The Etiquette of Afternoon Tea – Guest blog by Jo Bryant
Guest Blog: The Etiquette of Afternoon Tea by Jo Bryant
Henry James once famously said that “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea” and, when it comes to British culture and traditions, tea plays an important part and is integral to many social occasions.
Afternoon tea is a ceremony: whether it’s enjoyed in a formal drawing room, hotel restaurant or in the glorious surroundings of landscaped gardens, its popularity at British social occasions is unwavering.
Where did it all begin?
During the nineteenth century, it became fashionable to serve the evening meal later, leaving a longer and hunger-inducing gap between lunch and dinner. Anna, Seventh Duchess of Bedford, is said to have requested that tea and cake was served in her room at around 4pm, and she invited friends to join her. This ritual is the beginnings of afternoon tea as we know it today.
The Fashion of Afternoon Tea
Tea and its formalities have been integral to British social life for centuries. Things peaked in the early 20th century, when tea was pivotal at many types of social gatherings. Most took place between the hours of 4–6pm – still the traditional time for tea today. ‘Informal teas’, where the hostess ‘poured out’ for a small group in the drawing room, consisted of tea, bead and butter, hot scones or muffins, small sandwiches and cakes. A larger gathering with more elaborate refreshments was known as a ‘sit-down tea’, and required the help of servants.
An ‘afternoon party’ was larger still, with guests enjoying a musical performance, talk or even fortune-telling before having tea. Other tea occasions included ‘bridge teas’ – complete with some quite serious betting – and the ‘thé dansant’, where 40–60 people would dance the afternoon away.
The Garden Party
In addition to their tea, the British treasure their gardens and the garden party is a perfect union of these two loves. Queen Victoria started the tradition in the 1860s to replace debutante presentation parties, and within a few years it became fashionable to host a garden party at one’s own home. The afternoon tea was a highlight of the occasion, and the hostess took great time and care to ensure every detail was correct and of a high standard.
Garden parties were also popular because of their informal nature. Guests mingled and met, rather than the hostess making formal introductions (the done-thing at most other social events). New acquaintances were often made as it was usual for people – particularly in the country – to have guests to stay in the summer months, and the invitation to a garden party would naturally include them.
Small marquees, tents or small tables were put up on the lawn, mindfully placed to show off the landscaping and horticultural displays. Tea, coffee and cakes were served to the guests on arrival, and were later supplemented by ices, refreshing claret-cups (a punch of red wine, maraschino, lemon, sugar and soda water), and strawberries. It was popular, where the facilities allowed, for guests to play tennis or croquet and the fun atmosphere would have usually been enhanced by a band of musicians.
Tea Etiquette Today
Our social codes of conduct and etiquette may have changed greatly over the years, but the etiquette of afternoon tea still holds rituals and rules of etiquette which we adhere to and respect.
Proper tea is always leaf tea, poured from a teapot; two different types of tea are often served (for example an Indian and a China), along with a separate pot of hot water.
A cup may be poured out by a member of serving staff, for example in a garden party tea tent, but at a sit-down tea a pourer is nominated or someone volunteers to pour. Cups are poured, using a tea-strainer over the cup, one by one and passed to the recipient. It is incorrect to pour lots of cups and then hand them out in one go. When finished, the tea-strainer is replaced in its rest or stand.
Everyone adds their own milk after the tea is poured (never before), and a milk jug is passed around along with the sugar. The tea should be stirred using a teaspoon back and forth in an up-and-down motion before placing it lengthways along the back of the saucer.
At a seated tea, cups and saucers should be put down on the table; at a standing tea, such as a garden party, they are held at a comfortable height, but not too high. Cups are held by the handle and brought up to the mouth, rather than leaning forward to drink, and put down on the saucer between sips. They are never cradled in the hand or used to gesture with, and little fingers are never raised.
If seated, napkins are placed on the lap. Little sandwiches are taken one by one rather than loading up the plate. Scones (pronounced ‘sconn’ never ‘scoan’) are broken in half lengthways by hand, and eaten in bite-sized pieces that are individually spread with jam and cream. There is a dispute between Devon and Cornwall over whether the jam or cream is spread first, but either is correct.
Come and enjoy a Vintage and Handmade Fair, Tea Party and Tea Dance at the Dorothy Clive Garden from Friday 24th (from 12pm), Saturday 25th and Sunday 26th June. Enjoy Afternoon Tea, traditional garden games, live jazz and dancing at our Garden Party, Vintage Fair and Tea Dance. Only £3.50 admission per person. Click here for further information.
The Dorothy Clive Garden is a 12 acre hillside garden with a delightful tearoom situated on the North Staffordshire, Shropshire and Cheshire borders. The garden is managed by charitable trust known as the Willoughbridge Garden Trust and promotes rest, recreation and horticultural education. All of this is underpinned by a commitment to environmental sustainability. www.dorothyclivegarden.co.uk.