In 1665 Queen Anne traded her regular breakfast beverage, ale, for tea imported from the Far East and soon began the tradition and ceremony of English tea. By 1700 there were more than 500 coffee houses selling tea in the city of London alone and tea had become an ingrained part of the British culture.
Although tea is the non-official preferred beverage of England, tea ceremonies sadly, have been on the decline. Most of the ceremonies are reserved for special occasions such as weddings or parties or for tourists at fancy hotels like the Ritz. If you are going to England for a special ceremony, I certainly want you well prepared and educated or your first British ceremonial tea!
If you were invited to tea between 3-5pm, you would be invited to “afternoon tea.” Although tea and a piece of cake in the late afternoon is still very common, due to work schedules of the modern day, afternoon tea is mostly reserved for special occasions. Afternoon tea began in the 1800’s when the Duchess of Bedford couldn’t wait until 8 or 9pm for dinner to be served without feeling overwhelmingly hungry. Tea and bread with butter was enough to tie her over and she enjoyed sharing it with her high society friends. Soon enough, to be invited for Afternoon tea was the invite all the British ladies desired.
Sometimes called “Low tea” Afternoon tea was served on low coffee or side tables around couches or love seats and usually took place in a sitting room.
High tea is a phrase I think most Americans are familiar with but possibly for the wrong reason. It isn’t because it is served at high noon, or because it is for high society, it is because they drank their tea on high tables! Served between 5-6pm after workers return home, high tea is not a snack, but rather replaces dinner with hot meats, fish, eggs and cheese being served along side the tea. Also called the not so eloquent “meat tea” High tea is much more a man’s meal than a ladies social call, certainly not the way American’s picture high tea!
So, suppose you were invited to an afternoon tea, let’s talk about the do’s and don’t and the ins and out’s of tea etiquette. Placing your thumb at the 6 o’clock position and your index and middle fingers at 12 o’clock should lift a cup without a handle. Slowly lift and tilt using you extended curved pinkie finger for balance. A cup with a handle is not for you to slide your index finger through! Imagine the whole wasn’t there and hold the front and the back of the handle again, using the pinkie finger for balance. Never wrap your hands around the cup or set the cup in the palm of your hand.
A spoon may be used to stir your tea and it should be done in a sweeping, circular wave like motion two or three times quietly without clinking the teacup. After you have stirred, place your spoon on the right side of the saucer. Your cup should also remain on the saucer when not at your lips. The tea will almost always be a gourmet loose leaf black tea made by the host and will be served with options of milk, sugar and lemon slices.
Food placed on a tiered stand is to be eaten in a certain order, from top to bottom. The top of the tier stand will have scones, in the middle tea sandwiches and on the bottom sweets. Start at the top and deliciously work you way down to the bottom tier.
Although it seems with schedules getting more and more hectic teatime isn’t what it used to be, but it is still a celebrated event and certainly time honored. I hope, now that you are prepared, you are able to relish in a British tea ceremony soon as either a guest or as the hostess. And as Henry James once said, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”