A Proper Afternoon Tea

Recently, I hosted an Afternoon Tea honoring two friends who have back-to-back birthdays. It was a lot of work to prepare everything (surprisingly), but I had the support of other friends who each brought a savory or sweet treat and flowers to the event. Thank you, Brenda, Martha, Angela, Donna, and Caroline! It takes a village to do just about anything these days.

I respect traditions, and when they're not my traditions, it's important that I represent them authentically. Although I lived in Australia for 13 years and had attended two teas, I wanted more information. Was the afternoon tea I was hosting a fancy affair or was it the working-class equivalent to our American supper? In Australia, an early dinner was called tea.

It turns out that we have it all a bit confused with what our imagination does when we hear certain words, so I'm sorry to tell you that High Tea is not the fancy event that you and I thought. It appears that Afternoon Tea is the fine and fancy occasion. It is also referred to as a low tea because it is usually served on a low table (coffee table). High tea, on the other hand, is an early dinner served on a high table (dinner table) with a big pot of tea to wash things down.

To confuse you even further, I have to admit that we all sat at my dining room table during the tea. I didn't have enough seating in the living room to accommodate all of the guests. What this means is that we had Afternoon Tea at a high table that should have been at a low table...and we liked it! And hotel restaurants offering High Tea, which is actually an Afternoon Tea at a high table, don't make it easy to understand either. 

For Brenda's Scones:
She used two recipes. The blueberry scones recipe can be found here, on the "Stay at Home Chef" website. and for the currant scones (that she made using blonde raisins) she used a recipe from the International Desserts Blog. Brenda lived in England for a period of time, and she has attended a few proper British Teas.

For Angela's Sandwiches:
The cucumber sandwiches, a must for an afternoon tea, came from the "Spend with Pennies" website. And the Cream Cheese & Pinapple sandwiches, a staple at all classic Southern ladies' events came from "Just a Pinch." Angela remembers her grandmother having this sandwich at all events. It was always Angela's favorite, and it may become yours too, with such an easy recipe and delicate flavor.

For Caroline's Egg Salad Sandwiches:
This one is Caroline's own creation, and while it was a wonderful filling for tea sandwiches, Caroline's preference is to use it as a dip served with crackers, chips, or veggies. You can find her printable recipe here.

Proper Afternoon Tea Etiquette. It's a British tradition, so, of course, there a a few rules. 
  • Dress in your best. Gentlemen don't have to wear a tie, but you do get extra points for that. 
  • Designate one person to pour tea. This keeps order and less spilling on dainty embroidered table coverings. If you are pouring, always offer to pour for others before pouring your own tea.
  • If you add cream and sugar, stir by moving your spoon carefully front to back until the sugar is dissolved. Sugar in first, then tea (which begins to disolve the sugar), and finally the cream. In the United states, for most people, hot tea is a beverage to soothe a sore throat or offer comfort during a cold. Typically, sugar and cream are the only accompaniments. Lemon is sometimes offered too, but no cream with that--only sugar, if you wish.
  • Typically, savory items are enjoyed first, followed by scones. Cake or other sweets are consumed last. Refrain from taking everything all at once.
  • With the scones, it's customary to break it apart into two pieces. Add a spoonful of jam to your plate and some of the clotted cream or butter. Butter and jam on one piece (using your own knife if it's been provided). Once the first piece has been enjoyed, with sips of hot tea in between, move on to the second piece. British etiquette professionals advise against turning your scone into a jam and butter sandwich. Oops!
  • If enjoying a low tea, the napkin is in your lap, your plate on top, and cup and saucer on a nearby table. At a high table, it's appropriate to lift just the cup to sip on your tea. At a low table, it's important to lift the cup with the saucer to be sure that the saucer catches any accidental drips.
  • When in doubt, look to the host or hostess and follow their example.
It seems as if the propriety of sipping tea is outdated, but there's something very nice and refreshing about a tradition which requires a little "extra" and reminds us that not all rules are bad. Of course, we can waive the rules and regulations, but t's lovely to have a guide and to dress up once in a while.

More recipes and information in Part Two next week.


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