hope you’ll join me!

© 2015 A.C. Cargill photos and text


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