“Nothing say self-indulgence more than being able to slowly savor every bite and enjoy the sensory experience from sight, to smell, to taste, and finally that after taste which lingers long after” Lala Wang
What High Tea Means to Me
I cannot help but think how fitting it is to write about the history and origins of high tea, as I sit in a local café in Ubud, while having my Balinese breakfast, and sipping on a cup of green tea.
To me, high tea is the ultimate self-indulgence. An act of self-love and self-appreciation for a foodie/dessert lover like me. There is nothing more relaxing and calming than slowly tasting each item on the high tea stand, sipping on your favourite tea, and just letting time go by.
Who Started The Trend? The French of English?
Depending on whom you speak to, French or English, each would have their own interpretation when it comes to the origin of high tea. Long before the days of coffee and bistro, the French have been using tea for medicinal purposes amongst the rich and wealthy from as early as the 17th Century.
The English however, really weren’t that far behind in terms of the introduction of imported tea from Asia, and are said to have created the culture of an “afternoon tea”.
Origin of The Term “High Tea”
Although the high tea we know today represents a sense of indulgence, class and sophistication, the origin of the term “high tea” was really introduced by the British working class men in the mid 17th century. It was served as a pre-dinner meal to fill the empty stomach before the end of a working day and while dinner was being prepared at home. The term “high tea” came about simply because it was generally consumed while standing up or sitting on tall stools.
Duchess of Bedford and “Low Tea”
The high tea as we know it today really started as “low tea” served on low dinner tables. But I must say, high tea sounds so much for sophisticated and lady like! It was said that during the 19th Century Anna the 7th Duchess of Bedford, complained about “having that sinking feeling” in the afternoon (AKA the “three-thirtyitis” these days). At first, She started secretly bringing tea and a few finger foods into her room. Later on, Anna decided to invite her friends to join in, and this new little trend soon became a popular concept adopted by the socialites.
High Tea and Its Social Purpose
This new afternoon trend had also served a social purpose, as a social outlet for women in the 19th Century. As their husbands gathered in the gentlemen’s clubs to discuss men’s businesses and politics, the ladies also gathered over afternoon tea, to discuss “tea business”. It not only allowed them to fill that empty spot in their stomach before late dinners, which were typically served around 8pm, but also created a sense of community, belonging and social status.
The English High Tea
It is also worth mentioning here, that as the popularity for high tea spread across the continent back into France, in their true creative and extravagant nature, the French had also taken high tea to a higher level. The traditional English high tea is a lot simpler and daintier compared to their French counterpart. Every item on the three tiers had to be exactly the same size. From sandwiches to scones, from tarts to cakes, all had to be in bite size chunks, no bigger and no smaller. The sweets on the top tier are generally layered cakes, and sponges, simple but elegant, just like a beautiful English lady.
Modern Day High Tea and The Art of Food Appreciation
Nowadays, most high tea places have adopted the French version, due to competition and commercialization. The three-tiered high teas are becoming more and more elaborate and creative, in order to compete in an increasingly competitive market. There are no set sizes when it comes to the sandwiches and scones. The petite fours on the top tier are also a lot more decorative, like jewelry on display.
The art of modern day high tea is really music to my ears (or eyes, or even taste buds) as a dessert lover. I love trying different high tea places, as if I am going to various art galleries of desserts and finger foods. However, I am also torn between my love of history and creative outlets. In our pursuit of food creativity and competitiveness, have we lost the simplicity, tradition and authentic purpose of high tea, which is simply a light meal between breakfast and dinner?
In this modern society full of consumption and overindulgence, have we lost the true meaning of enjoyment, where less is more? Is enjoyment of food defined by how full you are, or simply being present, slowly savoring every bite and enjoying the sensory experience from sight, to smell, to taste, and finally that after taste which lingers long after?
My thought is… just like anything else in life, the art of moderation and not over consumption is the key. I’d rather enjoy the beauty of each bite, and that longing for more long after the experience. Because to me, this is when memories are created.