The History and Etiquette of Afternoon Tea

New "Afternoon Tea Service" starts at Hotel Healdsburg.

 A tea without scones is like eating a meal without a fork!

Sugar and spice and everything nice might be what little girls and boys are made of, but it’s also a nice and delicious part of Afternoon Tea.  Unlike breakfast or lunch, Afternoon Tea is a civilized way to entertain, and it breaks up the day in the nicest way.

[Believe it or not, Healdsburg just happens to have a new "Afternoon Tea Service" starting this weekend at Hotel Healdsburg. Click here for the details.]

There’s something very special about the old English ritual.  No one is quite sure when Afternoon Tea was first introduced in England, but the ceremony became widespread in the 1840’s. 

Credit is given to Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, who, because of the long hours between lunch and the evening meal, suffered from afternoon “hunger spells.”  She remedied them with a tray of tea, bread and butter, and cake.  Unable to give up her delightful new habit, she began sharing with friends and soon it progressed into a full-blown social event among the English aristocracy.

The 1920's marked the height of the “tea room” craze as an elaborate and widespread tradition complete lots of guests, pageantry, servants, silver teapots, fine linens, musicians, elegant teacups, and the best tea money could buy.

High Tea or Afternoon Tea?

High Tea is often confused with Afternoon Tea.  High Tea is NOT finger sandwiches, scones and sweets, but the main meal of the day.  This term originated during the Industrial Revolution for workers who returned home after a long hard day at work awaiting a hot, hearty meal.  Try avoid using this term or you will find yourself in the Tea Drinkers’ Hall of Shame!

Tea Time

The traditional time for Afternoon Tea is from three to five o’clock but anytime in between appropriate, whether it be tea at a hotel or in your own dining room. 

Setting the Tea Table

Setting the table may be second nature to our English friends, but here in America it may seem a bit more complicated.  In reality, it’s simple and fun!  The goal is to make the table festive for the feast you’re about to receive.  I find it helpful to create a checklist broken down in three sections:

  1. In the Kitchen:  Teakettle;  fresh water and loose tea.
  2. On the Tea Tray:  Teapot, sugar bowl with sugar cubes and sugar tongs;  milk  pitcher; tea strainer; waste bowl; small dish for the lemon wedges and lemon fork.
  3. On the Tea Table:  Teacups and saucers; forks and spoons;  small plates; linen napkins and several food items such as tea sandwiches, scones with cream, jam and sweets.

For a small group, setting individual plates is nice, but if the group is large, buffet style makes for a nice presentation.  The tea tray and china set would be placed at one end of the table:  One the right set out the teacups, saucers and teaspoons.  On the left you would place the stacked plates; flatware and napkins.  The platters of food would go in the middle of the table.

Preparing the Tea

  1. Select a loose tea such as English Breakfast or Earl Grey.
  2. Boil cold, fresh water in the kettle.
  3. Pour a spot of the hot water into your teapot and whirl it around to warm it up, then pour it out.
  4. Add one teaspoon of tea leaves for every cup of water.  This is the general rule of thumb.
  5. As soon as the water boils, pour it over the leaves in the pot.  Leaving water to boil too long causes it to loose its oxygen and therefore its freshness.
  6. Allow tea to steep for three to six minutes.  I like my tea strong but many prefer weak tea.  It’s easy to dilute with hot water from the kettle.  Just make sure to have a small pitcher of hot water on the table.

The Do’s & Don’ts of Afternoon Tea

DO try a little of each course served at tea (both sweets and savories).

DO avoid talking with a mouthful or eating large bites.

DO wait until you have swallowed your food before you take a sip of tea.  The rule is one or the other, please!

DO place your napkin on the chair when you leave the table in between courses.  When you leave, be discreet about where it is you’re going.

DO place your knife and fork in the 10:20 or “I am finished” position to let your waiter know you’re done eating.  This applies per tea course (if it is served separately).

DO look into - not over the cup of tea - when sipping.  It’s polite!

DO spread the scone with cream first, then jam.

DON’T place items such as keys, sunglasses or phones on the table.  In other words, remove items that are not part of the meal.

DON’T use milk and lemon together in tea.  The citric acid of the lemon will cause the milk to curdle.

DON’T tip your teacup too much when drinking but keep it slightly tipped.

DON’T place the lemon in the tea cup before pouring.  Tea is always poured first.

DON'T pour tea to the brim.  This will avoid messy spills.

DON’T leave your spoon upright in the cup.  The saucer is there for a reason.

DON’T remove food from your teeth while in the presence of others.

DON’T push your plate away when you’re done eating.  Be patient for your server if not at home.

DON’T talk about personal food likes or dislikes during the tea.  Tea offers a nice selection of treats to avoid this problem.

DON’T place your napkin on the table until you are ready to leave the tea table.

Lisa Mirza Grotts is a recognized etiquette expert, on-air contributor and the author of A Traveler’s Passport to Etiquette. She is a former director of protocol for the city and county of San Francisco and the founder and CEO of The AML Group (www.AMLGroup.com), certified etiquette and protocol consultants. She writes a manners blog for Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-mirza-grotts/).  Her clients range from Stanford Hospital to Cornell University and Levi Strauss. She has been quoted by Condé Nast Traveler, InStyle magazine, and the Los Angeles Times. To learn more about Lisa, follow her on www.Twitter.com/LisaGrotts and www.Facebook.com/LisaGrotts.


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