Afternoon tea is the most quintessential English custom. As classic as a cocktail hour, a full English tea replaces the formality of an evening gown with fanciful hats and tiered cake stands full of treats. While still an elegant affair, tea party attire and decor can be modified to fit a particular theme, making it a perfect activity for a baby shower, a birthday, or any gathering of friends.
Drinking tea became common within the United Kingdom in the seventeenth century, although enjoying it in the afternoon was not popularized until later. In the 1840s Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, would entertain and host a small meal around four o’clock in the afternoon while dinner was commonly served closer to eight. By the 1880s this break for tea become a fashionable social gathering for the bourgeoisie. British colonial rule helped transition tea from an upper-class beverage to a drink enjoyed by every social class that remains popular in the nation to this day.
Traditional afternoon tea today, much like how the Duchess of Bedford would have served it, consists of a selection of dainty sandwiches, scones, cakes, and various pastries. Silver tea pots and delicate bone china are commonplace for the time-honored affair.
Tea Party Etiquette
The host should extend an invitation specifying the time, location, and any special attire requests. Guests should arrive promptly, find their place card, and mingle. A few other key etiquette rules are elaborated upon below.
- A hostess gift is not required, but loose tea would always be appreciated.
- Avoid placing too much food on your plate. Tea service is intended to be a snack rather than a full meal.
- Only pick up your saucer if you are standing. If that is the case, pick up your cup and saucer together, holding your cup in one hand and the saucer in the other.
- Do not leave your spoon in your saucer or on the table. Tea can quickly stain linens.
- Scones are not to be eaten with a fork or knife.
- Do not place the sugar spoon in your saucer as a courtesy to other guests.
Setting the table according to general etiquette rules will improve your guests’ experience and provide a foundation to which you can add your personal style.
How to host an elegant tea party
A tea party is a tasteful affair. Make sure your decor and table setting establish the appropriate mood by following a few easy steps.
Set the table properly.
The first step to preparing your tea party decorations is finding the perfect tablecloth. Play off of your theme or simply don a crisp, clean linen. This will set an elegant tone for the rest of your decor.
Regardless of whether a table is round or square, the teapot should be placed near the host for accessibility. The host will pour the tea for guests. Scatter carafes for cream and bowls of sugar within easy reach.
Each place setting should consist of a teacup, saucer, teaspoon, snack plate, napkin, and whatever utensils guests will need for the refreshments. Creating place cards can help avoid confusion and add a finishing touch to your table. We prepared a simple place card template you can customize.
Prepare the tea and offer a selection.
Ideally, the tea should be served from teapots rather than with individual tea bags. To properly serve the tea, first pour boiling water into your tea pot to “hot the pot” so it heats up before brewing the tea. This trick prevents tea from cooling too quickly. Then, place tea leaves or a teabag in the pot. Pour hot water and make sure to steep according to the tea assortment. Be sure to decant the tea by straining the leaves before serving.
Offer a variety of teas to appease the diverse palates of your guests. Darjeeling, jasmine, peppermint, and English Breakfast tea are all popular selections.
To accompany your tea selection, be sure to offer a variety of ways to sweeten each cup. Sugar cubes, brown sugar, and honey are popular. Many also enjoy a splash of milk.
Serve appropriate tea party food.
Tea party food should be eaten with minimal utensils. As mentioned above, tea sandwiches, scones, muffins, and cakes are popular accompaniments. A traditional British tea will be served with clotted cream and jam for the scones. Clotted cream is a beloved British delicacy made from thick, full cream cow’s milk.
Popular tea party sandwiches are made on soft white or brown bread with the crusts removed. Most include a variety in their display. Cucumber sandwiches are the quintessential option. Egg salad, simple ham and swiss, and salmon and cream cheese are all commonly found on the lower level of a tea stand or on a separate dish.
On the second tier of a cake stand will be the more hearty baked goods like scones or muffins. Once the savory sandwiches are finished, these treats are enjoyed before the final course.
The sweeter and more delicate desserts are placed on the top level of the display. Keep in mind, afternoon tea is mainly intended for socializing. Avoid serving too much or having items that will be too heavy. Guests should be able to snack through to the very top tier.
Tea is best served hot and poured from a kettle to a porcelain or ceramic teapot and then to a china tea cup. If you enjoy hosting and drinking tea, think about investing in an antique tea set.