Catching up over ‘high tea’ is becoming a common way to socialise with family and friends. Sharing stories or discussing the latest news over tea, cakes and sandwiches is a wonderful way to enjoy a delicious light meal. But Sydney high tea offerings are different to their traditional origins, and in some cases, they bear little resemblance at all. Even calling it high tea may be incorrect in some instances, depending on when you serve it and what tea and foods are on offer.
Here we discuss what high tea is, how it has changed and what you can expect from a Sydney high tea experience.
Where did high tea begin?
What we consider to be high tea in Australia today was originally called afternoon tea in mid-19th century England. Before afternoon tea became fashionable, the British middle and upper-class had two main meals per day. These were breakfast consisting of bread, beef and ale, and a large midday meal. But as the second main meal changed from midday to around 8pm in the evening, lunch became a small snack. People got hungry at around 4-5pm, so afternoon tea was born.
Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, created afternoon tea in 1840 while holidaying one summer at Belvoir Castle. Initially, she had her servants sneak food and tea to her when the late afternoon hunger pangs came. Then she had the bright idea to invite her friends at 5pm for tea, cakes, bread and butter sandwiches, and other assorted sweets. Sandwiches were filled with decadent ingredients such as cucumber, egg, smoked salmon, fish paste, and cress. Desserts included scones with whipped cream and jam, Battenberg cake, fruit cake or Victoria sponge. The Duchess had such a good time that when she returned to London she continued the tradition.
Before long other socialites adopted afternoon tea, and it soon became common practice among the upper-class. Society women would dress in their finest dresses with gloves and hats, and enjoy afternoon tea with their friends in the drawing room. If the weather was good, it might be served in the garden instead.
By the 1920s, afternoon tea had grown into a grand social affair for the upper class. Instead of a small gathering of friends with cakes, sandwiches and tea, it had become a party with fine linen, silver teapots, servants, musicians and pageantry.
Conversely, it was the working class who enjoyed high tea. After a long day of work, people would need something more substantial than tea and cakes for their second main meal. Families would gather for a meal of vegetables, bread, pickles, cheese, butter and tea. Occasionally meat was added to the mix, along with potatoes, pies and crackers. This meal was eaten while seated on high back chairs at the dining table, as opposed to low, comfortable parlour chairs used for afternoon tea, and as such became known as high tea.
Today this meal is simply called tea or supper in England, and dinner in Australia.
High tea in Australia
Thanks to the spread of the British Empire during the 19th century, high tea has become commonplace in many countries around the world.
What we call high tea in Australia is an adaptation of 19th-century afternoon tea in England. Hotels, teashops and other venues have taken the traditional English afternoon tea and added their own unique twists. In addition to tea, scones and cakes, you often find champagne, tarts, quiches, crepes and other assorted sweets on offer. The decoration, colour, and visual presentation are now almost as important as the food and tea itself.
Some venues have taken high tea and added features that have no resemblance to its origins. Bars will often include cocktails in place of tea, while massages, manicures and other pampering opportunities are sometimes included in the experience.
The Ritz in London vs the Sydney high tea experience
The Ritz Hotel offers the quintessential upper-class London experience. For over 100 years The Ritz has hosted some of the world’s most famous, and infamous, guests. Located between Mayfair and St. James, you have easy access to some of the best luxury boutiques, galleries and other London attractions. With its emphasis on luxury and history, it should come as no surprise that Afternoon Tea at The Ritz is regularly voted London’s most traditional.
Located in the Palm Court, guests to their Afternoon Tea can enjoy:
- 18 different varieties of loose leaf tea
- Finely cut sandwiches with classical fillings
- Scones with strawberry jam and clotted Devonshire cream
- A selection of cakes and pastries
Afternoon tea is always served in keeping with how it was done in the 19th century. Chinaware and silver teapots, milk jugs and tea strainers, combined with the venue itself, create a charming recreation of how it was done 150 years ago. Immaculately presented waiters, along with the resident harpist and pianist, add a touch of class to the experience. To be allowed entry to Palm Court, men must wear a dinner jacket and tie, while jeans and sportswear for men and women are strictly forbidden.
Conversely, the best high tea in Sydney offers a combination of traditional elements and each venue’s own unique twist. A Sydney high tea experience might include:
- Champagne and/or wine
- A theme such as the Alice in Wonderland Mad Hatter’s Tea Party
- Coffee options including espresso martinis
- Savoury foods such as crisp golden samosas, chicken and leek pies, a pastry filled with spicy potato, dumplings, pancakes and pork belly.
- Sweet options such as French pastries, mango pudding, salted caramel tarts, lemon meringue pies, chocolate fudge, pomegranate mousse and macarons.
- Non-traditional scone options such as cheddar and thyme, lemon and pistachio, lavender and many, many others.
- Children’s options including marshmallows, jelly cups, cookies, mini panna cotta, fairy floss, milkshakes and specially developed tea blends
Additional experiences such as having your tea leaves read and your fortune told, massages and manicures.
Setting up for high tea
While ‘high tea’ in Australia is loosely based on 19th-century afternoon tea in England, there are still certain traditions that are worth mentioning. If you want to host your own high tea party, here are some key setting up points you might like to remember:
- Time – Traditionally, afternoon tea is served from 4-6pm.
- The table should be split into four separate areas. These are:
- The tea tray at one end
- On one side – teacups, saucers, and teaspoons
- On the other side – stacked plates, forks, and linen napkins
- In the middle – Plates of food such as sandwiches, scones and small cakes; and two pots, one with jam and the other with whipped cream.
- On the tea tray – teapot (with loose leaf tea and boiling water), sugar bowl (cubes and tongs), small milk jug, tea strainer, a dish with lemon wedges and fork, jug of hot water for those wishing to dilute the tea, and a bowl for used tea leaves.
Etiquette do’s and don’t’s for high tea
For those wishing to enjoy a traditional high tea experience, the way you act and behave is important. To get into the spirit of the occasion, here are a list of do’s and don’t’s you might like to use at your next high tea event:
- Try at least some of each food served (this may be difficult at a hotel or tea room when there are a lot of different items served).
- Take small bites of your food; don’t stuff your face!
- Spread the cream first, then the jam on your scones. Yes, it goes against everything we’ve done before, but you’ll get used to it.
- Put food OR tea in your mouth, not both at the same time!
- Look into your tea while taking a sip, not over it. It’s polite.
- Say “excuse me” and leave your napkin on your seat if you need to leave the table.
- Pour the tea into your cup before adding a slice of lemon, not the other way around.
- Talk with your mouth full
- Put personal items (keys, sunglasses, phone) on the table
- Make a mess by filling your cup too high
- Leave your teaspoon in the cup, especially when taking a sip
- Remove food from your teeth at the table. Say “excuse me”, leave your napkin on your seat and do so in private.
- Push your plate away from the edge of the table when you’re done eating.
High tea at Lantern Club
Henry James, one of the great American writers of the 20th century said:
“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea”.
We couldn’t agree more. Whether it’s a special event like an anniversary or birthday, an afternoon of fun with a group of girlfriends, or some long overdue mother and daughter time, high tea is the perfect way to share that time together.
At Lantern Club we have a high tea experience that is a nod to the English afternoon tea of years gone by, while incorporating what modern Sydney has to offer. We offer:
- Fresh sandwiches with traditional high tea fillings
- Homemade scones with whipped cream and strawberry jam
- Freshly baked pastries, cakes, and tarts
- An assortment of herbal teas and coffees
Let our staff treat you and your guests to an incredible afternoon of delicious foods and teas, while enjoying the company of the people you care about most. Use our online booking form to request a table for your Sydney high tea party at Lantern Club.
© Lantern Club, Roselands