Some confusion surrounds the meaning of English high tea, low tea and afternoon tea. High tea is actually an early supper that the lower class Englishman would have with his family when he came home in the late afternoon from a hard day's work. The upper class served their dinner late in the day, so they would have an afternoon tea with small snacks at 4 p.m. to tide them over until dinner, which was often called low tea since it was served on low tables in the drawing room.
Sandwiches and small appetizers compose the first course of tea time. Prepare egg salad sandwiches, without the crusts, cut into quarters. Serve small roast beef sandwiches with horseradish, or cucumber, radish and basil sandwiches. Wrap prosciutto around mozzarella or serve chopped egg, tomato and mint in slices of celery. Prepare cucumber cups with chopped chicken, apples and raisin salad.
During a traditional English afternoon tea, the second course consists of scones. You can prepare them with a variety of ingredients, such as blueberries, strawberries or raisins. Serve jam and clotted cream or Devonshire cream with the scones. Clotted cream may be difficult to obtain in the U.S., but sweet, unsalted butter is an acceptable alternative.
Pastries comprise the third and last course of the English formal tea. Ideas for pastries include lemon tea cake, cupcakes, mini cannelloni, mini napoleons, cream puffs and eclairs. Slices of cake and pies served on small plates look lovely on the serving tray. Cookies are easy to hold and eat during tea time. Shortbread adds to the tradition of English tea.
Offer your guests a choice of several types of tea, including black tea, decaffeinated tea, breakfast tea and green tea. The traditional method of serving tea is to pour the milk into the cup first, so the china is not cracked by the hot tea. You should serve lump sugar instead of granulated sugar. Decorated sugar cubes add whimsy to the tea table.