High Tea: A History


My loyal followers (Hi Mum) may remember that I hosted a High Tea over the weekend to raise money for Habitat for Humanity. It went splendidly and many traditional and non-traditional tasty treats were devoured by all. You will see that I have included some pictures in this post – all taken by The Lovely Katie.

I promised that I would accompany the event with a post on the history of High Tea, and here it is!

Your Humble Host

Today, High Tea is considered to be something one indulges in as a treat, or for a special occasion. At roughly $45 a pop, this is hardly surprising. Despite its current extravagant status, High Tea has a far more humble beginning.

The British tradition of High Tea began in the mid 1700s as an afternoon meal, usually served between 3 and 4 o’clock. It was designed for the working man and was taken standing or sitting on a tall stool, thus the term ‘high’. The meal would generally consist of tea served with cakes, scones, and even cheese on toast.

Gradually, this afternoon meal transformed into an important event on the social calendars of Ladies and Gentlemen.

Anna, the Duchess of Bedford (1788-1861) is credited as the creator of the official ‘teatime’ for the upper classes. During the middle of the eighteenth century, dinner changed from midday to what was considered a more fashionable evening meal. Due to the change in dining habits, the Duchess, and I expect many other ladies, became rather peckish in the afternoon. It should be noted that during this period only two main meals were eaten each day.

Scones by Beth!

Initially, the Duchess had her servants sneak her a pot of tea and a few “breadstuffs” when she became hungry. Clearly the Duchess tired of this and decided to adopt the European tea service format. So she wouldn’t have to eat alone, she invited friends to join her for afternoon tea at her castle. The menu centered around small cakes, bread and butter, assorted sweets, and, of course, tea.

This practice proved so popular that the Duchess continued it when she went to London, sending cards to her friends asking them to join her for “tea and a walking in the fields.” The practice of inviting friends to come for tea in the afternoon was quickly picked up by other society hostesses.

Fancy finger sandwiches served on my Nan’s silverware.

It was around this time that our old friend, and previously discussed, John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, had the idea of placing meat and other fillings between two slices of bread. Thus, the High Tea sandwich was created.

For the Leisure Classes, High Tea served a practical purpose, allowing Ladies and Gentleman the opportunity of a meal before attending the theatre, or playing cards.

As for now, well – it’s nice to at least pretend we’re classy every once and awhile, isn’t it?

Macarons by Aaron and Teabag Biscuits by Sally. Both were AMAZING.

In closing, here is a nifty little list on Tea Etiquette:

  • Pick up your cup and saucer together, holding the saucer in one hand and the cup in the other. Despite popular belief, it is not polite, nor traditional to raise your pinky
  • When stirring your tea, avoid making noises by touching the sides of the cup.
  • Never leave your spoon in the cup, and avoid sipping tea from your spoon.
  • Milk should be poured into the cup after the tea.
  • Lemon slices should be neatly placed in the teacup after tea has been poured.
  • Never add lemon with milk, as the citric acid will cause the milk to curdle

Tealicious History: Earl Grey


I’ve always considered myself to be a tea drinker. With an incredibly British grandmother and a relatively British mother, I don’t think I ever had a choice in the matter. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good coffee, but I see it as something that lights up the nerve endings in my brain in the morning. It enables me to face the day in something other than an incoherent zombie-like state. But tea? To me it is the ultimate comfort drink. It’s an old friend that warms the body and soul and always cures what ails you.

A Shit Day at Work? Tea
Head Cold? Lemon and Honey Tea
Heartbreak? Tea
Upset Stomach? Ginger Tea
Natural Disaster? Tea
Apocalypse? Tea…with a shot of rum.

I once read a story about a woman who was shot in the head in her home. Miraculously, she was hit at such an angle that she was able to make herself a cup of tea whilst waiting for the police. I was always horrified by this prospect.  Not due to the brutality of the crime, but because I knew that this is exactly what the women of my family would do, including me.

Tea fixes everything.

I adore Earl Grey in particular. Nothing makes me happier than writing my blog whilst sipping on that wonderfully scented brew. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of trying it, Earl Grey is an intoxicating blend of black tea infused with the oil of bergamot, an Italian orange. It gives it a lovely zesty aroma and taste that I find enchanting.

Unfortunately, not everyone shares my correct opinion. I have heard my beloved Earl Grey described as tasting like dirty dish water mixed with detergent by the boyfriend some. Well to him those people I quite intelligently retort – Your face tastes like dirty dish water mixed with detergent. Yeah, take that.

The actual Earl Grey. He, unlike the tea, doesn’t look particularly appetising

So, who was Earl Grey and why on earth did he have a tea named after him? True to form, there are conflicting historical tales.

Charles Grey was the 2nd Earl of Grey and British Prime Minister between 1930 and 1834. He is still renowned for being one of the primary architects of the 1832 Reform Act. This act introduced a wide range of beneficial changes to the electoral systems in England and Wales.

The Grey family state that the tea was specially blended by a Chinese Mandarin for the Earl. Legend has it that it was made with bergamot oil to compliment the water on the Earl’s estate, which is said to have had a hint of lime to it.

Some believe that in 1803 one of the Earl’s men saved the aforementioned Mandarin’s son from drowning. He then showed his appreciation by presenting the Earl with the tea as a gift. However, bergamot oil wasn’t present in China at the time, and nor was the Earl. A far more likely story is that the Earl was presented with the tea by an envoy upon returning from a routine trip to China.

The belief in this origin story is universal, unless of you ask Twinings. Their website claims that they themselves developed it and named it after the Earl. Conveniently enough there is no explanation as to why. Every historian knows that it’s those who hold power that decide what version of history will be considered as truth, and this is no different, albeit on quite a small scale.

The tea rose in popularity due to Lady Grey, as she often used it to entertain guests in London. Others wished to purchase the tea and this is where Twinings most definitely became involved. They began mass producing the tea on a large scale and it quickly became a household name. Unfortunately for the Greys, they didn’t have the forethought to register the trademark. Subsequently, neither they nor their ancestors received any royalties from the sales of Earl or Lady Grey tea.

Because I’m sure you don’t know what tea looks like

For those who haven’t heard of Lady Grey, it was developed by Twinings and named after Lady Elizabeth Grey. It is far more delicate and fragrant than her husband’s counterpart. In addition to the bergamot oil, it contains both lemon and orange peel. I find it to have quite a flowery aroma and a very sweet taste.

Earl Grey has remained popular throughout the years and is used quite often in cooking and baking. I’ve personally tried Earl Grey flavoured macaroons and chocolate and they were both delicious.

I’d like to thank the lovely Katie for requesting this topic. As a result, I have decided to not only write about other teas, but to start an entire series on High Tea. I’ll most likely roll this out in September so it will coincide with  one of Habitat for Humanity’s annual events – High Tea for Habitat. It’s a fantastic and delicious way to raise money for a great cause. I urge you all to get a group together and participate. More info can be found at http://www.habitat.org.au/hightea.

Please leave a comment if you have a favourite tea that you would like me to explore the origins of. I absolutely love taking requests. Yes mum, I will definitely write about Russian Caravan for you.

Have a lovely weekend!

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