To understand the social history and cultures of tea in Britain, you just need these two pictures: the cucumber sandwich and the bacon sarnie.

cucumber sarnies

The cucumber nibble is routinely associated with high tea, the tradition of elegance, politeness, and refinement. That is not so for the sarnie, which you won’t find in a four-star hotel offering afternoon tea at a five-star price. But it has been very much part of the staple delights of Britain and is often accompanied by a cup of strong black tea, one that is definitely not served in a delicate porcelain tea set.

It’s a puzzle that the high tea cucumber sandwich should ever have come into existence, let along achieved historical significance:  barely a food, hard to prepare, and of limited taste and nutritional value. It’s more an occasional delicacy, delicious when paired with other foods – and tea. The sarnie is built on different architectural and aesthetic  principles. It is meant to be filling. It is a slab. It requires no preparation or finesse. And it tastes great, especially with the right accompanying Big Black tea.

Almost no one ever orders a cucumber sandwich in everyday life.

If you are British or a devoted tea drinker, how often do you recall yourself ever craving one, looking for it on a menu, searching for a recipe, reading a review, or making it? Same questions and almost surely the same answers, if you have enjoyed the panache and formality of high tea as a tourist in a luxurious Olde Worlde Hotelle or the heartier farmhouse or tea room version where scones, strawberry jam and clotted Devon cream are the draw?

It’s a strange creation. The goal is absolute uniformity. The cucumber is sliced paper-thin and should be almost translucent. It needs salt to dry it enough not to make the bread soggy.  The bread is equally thin and flat. This means using a doughy not crispy loaf, often one of the sliced breads that can be used in an emergency to block a tire puncture or ward off marauding pigeons. The crusts are trimmed and the now assembled sandwich precisely divided into four triangles of exact precision. Properly assembled, you can’t actually see what’s inside and have to surreptitiously lift the corner to peek. It may be a sliver of smoked salmon or mustard and cress.

So why is the sandwich emblematic of high tea? There are two primary reasons: social and technological. For the upper class in the 18th and 19th century, tea time was formal, scheduled and very much centered on guest invitations, the family circle and a light repast. Food added savory and sugary extras to the tea, and was rather like the peanuts you get served on the side in a bar. The higher ranks of society had plenty of nutrition. There was no reason to add calories in the gap between lunch and dinner.

So high tea was marked by lightness of food and freshness – with the superb smoked salmon to the side of the still underrated English cheeses. Though sugar-packed, biscuits and confections were tiny.

 There was one constant seasonal shortage: fresh vegetables. Even in the 1950s,  the only post-summer veggies were the much maligned Brussel sprout, cabbage, and stored winter potatoes. Tomatoes were a luxury import from the Canary Islands.

At the turn of the 20th century, a technological breakthrough made it possible to grow vegetables that required only temperate heat and limited sunshine. This was the glass greenhouse, which made “hothouse” cucumber a favorite addition to high tea in the fashion-conscious post-Victorian  Edwardian era.

In ordinary life, nutritious and filling food was much more of a priority. Tea time for most was built around the rhythms of work, captured in the term tea “break.” Foreigners have often been puzzled by the lack of clarity and consistency in references to meals in Britain. “Dinner” in rural areas was typically a mid-day meal, with “supper” equating to dinner, but dinner might be called tea, too. They referred mainly to when you ate the one big meal of the day.

Tea breaks were a time to recharge and refuel. All this is reflected in the heaviness of the food that accompanied tea: the breakfast fry up, the dunkable chocolate digestive biscuit, sweet Swiss rolls and “cake”, that often mysterious block of carbs that has since been elevated to “Black Forest gateau” and its ilk. The main difference is that you can build a pretty solid wall out of cake, but gateau tends to be too crumbly.

Here are essentials when you’re hungry and want a good brew up. Elegance is not a priority.

Chocolate digestive and Lardy cake
Chocolate digestive and Lardy cake
Swiss roll and Gateaux
Swiss roll and Gateaux

Clotted cream, not  part of the high tea tradition, is very much the upper end of the farmhouse one. It was a peasant farmer produce that had the merits of not curdling and dates back to pre-Norman times (the first reference is 997 CE). In 2006, it was rated by professional nutritionists as the most unhealthy of 120 foods in the British diet. That is an impressive triumph, given the competition of treacle pudding, lardy cake, fried bread and spotted dick. Tastes great, though, just like a bacon butty does, or a sarnie but not as fancy.

So bacon or cake, sandwich or sarnie?

That really translates to what type of tea you most enjoy. Forget the high tea rigmarole. Just decide if the food is your target of enjoyment and the tea accompanies and enhances it, or the reverse.

The case for the sandwich, which will generally be a tray of cucumber ones, egg and cress, cheese and pickle, smoked salmon or egg salad and anchovies (please don’t ask), is that it goes well with a tea to savor, one that isn’t too light or at all heavy.

That suggests an oolong with plenty of aroma,  maybe from Taiwan, which is setting the pace for superb slightly fuller and smoky ones (Try a Dongding). A lighter Darjeeling is excellent, again preferably aroma-rich and a little tippy. Greens are more iffy; they can be overpowered by the cheese and Branston pickles or a redolent smoked salmon.

The case for the sarnie is more atavistic. You’re hungry. You want some combination of the three tiers of the British food pyramid: sugar, bacon and chocolate. This is the American one turned upside down; it has fats, oils and sweets at the apex, with the admonition “use sparingly.” Sparing is a state of mind but make your bacon sarnie under three inches thick and, if you’re having a cream tea, go light on the cream and do not stick to the apple pie rule that if you can still see the pie, you need more.

Then choose a tea worthy of the challenge. A really good Assam (Halmari, Harmutty)  or a full bodied highland Ceylon is ideal (Kenilworth never disappoints).

That leaves out green and white teas. They are the hardest to match to your individual preferences and their light nuances can easily be soured, made bitter or even conflict with foods. White teas are enhanced by a light biscuit – just one – and the combination makes for a perfect evening sip. But a bacon sarnie and Thurbo Moonlight White or Fujian Shou Mei are a little dubious: rather like Texas chili and white wine spritzer.

If you want a green that doesn’t have a strong vegetal (common among lighter Chinese ones) or fishy (some Japanese) note, then there are plenty of slightly dry and flavorful choices, most obviously really good Japanese senchas and some of the Darjeeling and Nepalese greens which are improving rapidly and converging on the Taiwan/Japan style rather than the traditional Chinese. The best China greens remain superlative but there are some really subtle additional options.

And what goes well with all these? How about a nice nibble, delicate and very light, fresh and just a little sharp. Maybe a cucumber sandwich?