Venus her Myrtle, Phoebus has his bays;
Tea both excels, which she vouchsafes to praise.
The best of Queens, the best of herbs, we owe
To that bold nation which the way did show
To the fair region where the sun doth rise,
Whose rich productions we so justly prize.
The Muse's friend, tea does our fancy aid,
Regress those vapours which the head invade,
And keep the palace of the soul serene,
Fit on her birthday to salute the Queen
Edmund Waller, poet and politician may have written this poem in 1663 in honour of Queen Catherine for her birthday crediting her with making tea a fashionable drink amongst courtiers, but it wasn't Queen Catharine who made high tea fashionable.
High Tea as fancy as it may sound is frequently a misnomer. It is referred to as such to give it a lofty, regal ring when in reality high tea, also known as “meat tea” is dinner. It is generally eaten between 5 and 6 o'clock in the evening and takes the place for both afternoon tea and evening meal. The reason why it's really called “high” tea is because the meal it authentically referred to was generally eaten at the “high” (main) table instead of on a smaller lounge table. In its true sense, this meal would consist of cold meats, eggs and/or fish, cakes and sandwiches.
The tradition of afternoon tea was probably started by the French, if the 17th century letters of one Madame de Sévigné are any proof. This was before tea was introduced to England. Tea trickled down to England in 1600 when Queen Elizabeth The First granted permission to the British East India Company trade relationships with the Far East, Southeast Asia, and India. And so began the popularity of tea in England.
By 1700, more than 500 coffee houses in London served tea. But it was during the second half of the Victorian Period that “high” tea came into being when working families would return home tired and exhausted to sit at the high or main table to partake in a meal of meats, bread, butter, pickles, cheese and of course tea.
The modern day concept of high tea (that is fancy afternoon tea) is rumoured to be credited to Anna Maria Stanhope, Duchess of Bedford. A light lunch was the reason that made this lady quite hungry by four o'clock. She had her servants sneak her a pot of tea and titbits to last her till dinner. She soon adopted the European tea service and invited her friends to join her at her castle at 5pm for some tea. And thus high tea was born!
mind those teas
While the true essence of high tea may have become garbled through the ages, authentic modern day high tea as served and seen in hotels, tearooms and movies around the world suggest quite a formal protocol.
Yes, there is high tea etiquette! And if you don't want your tearoom sommelier to frown at your obvious lack of grace, make sure you remember a few things.
Do not use your tea to wash down food. Sip, don't slurp your tea and swallow before eating.
If you need to stir your tea, don't stir in a circular motion; fold in the tea from the six-o-clock position to the twelve-o-clock position in your teacup.
To be a true high tea connoisseur, place your thumb at the six o'clock position and your index and middle fingers at the twelve o'clock position around the handle and gently raise your pinkie up for balance while lifting the cup.
If you do need to get up during tea, never leave the napkin on the chair for the simple reason that a soiled napkin may stain the chair's upholstery.
Treats such as scones and dinner rolls should never be bitten into or sliced in their entirety. Break off a bite-size piece, place it on your plate, and then apply the jam and cream with the bread and butter knife. A fork should not be used. Dipping is simply out of the question!
While dipping your scone in the cup at home in front of your friends is just fine, if you're ever dining at a real tearoom, these etiquettes, as exaggerated as they sound, are very important. After all who wants to be Julia Roberts in that clothing store in Pretty Woman, right?
While tearooms and snotty sommeliers are all well and fine, there's nothing better than organising your own high tea party! This gives you a chance to go all out and create a tea bonanza or simply have a cosy gathering to catch up with old friends. And with our long summer afternoons and 9pm dinner habits, a high tea party is the perfect way to while away an afternoon without ruining those dinner appetites.
The long summer afternoons make it easy to start the party around five-thirty and go on till seven. This also gives office-goers the commute time to get to your place if it's on a weekday. Ideally, Saturday afternoons are good because Fridays tend to be family days and having a tea party on Saturday allows people to enjoy the last few hours before starting work on Sunday without ruining their sleep schedule.
To add a touch of whimsy, try having high tea set out on the lawn, the roof or the veranda. But if the summer heat is an issue, the dinning room will do just fine.
Decide in advance if you want it to be formal or informal. For a formal affair, take out those linen and cutlery sets. Colour coordinate these with your dishes. Fold those napkins neatly and make sure you've set out the right amount of crockery to avoid double dipping or having to use your hands. On a more informal note, go for mismatched pieces of dishes and add some mischief with candles and wild flowers.
Make the menu simple and light but suited to everyone's needs. Not everyone drinks tea or is allowed sugar. So make sure you take your guests' preferences into account. Ideally, sandwiches, spring rolls, biscuits and pastries are perfect for high tea. Most of these things are dry and can be made at home or found at the local market freezer. Since it is high tea, serving different blends of tea is a good idea too.
In the end, having high tea with friends is not one of those “in” things to do under false pretences. It is a chance to kick off those heels, cosy up and catch up on good times while munching on savouries. And it's quite simple to do. So give it a shot…
Photo: Zahedul I Khan
Special thanks to Radisson Water Garden Hotel Dhaka for setting up the shoot.