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Etiquette and History of Afternoon Tea

Etiquette and History of Afternoon Tea

Tea Time Etiquette and the History of Afternoon Tea

There are many ideas about tea etiquette and the when and how tea was first made popular in England. Charles the II grew up in exile at The Hague and thus was exposed to the custom of drinking tea. He married Catharine of Braganza who was Portuguese and who also enjoyed tea. Catharine had grown up drinking tea in Portugal-the preferred beverage of the time. It is said that when she arrived in England to marry Charles II in 1662, she brought with her a casket of tea. She became known as the tea-drinking queen — England’s first.

In England she invited her friends into her bedroom chamber to share tea with her. “Tea was generally consumed within a lady’s closet or bedchamber and for a mainly female gathering. The tea itself and the delicate pieces of porcelain for brewing and drinking it were displayed in the closet, and inventories for wealthy households during the 17th and 18th centuries list tea equipage not in kitchens or dining rooms but in these small private closets or boudoirs.” (Taken from “A Social History of Tea” by Jane Pettigrew — my favorite book about tea which is currently out of print). In the 18th century it was custom for highborn ladies to receive callers with their morning tea while “abed and bare-breasted.”

Queen Anne drank tea so regularly that she substituted a large bell-shaped silver teapot for the tiny Chinese tea pots. The earliest tea service dates from her reign.

Coffeehouses were popular in the 18th century. Women were forbidden to enter them. In 1675 members of the government persuaded Charles II to suppress them as centers of sedition. The men were so outraged that the king canceled the proclamation. Coffeehouses were also called “penny universities,” in reference to the conversation they bred and the penny admittance fee.

During the 18th century tea gardens became popular. The whole idea of the garden was for ladies and gentlemen to take their tea together outdoors surrounded by entertainers. They attracted everybody including Mozart and Handel. The tea gardens made tea all the more fashionable to drink, plus they were important places for men and women to meet freely.

History of the Afternoon Tea Party

While drinking tea as a fashionable event is credited to Catharine of Braganza, the actual taking of tea in the afternoon developed into a new social event some time in the late 1830’s and early 1840’s. Jane Austen hints of afternoon tea as early as 1804 in an unfinished novel. It is said that the afternoon tea tradition was established by Anne, Duchess of Bedford. She requested that light sandwiches be brought to her in the late afternoon because she had a “sinking feeling” during that time because of the long gap between meals. She began to invite others to join her and thus became the tradition.

Various Tea Times

  • Cream Tea — A simple tea consisting of scones, clotted cream, marmalade or lemon curd and tea.
  • Low Tea/Afternoon Tea — An afternoon meal including sandwiches, scones, clotted cream, curd, 2-3 sweets and tea. Known as “low tea” because guests were seated in low armchairs with low side-tables on which to place their cups and saucers.
  • Elevensies — Morning coffee hour in England
  • Royale Tea — A social tea served with champagne at the beginning or sherry at the end of the tea.
  • High Tea — High tea co notates an idea of elegancy and regal-ness when in fact is was an evening meal most often enjoyed around 6 pm as laborers and miners returned home. High tea consists of meat and potatoes as well as other foods and tea. It was not exclusively a working class meal but was adopted by all social groups. Families with servants often took high tea on Sundays in order to allow the maids and butlers time to go to church and not worry about cooking an evening meal for the family.

Etiquette when attending a tea party

  • Greeting/handshake
  • After sitting down — put purse on lap or behind you against chair back
  • Napkin placement — unfold napkin on your lap, if you must leave temporarily place napkin on chair.
  • Sugar/lemon — sugar is placed in cup first, then thinly sliced lemon and never milk and lemon together. Milk goes in after tea — much debate over it, but according to Washington School of Protocol, milk goes in last. The habit of putting milk in tea came from the French. “To put milk in your tea before sugar is to cross the path of love, perhaps never to marry.” (Tea superstition)
  • The correct order when eating on a tea tray is to eat savories first, scones next and sweets last. We have changed our order somewhat. We like guests to eat the scones first while they are hot, then move to savories, then sweets.
  • Scones — split horizontally with knife, curd and cream is placed on plate. Use the knife to put cream/curd on each bite. Eat with fingers neatly.
  • Proper placement of spoon — the spoon always goes behind cup, also don’t leave the spoon in the cup.
  • Proper holding of cup — do not put your pinky “up”, this is not correct. A guest should look into the teacup when drinking — never over it.

Since ancient Rome, a cultured person ate with 3 fingers, a commoner with five. Thus, the birth of the raised pinkie as a sign of elitism. This 3 fingers etiquette rule is still correct when picking up food with the fingers and handling various pieces of flatware. This pinky “up” descended from a misinterpretation of the 3 fingers vs 5 fingers dining etiquette in the 11th century.

Tea cups did not always have handles. Chinese tea bowls influenced the first European teacups. At first, the English made cups without handles in the traditional Chinese style. Not until the mid 1750’s was a handle added to prevent the ladies from burning their fingers. This improvement was copied from a posset cup, used for hot beverages-hot drink made of milk with wine, ale or spirits. The saucer was once a small dish for sauce. In Victorian days, tea drinkers poured their tea into saucers to cool before sipping, this was perfectly acceptable. This is what writers of the period mean by “a dish of tea.”

Originally tea was poured into small handle-less Chinese porcelain bowls that held about 2-3 tablespoons of tea. It is said that the idea of the saucer developed in the 17th century when the daughter of a Chinese military official found it difficult to handle the hot bowls of tea she brewed for him and asked a local potter to devise a little plate on which to place the bowl. (Taken from “A Social History of Tea” by Jane Pettigrew).

For tips on creating your own perfect afternoon tea party, check out our latest afternoon tea book, Twelve Teas To Remember.  This book include more on the history of afternoon tea, how to plan a tea party,  monthly tea menus, recipes with pictures ,tips on hosting a successful and memorable tea party and more!