How British Is Your Tea Time?

Jacobs Jaffa Cakes (ETS image)
Jacobs Jaffa Cakes (ETS image)

Tea – check! Scones – check! Is that enough? How British is your tea time? It needs to be more than just those two items. Gauge your set-up against a typical British tea time to see how close you come.

A Fairly Typical British Tea Time

The key word here is “time” since the time of day that you are having tea will determine what is “typical.”

  • Elevenses – Dating from the early 19th Century, this tea time consists of a tea break in late-morning (usually around 11 AM, thus accounting for the name). The menu starts with a cup of tea and includes 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. In our more modern times, though, people rarely take the effort to stop and enjoy a respite, but I’m thinking that it would do the world a lot of good if they did.
  • Afternoon Tea – This is the biggee, the one most folks in the U.S. know well. This tea time tradition began during the 1840s in England. It bridged the gap between breakfast and dinner (for the lower classes since they only ate two meals a day) and lunch and dinner (for the upper classes since they got up later and had dinner much later). Afternoon tea can range from a small meal (similar to an elevenses tea time menu) to those typical English tea offerings(finger sandwiches, cakes, pastries, etc.). This tea time has sadly also declined in frequency and shifted to a fancy service at hotels and teashops.
  • High Tea – Not so much a quick tea break as it is 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 PM when they would most likely just be getting home from work.

Other Features of a Typical British Tea Time

Time plays a role, but so does the tea and the setting.

  • Even with things changing with regard to tea drinking in the UK, black tea reigns supreme, with everyone claiming a favorite and serving it up by the potful at tea time.
  • That potful is a key ingredient here, too, since just one cup is more often than not insufficient. If you have guests, you may even need to steep up a second potful.
  • No matter what time your tea time is, getting away from your work or other tasks is part of the tea time. Gulping that cuppa while vacuuming, waiting on a customer at the store, or securing another rivet in that steel I-beam on the 94th floor of that skyscraper just isn’t British. Sorry.
  • Fresh is best, but pre-made snacks and cakes such as that perennial favorite Jaffa cakes are fine. A British brand is best here.
  • Congeniality is a must. No fist fights or sharp-tongued barbs.

How close are you to holding your tea time in full British fashion? If you’re all the way there, congrats! For the rest of you, don’t be shy – adding those British touches is an easy thing to do.

See more of A.C. Cargill’s articles here.

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