Most Americans develop only a vague understanding of British tea etiquette from watching Merchant Ivory movies and reading Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. So our knowledge of British tea is, as one might expect, "a mess," according to smartie.
For one thing, even though Americans throw the term "low tea" around, "I have never heard of the phrase 'low tea.' It's either 'high tea' or 'tea,'" smartie says. Part of the stateside confusion comes from the fact that tea in England is not only a drink—as it is in the United States—but also a meal.
When it comes to the beverage, "the old way to drink tea was from a pot filled with tea leaves—warm the pot with a little boiling water, discard that water, add a teaspoon of loose tea per person and one for the pot, then pour on boiling (not just hot) water, leave to steep a few minutes and serve," says smartie. "Milk is added either before or after the tea ... which is a whole other discussion. Nowadays most people use tea bags either in a pot or one per cup or mug."
Tea bags or not, the British take their tea rather seriously, as montrealeater learned. "The first time I microwaved a cooled-off cup of tea I knew I had lost their respect and would forever be a poor savage in their eyes," says montrealeater. "The English also attribute all kinds of mysterious healing/comforting properties to tea. Flu? Cold? Breakup? Sad? Anxious? Bad day at work? Bummed about world politics? Solution = tea."
As for the tea that's actually the name of a meal, says smartie, hosts will offer anything ranging from just a cup of tea and a biscuit or two, to some combination of sandwiches, teacakes, fruit jelly, scones, toasted and buttered buns, doughnuts, and cakes. "Afternoon tea is around 4pm but not earlier than 3:30 and not later than 4:30," smartie says.
However, there are complicated geographical and socioeconomic class variables at play. "If you are from 'Up North' for example then 'tea' can mean your dinner and would be [had] probably after 5pm," smartie says. "If you are using the term 'tea' to mean dinner, you are most certainly of working class origin and Southerners will use this too but not the upper classes. Britain is class conscious and certain words are used in different contexts; tea is definitely one of those words!"
Discuss: high tea and low tea