Art & Etiquette of English Afternoon Tea

May 13,2013

About Christine Pearce

Christine Pearce is a Certified Etiquette Consultant and the International Business Manager of Minding Manners Limited, Europe's leading internationally certified etiquette and protocol consultancy. With more than 25 years of experience in worldwide culture and in the fine arts sector, Christine was born and raised in south-east England with a very traditional English upbringing.

Christine kindly accepted to answer a few questions for us and let us know more about the art of afternoon tea and here are the answers to our questions:

1. From where does Afternoon Tea originate?
Anna Stanhope, the seventh Duchess of Bedford and a Lady in Waiting to Queen Victoria is credited with introducing the ritual of afternoon tea in the 1840's. She used to get a little hungry mid-afternoon after the light lunch and before the evening dinner and so asked one of her servants to serve her tea and cakes in her private rooms. She enjoyed this so much and shared the secret with her friends and, thus, the custom spread through high society families and became a popular event whereby ladies visited each other's homes to share afternoon tea together in the Drawing Room.

2. How am I supposed to eat scones?
To eat a scone, break off a piece and spread with clotted cream and then jam (quantities of which should be taken from the communal dish and placed on the side of your tea plate). In Cornwall, the jam is generally placed on the scone before the clotted cream.

3. How am I supposed to drink tea?
Loose leaf tea should traditionally be served and poured into a china tea cup with a saucer. The handle of the cup should be held between the thumb and fingers and the saucer should be lifted to breastbone height when drinking from the cup.

4. Milk then tea or tea then milk?
Historically, tea poured into the cup first indicated that you were of better social standing. Inferior quality china could not withstand high temperatures and would often crack if the hot tea was poured in first. Finer porcelain could withstand higher temperatures so, pouring the tea in first, showed that you possessed finer quality china. Whilst it is still thought 'correct' to continue this order today, as it is easier to add the preferred amount of milk to the tea, there is no longer any stigma to adding the milk to the cup first; in fact, adding the milk first does change the flavour of some teas which some people prefer.

5. What are my duties when hosting Afternoon Tea?
As the hostess, you must ensure that your guests have a constant supply of refreshments - a selection of sandwiches, scones and pastries - which should all be home-made. Just as when hosting a luncheon or dinner, you need to consider who to invite together to make sure that the event is a success.
6. What are the worst etiquette faux-pas a guest can make?
Arriving late, asking for coffee and being generally an ill-mannered guest. If you are not certain what to do, you should follow the lead of your hostess at all times.

7. How should one dress for Afternoon Tea?
It depends how formal the event is and who is attending. Traditionally, Afternoon Tea was an event only enjoyed by ladies who would wear fine dresses and, to this end, women can
still often be seen wearing a pretty dress and gentlemen should wear trousers and a jacket or shirt, dependent upon the formality and location.

8. What is considered suitable Afternoon Tea table talk and how does one put it into practice?

It is easier to list the topics not to be discussed - illness, religion, politics or any other controversial subjects.


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