Afternoon tea is one of Britain’s greatest pastimes and is very much set in British tradition. There are many variations on this iconic meal and a lot of confusion over the etiquette and guidelines of the correct procedures to enjoy afternoon tea. Let’s begin with the historical part of afternoon tea. In the 1840s, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, Anna Marie, was visiting the Duke of Rutland at his ancestral home Belvoir Castle in Rutland. While staying at the castle, the Duchess was slightly shocked to discover that dinner was taken later than she was used to. Ladies usually took lunch around midday, as it was a relatively new meal. Anna Marie is rumoured to have said that she had a sunken feeling in the afternoon brought on by the need for something to drink and eat. The Duchess requested the butler to bring her some tea with sandwiches. It was at this point that afternoon tea was created. The Duchess of Bedford’s good friend, Her Majesty Queen Victoria, embraced this new meal and encouraged it at court. The Queen and Prince Albert began the Royal tradition of taking afternoon tea between 4pm and 6pm.
Quite simply, afternoon tea consists of tea (Indian or Chinese), sandwiches (preferably finger sandwiches), scones, and delicate cakes. The order of service is usually sandwiches, followed by scones and finally the cakes. You may also find some homes will serve biscuits, bread and jam and of course, in the winter months, crumpets. When you lay the tea place setting, you should use a side plate for your food, accompanied by a knife and fork either side or a tea napkin, which is (12 inches square to be exact). You may also have a plate with a jar of honey for the tea, and another with marmite for crumpets, if they are being offered.
You can use your knife to cut the sandwiches and the scones. There is a myth you never cut scones or sandwiches; this is totally untrue. You can then use the fork for the cake.
While enjoying your tea, you keep your saucer on the table unless you move away from the table, at that point you raise your saucer with the cup.
The lady of the house always plays “mother”, meaning that she will pour the tea and invite her guests to help themselves to the sandwiches etc. When the lady of the house pours in the tea, she will use a tea strainer, as she should be using loose tealeaves, which is more traditional. Tea bags were originally invented as packaging for tealeaves in New York, however some people assumed you put the whole silk purse into the water. The lady will ask the guest which tea they prefer “Indian or China” Once poured, the cup is then passed to the guest who will place it on their right above the Knife.
Sugar was not normally added to tea, however we now live in a time where sugar is added to most drinks. The sugar cubes are placed in a bowl for guests to help themselves with a pair of sugar tongs.
Originally, milk was not taken in tea, but this became a common practice in the 18th century. There is a story associated with this. China cups could not always resist the heat of tea and cracked, so there was a race to see who could create China that would not crack.
Josiah Spode came up with the correct formula, which consisted of animal bone. Bone china was born! It was well known that “downstairs” staff still had to put the milk in first so that their cups would not crack, while upstairs the aristocracy were pouring the milk in after, as their fine bone china cups did not. This is a tradition that the aristocracy and Royals continue with to this very day.
Last week, I ran a poll on Twitter asking the question “Do you pour milk in before or after the tea?” The response this created became a very interesting discussion, which resulted in people explaining to me why they poured the milk before or after. Some examples included “milk in first to stop cups from staining” and “how it affects the taste of the tea”. This of course may be a discussion that we will always be having. The results of my poll were 72% said they put their milk in after the tea, while 28% put it in before. Thank you to all who took part and I will be doing another etiquette poll again soon.