Afternoon tea is a light meal typically eaten between 3pm and 5pm. It originated in the United Kingdom, though various places that used to be part of the former British Empire also have such a meal. However, changes in social customs and working hours mean that most Britons only take afternoon tea on special/formal occasions.
Traditionally, loose tea would be served in a teapot with milk and sugar. This would be accompanied by various sandwiches (customarily cucumber, egg and cress, fish paste, ham, and smoked salmon), scones (with butter, clotted cream and jam — see cream tea) and usually cakes and pastries (such as Battenberg, fruit cake or Victoria sponge). The food would be often served in a tiered stand.
While afternoon tea used to be an everyday event, nowadays it is more likely to be taken as a treat in a hotel, café, or tea shop, although many Britons still have a cup of tea and slice of cake or chocolate at teatime. Accordingly, many hotels now market a champagne cream tea.
High tea (also known as meat tea) is an early evening meal, typically eaten between 5pm and 6pm in the evening. It would be eaten as a substitute for both afternoon tea and the evening meal. The term comes from the meal being eaten at the "high" (main) table, instead of the smaller lounge table. It is now largely replaced by a later evening meal.
It would usually consist of cold meats, eggs and/or fish, cakes and sandwiches. In a family, it tends to be less formal and is an informal snack (featuring sandwiches, biscuits, pastry, fruit and the like) or else it is the main evening meal.
On farms or other working class environments, "high tea" would be the traditional, substantial meal eaten by the workers immediately after nightfall, and would combine afternoon tea with the main evening meal. See also style="font-style : italic;">The UK Tea Council Definition
In recent years, high tea has become a term for elaborate afternoon tea, though this is American usage and mainly unrecognised in Britain. However, this usage is disfavored by etiquette advisors, such as Miss Manners (see below).
In Kenya, tea (or chai, as it is known locally) is served scalding hot with lots of milk and is usually quite sweet. In northern Kenya, tea time is used not so much as a snack, but a mid afternoon break time from work to rest, cool off, and drink tea. It was customary to always return home during work breaks for meals (lunch); and tea would be served at this time.
Afternoon tea is not served daily but is served more frequently than in the United States. The meal is sometimes called "high tea" on the same understanding as in the U.S. (see below) but purists consider such usage erroneous. Cream teas are referred to as "Devonshire Teas" and are available in many high-end restaurants and cafés.
During the working day "tea break" or just "tea" can refer to either morning tea (corresponding to elevenses and coffee break) or afternoon tea. This may be taken in a designated tea room. Colloquially, this can be referred to as a morning smoko or just smoko; which in times past was understood to mean a cup of tea, maybe something sweet or a sandwich, and a cigarette. This term is commonly used by tradesmen and the building industry.
The practice of consuming extremely rich concoctions flourished during the German economic recovery period — the Wirtschaftswunder of the 1950s and 1960s — as a reaction against the austerity and rationing of the war and immediate post-war years.
Traditionally coffee is the preferred drink served (with cream, or condensed milk, and/or sugar), but in recent decades tea has become more popular also to the common German people. In North Germany, e.g. Lübeck, Bremen and especially Hamburg, as well as in Friesland especially East Frisia, however, tea has always been traditional. Also, in the upper class and the German bourgeois esp. of the 19th and early 20th century tea was the preferred drink, they also called it "tea" instead of Nachmittagskaffee, they had their afternoon tea and also tea parties. People like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe were known for their tea parties, and authors like Heinrich Heine were known as fanatic tea lovers. The afternoon tea at the home of Thomas Mann was also quite famous (a TV Station in the 1950s produced a documentary called Afternoon Tea with Thomas Mann, in which Mann invited the viewer to tea and then served a cup of tea to the camera). In the late 19th and early 20th century, tea was also extremely popular in Berlin and in parts of today's East Germany. The origin maybe lies in the German tea culture, esp. of the Prussian aristocracy, which dates back to the 17th century.
Germans are also well aware of the U.K. custom, and refer to it by the English words "tea time". Friends may sometimes gather to have an English-style tea instead of the usual Nachmittagskaffee.
In addition, when speaking to older citizens, especially those of rural origin, it is not unusual to hear breakfast called "tea", possibly because tea is the most frequently consumed Guyanese breakfast beverage. At breakfast tea, one may eat bread, toast, roti (an Indian flatbread) or any combination thereof.
Most Guyanese refer to the most popular tea they drink as green tea, but it is actually the equivalent of a North American black tea.
A Chinese custom of yum cha (飲 茶, or yam2 cha4, Cantonese for "drinking tea") also exists in Hong Kong. Yum cha refers to a meal at which tea and dim sum is consumed, often on social occasions. Yum cha is a native Chinese custom, and is not derived from British or other European tea-drinking traditions. Unlike European tea, which is frequently taken in the home, yum cha is almost always consumed in a dim sum restaurant or teahouse. Yum cha is usually a weekend breakfast, brunch or lunch, but in the Hong Kong context is also often used for afternoon tea. Most Chinese restaurants offer special afternoon tea time discounts on their dim sum dishes.
The term "high tea" is sometimes used in the United States to refer to afternoon tea or the "tea party", a very formal, ritualised gathering in which tea, thin sandwiches and little cakes are served on the best china. This usage is an analogical construction, the term "high" being associated with social "formalilty" (rather than a "high", or main, table). Most etiquette mavens advise that such usage is unorthodox outside commercial contexts (see below); (etiquette authority Judith Martin's tongue-in-cheek interpretation is, "It's high time we had something to eat.")
This form of tea is increasingly served in high-end American hotels, often during the Christmas holidays and other tourist seasons, and a rising number of big-city teahouses, where it is usually correctly described as "afternoon tea" (see the history, above).
The tea party is still occasionally given in the U.S., either for a special occasion or in honor of a visiting celebrity or guest. This occasion is a formal one in which ladies wear good afternoon dresses or suits and gentlemen wear business suits, but otherwise afternoon tea is an informal gathering of friends. In 1922 Emily Post wrote that servants should not enter the room during afternoon tea except if summoned to bring fresh hot water or remove soiled dishes, so as not to interrupt the intimate nature of the gathering and its conversation.
American situation comedies might center a joke around an eccentric British character having his afternoon tea. However, Hollywood used afternoon tea as a device to indicate social class or status; in movies such as Notorious and Marnie (both directed by Englishman Alfred Hitchcock, but set in the United States) and Pocketful of Miracles specific reference is made to the fact that a lady would have afternoon tea. Popular culture portrays upper class women as taking afternoon tea with friends at restaurants or serving it to friends in their homes; by-and-large middle class women by contrast have a coffee break in their kitchens.