Afternoon Tea is the lovely tradition of breaking from the hustle and bustle of the day. Often enjoyed at a low table, with similarly low chairs, Afternoon Tea is served between the hours of 2 and 5pm. Not to be confused with High Tea, the traditional name for the English evening meal, which is served at a “high” dining table after 6pm, Afternoon Tea is less of a meal and more an occasion.

Luxury hotels often host daily tea services. Some of Mrs. B’s favorites include: Peacock Alley at the Willard (D.C.), Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel and the Pierre (NYC). While not a formal occasion, the dress code for tea is more elevated than what one might wear to run errands. You can always bet on smart casual as a safe choice.

Let’s say you’ve found yourself at a tea service. Perhaps the fine china, tiered trays and elegance feels intimidating. You are not alone. Afternoon Tea can be compared to the childlike practice of playing dress-up. Take the opportunity to indulge in the ceremony of it all, avoid the temptation to check your phone and be present, enjoying the company of those around you. 

Now…time for tea!

Once you seat yourself, you may be asked which type you prefer: Cream Tea or Royal Tea:

  • Cream Tea includes finger sandwiches, scones (a quickbread from Scotland, pronounced “skohn,” like the name John), and an assortment of tarts and small cakes
  • Royal Tea would likely have the same fare (perhaps with a few trendy or expensive upgrades like caviar), with the inclusion of a glass of champagne – cheers!

Your treats will likely be served on a three-tiered tray with the savories at the bottom, scones in the middle and sweets at the top. Regardless of how they are served, they should be consumed in that order, treated as courses, which you and your fellow guests enjoy at the same pace. Moving on to a new tier before others have finished their bites could be considered rude or greedy.

Once you’re served, get acquainted with your surroundings. An Afternoon tea setting includes the aforementioned three tiered tray, fork & knife, tea cup with saucer, demitasse spoon, lemon wedges, tea strainer, tea pot, milk, sugar and tongs. One person (historically the host or whoever made the reservation) is designated to serve the tea to others (and will continue to be mindful and serve the tea throughout the duration). He or she may ask how you take your tea:

  • weak – less tea will be poured for you to dilute with milk
  • strong – more tea will be poured, leaving less room for milk

If you intend to enjoy sugar in your tea, you would add that once the tea is poured, stir and then if you like, add milk. If you enjoy sugar and lemon, you must omit the milk. If you’re a tea enthusiast, you know that milk, sugar and lemon are never added to green, oolong or white teas and Earl Gray is never enjoyed with lemon.

A few final rules you may not know to help you feel your most confident at tea:

  1. Finger sandwiches may be cut with a knife and fork, but are brought to your mouth with fingers
  2. Scones must be broken apart with the hands. Serve yourself jam and clotted cream on your plate first, then introduce them to your scone (the order you add these is up to you). Like finger sandwiches, scones are fellow “finger foods”
  3. Desserts are to be enjoyed at the very end (we save the best for last!)
  4. Never lift your saucer while seated – simply the tea cup will do
  5. Look into your tea cup while drinking (never over the rim)
  6. The correct way to hold a tea cup? Pinch the handle with your index finger and thumb rather than hooking your finger through
  7. And never ever slurp your tea 🙂

And there you have it – Mrs. B’s tips for enjoying Afternoon Tea. Remember, this time is not just about playing the part of a fancy aristocrat. Take your time and indulge slowly to fully appreciate the company you are with (and the delicious treats in front of you).

Please, tell us in the comments where you like to enjoy tea and what you love most about it!

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