Is there anything more elegant than proper English tea? I don’t think so. English tea touches on all the notes of etiquette, propriety and elegance. After all, we love Jane Austen novels, Downton Abbey and movies that romanticize this era. So when we recreate this simple pleasure, we should get the details right for an authentic experience. As I researched the subject, I found a great deal of information and misinformation on the internet. I’m thankful to have friends that lived across the pond and a Brit in the family! Do you wish to host a tea party? What kind of tea party will you host? What is proper tea etiquette? My blog can’t begin to cover all there is to say on the subject, but I hope my condensed version offers enough clarity and useful information for you to plan your own Afternoon Tea gathering.
The concept of the British meal known as Afternoon Tea was introduced in 1840 by Anna Maria Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford. Around 3-4 p.m. she would get a sinking feeling and needed a little snack to tide her over until dinner was served, around 8 p.m. She began to request that tea, bread, butter and cake be brought to her chambers mid-afternoon. This became a daily ritual and as high society friends, including Queen Victoria, began to join her, the popularity of the activity and its social importance spread. In 1868, Queen Victoria began hosting garden tea parties and over time Afternoon Tea evolved into the grand event we enjoy today.
THE VARIOUS WAYS TO ENJOY AFTERNOON TEA
Afternoon Tea is generally served between 2-5 p.m. and consists of 3-4 dainty, bite-size courses (savories, scones, sweets & desserts) with an assortment of teas and other beverages. Although Afternoon Tea is the most popular, a cup of tea with friends can be enjoyed throughout the day.
Elevenses is a mid-morning tea with a scone course at 11 a.m. This is often considered a second breakfast.
Cream Tea is only tea and scones.
Afternoon Tea / Low Tea is tea, scones, savories and sweets.
Note: It’s Low Tea when tea is served in a parlor or drawing room and the tea is placed on a low tea table, but the courses are the same. Guests sit around the tea table in low armchairs and sofas. Special tea etiquette is required for low tea (see below).
Light Tea a light type of Afternoon Tea consisting of tea, scones and sweets. No savories.
Full Tea a heavier type of Afternoon Tea including soups, quiches, cheeses and a dessert course.
Royal Tea a type of Afternoon Tea with either champagne at the beginning or sherry at the end.
Note: Some hotels may refer to this as Champagne Afternoon Tea.
High Tea sounds like you’re having tea with the Queen, but in reality it’s an evening meal around 6 p.m. consisting of meat, potatoes, other savory dishes and tea. It was initially enjoyed by the working class and later adopted by all social groups. Wealthy families would take High Tea on Sundays so the staff could go to church in the morning (think Downton Abbey and Poldark).
TEA & PRESENTATION
Great pride is taken in how the tea is selected, presented and served. Tea is properly served in fine bone china teapots with a three piece tea set. All teas should be served decanted and hot. Before steeping your loose leaf tea, the teapot should be brought to temperature with hot water that’s discarded prior to brewing your tea. This is done so the teapot doesn’t crack. Add loose leaves to the teapot plus hot water and allow enough time to steep. You should also have a dedicated tea pot for hot water should your guests wish their tea lighter. Remember the longer the tea leaves steep, the stronger the flavor. General steeping rule: 1 teaspoon of loose tea leaves per cup, plus one for the pot. If it’s a 3 cup teapot, add 4 teaspoons of loose leaf tea.
It is recommended you serve at least three different teas – black, green and herbal. When pouring from a teapot, hold the top of the teapot as you pour and use a tea strainer to catch any leaves that may pour into the tea cup. If you decide to provide an assortment of tea bags for your guests, make sure you have a waste bowl on the table. Wet tea bags are not to be placed on the saucer. No one wants to drink from a cup that is dripping.
Traditional Tea Flavors
Earl Grey (best with afternoon tea, has a complimentary citrusy flavor), English Breakfast, Assam (malty), Ceylon (from Sri Lanka), Darjeeling (fruity) and Rose Congou (very Victorian with rose petals) are the most popular.
• Black& Oolong Teas offered with sugar, milk or lemon – honey optional.
• White & Green Teas are taken plain or with a lemon slice
• Herbal “Teas” Chamomile, Mint, Lavender, etc. are not really teas but tisanes and they are taken plain or with a lemon slice.
• Who Serves the Tea Etiquette dictates the host serves. The teapot is placed near the host with the spout pointing toward the host. As the host pours, the guest is asked how they like their tea and the host engages with each guest. Remember etiquette is all about politeness toward others. If there are multiple teapots on the table, then guests may serve themselves. When passing a tea cup, pass it with the saucer.
• Sugar, Lemon, Milk or Tea First This one is tricky because we are no longer in the 1800s. In the 1800s your social-economic standing was known in the manner in which you poured your tea – first or last. We don’t make those distinctions anymore. Since many of us won’t be asked to take tea with the Queen, I think it’s safe to add the milk according to your personal preference. Sugar and a lemon slice are added after the tea is poured, in that order. The lemon is supposed to infuse the tea so you simply place a slice into your cup, you don’t squeeze a wedge.
Historical Note: In 1800, Spode invented fine bone china – it was a game changer as the new porcelain was resistant to cracking. Upper class drank in tea cups made of fine bone china – they poured the tea first, followed by the milk. Lower class & servants drank out of clay mugs – they poured milk first to avoid cracks, followed by the tea.
• How to Stir The Tea Place the spoon in the cup and motion back and forth from the 6 o’clock position to the 12 o’clock position without touching the cup. This will help dissolve the sugar cube(s). Never stir in a circular motion or tap on the cup. Don’t leave the spoon in the tea cup, instead place the spoon behind the cup, away from you. Whatever you do, it’s bad manners to be clanking on the cup or dunking any food in the cup, no matter how tempting.
• How to Hold The Cup The correct way to hold the tea cup is by pinching your thumb and index finger between the loop and having your middle finger support the cup. Never raise your pinky finger or hook your finger through the cup. When returning the cup to the table, place it on the saucer with the handle facing the 3 o’clock position (if left-handed, the handle faces 9 o’clock).
• How Do I Drink The Tea Tea is to be sipped, not slurped. When sipping your tea, look into the tea cup, never over it. Don’t drink tea to wash down any food. You should have a water goblet above your spreading knife.
• Special Tea Etiquette During Low Tea If tea is served on a low tea table, pick up both the cup and saucer when sipping tea. If you’re seated at a regular dining table, you only need to pick up the tea cup. The guideline is the cup and saucer should not be more than 12 inches apart.
COURSES & PRESENTATION
The meal consists of 3-4 dainty, bite-size courses – savory, scone, sweet and sometimes a dessert. The courses are served in 3-tiered cake stands and they are designed to be eaten in a specific order. The table is set with beautiful linens or lace tablecloths and napkins, flowers and fine bone china teapots, 3 piece tea sets (cup, saucer and luncheon plate) with utensils and 3-tiered cake stands with serving utensils for every course.
First Course – Savory – consists of a variety of tea sandwiches, but may also include quiches, soup, meat pies, etc.
Second Course – Scone – consists of scones, tea biscuits, quick breads, muffins and the famous crumpets. All scones are served with clotted cream, jam or marmalade, lemon curd and butter.
Third Course – Sweet – petit fours, fruit tarts, cupcakes, cream puffs, mini eclairs, cookies, etc.
Fourth Course – Dessert – a larger sweet such as a cake, pie or trifle bowl dessert that is usually sliced and served. Your fork is for the dessert course.
Attire & Posture
In the 1800s women would dress for the occasion and don beautiful hats. While tea isn’t as formal as it was back then, it’s still nice to dress up and maybe wear a hat. Posture is important – straighten up, don’t slouch and show interest.
Each guest has a three piece setting consisting of a luncheon plate, a saucer and a tea cup with a spoon, fork and knife. The fork goes to the left of the plate. The knife is placed to the right of the plate with the sharp edge facing inward and the spoon to the right of the knife. The water glass is placed directly above the knife and the tea cup and saucer above the spoon. While this meal is to be eaten with your fingers, the spoon is to stir your tea, the knife is to load the scone with clotted cream and jam and the fork is for the dessert course, if served.
Should be placed to the left of the plate with the folded edge to the left and the open edge to the right. When seated, fold the napkin in half and place the crease toward you. If you must step away from the table, place the napkin to the left of the plate and not on the back of the chair or on your seat. When using the napkin, dab your mouth, don’t wipe your mouth.
Three Tiered Cake Stand
It’s customary to serve the standard courses in a 3-tiered cake stand, but did you know there’s a reason for the stand and an order to eating the courses? I’ve found two in my research. (1) scones on the top tier because they would be covered with a cloche to keep warm, and (2) scones in the middle tier. Since the idea is to start at the bottom with tea sandwiches, followed by scones and finish with sweets. I’m partial to placing the scones in the middle tier so you can eat the courses in ascending order.
Use common sense and general good table manners when you’re having tea. Just because the food is to be eaten with your fingers, doesn’t mean you can lick your fingers. And since you’re eating with your fingers, use the serving utensils to place the food onto your luncheon plate. Don’t grab and reach across the table – instead, interact with other guests and ask them to pass the item to you. No elbows on the table. Hands on your lap when you’re not eating.
• Tea Sandwiches – delightful little sandwiches, made with loaf bread. Trim the crust and cut them into triangles, rectangles or squares – as the royals prefer. Traditional fillings: egg, cucumber, salmon, chicken salad and ham. You should be able to hold them with two fingers and take 2-3 delicate bites.
• Eating Scones – separate the scone with your hands by holding the top and bottom with opposite hands and pulling in opposite direction. This will pull the scone apart at the middle. Don’t break them half and don’t use a knife. Unless you have your own clotted cream and jam, use the serving spoon to place the cream/jam onto your luncheon plate and use your knife to spread onto the scone. Some sites suggest to break off the piece you will eat and load the cream and jam onto each piece. Other sites state its acceptable to load the cream and jam onto the top or bottom half at a time. No matter how you load the cream and jam, they all agree that you don’t make a scone hamburger.
• Cream first or jam first? If you’re from Cornwall, you spread the jam first and the clotted cream on top. If you’re from Devon, you spread the clotted cream first and the jam on top. Clotted cream is a thick and delicious cream that holds its shape when you spread it. Jam is as squiggly as jello so I prefer the Devonshire way. Any way you eat your scone, it will be delicious. Someone once said it should be on everyone’s gastro bucket list! They are right.
I hope this summary is concise and informative enough for you to host your own tea party. My tea party is scheduled for the fall when the weather is cooler for a garden party. Stay tuned! I’ll share everything in another article.