A Classic British Afternoon Tea: What is served and what to expect

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 20: High tea set up at the Fleurs De Villes FEMMES Debuts at The Calyx at The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney on August 20, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Hanna Lassen/Getty Images for the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 20: High tea set up at the Fleurs De Villes FEMMES Debuts at The Calyx at The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney on August 20, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Hanna Lassen/Getty Images for the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney) /

Whenever we think of British afternoon tea, we imagine fancy silverware or vintage tea set and tiered food stand filled with goodies. But afternoon tea is often confused with high tea. Conventionally speaking, these two are very different things. A British afternoon tea, also called low tea, is an elaborate affair and a fine British tradition, where exotic teas are accompanied by a host of sweet and savory dishes. A high tea, on the other hand, was historically a hearty meal served with tea on a high table as a post-work, working-class affair.

Now, afternoon tea can be a basic cream tea, where black tea is served with cream and scones; or a light tea, with more sweet dishes on the side, and finally, a full tea, where you’ll find sandwiches and other savory and sweet accompaniments. Either way, tea before sundown can be both relaxing and fun, depending on what you have with it.

So, what can you expect to find at a British afternoon tea?

The British afternoon tea menu

The overarching British cuisine might not be as globally popular as other European cuisines, but their tea affairs do make up for all the flavors and visual delight. The quintessential menu of a British afternoon tea entails simple dishes, served in small, bite-sized portions and steers clear from anything that could be messy, spicy, or too contemporary. From finger sandwiches to petit fours and a host of cute and fancy items in between, here’s what you can expect to find at a British afternoon tea.


British afternoon tea
(Photo Illustration by Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images) /

Sandwiches with tea or coffee are a universal favorite but the British counterpart is a whole lot more modest. These between-breads served at afternoon teas are usually cut lengthwise (to hold between two fingers) or in small triangles. The stuffing can range from just a slice of summer tomatoes or crisp cucumbers, placed between buttered bread, and sprinkled with a dash of salt and pepper. You can also try a cream cheese spread instead of butter. Sometimes, egg salad sandwiches are also served.


British afternoon tea
(Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images) /

Although we have an American counterpart of this popular breakfast dish, British scones are much subtler in flavor, and round in shape. Scones are a traditional tea-time snack, typically served with cream and strawberry jam. You are free to try other fruit jams like marmalade, mango, or mixed berry jam. Of course, over time, people have explored various flavors and today, you can easily find almond scones or cheese scones served with tea. The star of this dish however, is the Devonshire clotted cream, made with full-cream milk.


British afternoon tea
(Photo by Leisa Tyler/LightRocket via Getty Images) /

Tea and cakes are the inseparable twins of teatime. The entire category of tea cakes was introduced so we can have an all-time side with teas. One of the most classic cakes to be served at afternoon tea is the Victorian sponge cake with jam or lemon curd and whipped cream, which takes after Queen Victoria’s own favorite. Colorful, sugary petit fours are also common and served with teas. As far as tea cakes go, they can range from basic almond or orange tea cakes to fruit buns with earl grey or spiced tea flavors.

Biscuits and Tarts

British afternoon tea
Shortbreads and cookies /

What we call cookies are traditional biscuits in the UK. Shortbreads, ginger snaps, brandy snaps, and Linzer cookies find themselves arranged neatly on trays along with the rest of the menu at an afternoon tea event. For a more elaborate spread, tarts, tartlets, cannoli, and choux pastries also join the menu, especially a traditional Bakewell tart, with almonds, and raspberries.


British afternoon tea
A rich tea brew is poured into a clear tea cup at Special Teas in Northborough.Wl Tea Specialteas 1 /

There’s no tea party without tea. And people on the other side of the pond LOVE their leafy brews. At a traditional British afternoon tea, you’ll find a wide variety of tea blends; from the subtle, aromatic Darjeeling to the full-bodied Ceylon or Orange Pekoe tea, and even flavored ones like peppermint, chamomile, chai tea, and the most essential, the English breakfast (yes, you can have this black tea any time of the day, despite its name). Fruit-infused teas and herbal or floral teas like lavender, rosemary, and hibiscus are also served, but you might find them more as iced versions.

While you may imagine sipping fine blends of Darjeeling or Ceylon teas, sitting in a Victorian-era tea room, from gilded cups, it’s not much of a common reality in the 21st century. However, you can always whip up some of the classic tea-time foods, call your book club friends, or plan a themed British afternoon tea party, and escape into the good old days for a while. Don’t miss the hat!