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The History and Etiquette of Afternoon Tea

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“Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well”.

Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield

Afternoon tea, that rather quintessential English tradition, is actually surprisingly new. Whilst the custom of drinking tea dates back to the third millennium BC in China and was popularised in England during the 1660s, it was not until the mid-19th century that the concept of ‘afternoon tea’ first appeared. No one is quite sure when this wonderful custom was first introduced in England, but the ceremony was already widespread in the 1840’s.

Credit is given to Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, who due to the long stretch of time between lunch and the evening meal, suffered from ‘afternoon hunger spells’. To remedy this affliction, The Duchess asked that a tray of tea, bread and butter and cake to be brought to her room during the late afternoon. This became a habit of Anna’s and she began inviting friends to join her. A brief pause for tea quickly flourished into a popular social event among the English aristocracy.

During the 1880’s upper-class ladies would change into long gowns, gloves and hats for their afternoon tea which was usually served in the drawing room between four and five o’clock. The 1920s later marked the height of the craze, complete with many guests, pageantry, servants, silver teapots, fine linens, musicians, elegant teacups, and the best tea money could buy.

Traditional afternoon tea consists of a selection of elegant sandwiches, scones served with clotted cream and preserves as well as cakes and pastries. Tea grown in India or Ceylon is poured from silver teapots into delicate bone china cups.

To experience the best of the afternoon tea tradition, indulge yourself with a trip to one of Britain’s finest hotels or visit a quaint tearoom in the countryside. Of course, if you do, it is important to remember that afternoon tea etiquette is very particular. To avoid getting caught up in any embarrassing situations follow our top do’s and don’ts to make sure you would fit in with even the Duchess of Bedford’s poshest friends.

DO stir your tea correctly. Place the spoon at the 6 o’clock position and gently stir the tea towards 12 o’clock without touching the sides of the teacup.
DO NOT fold the tea back and forth or side to side.
DO Place your spoon on your saucer next to the cup.
DO NOT leave your spoon in the cup, especially whilst drinking.
DO try a little of each food served at the tea (both sweet and savoury).
DO NOT talk about personal food likes or dislikes during the tea.
DO avoid talking with your mouth full.
DO NOT take large bites.
DO wait until you have swallowed your food before you take a sip of tea. The rule is one or the other, please.
DO NOT place items that are not part of the tea service, such as keys, sunglasses, or phones, on the table.
DO look into–not over–your teacup, when sipping.
DO NOT tip your teacup too much when drinking–keep it slightly tipped.
DO replace your napkin to it’s correct resting place at the left-hand-side of your plate, should you need to be excused for some reason.
DO NOT place your napkin on the table until you are ready to leave the table.
DO simply say “excuse me” should you need to leave the table.
DO NOT fill your cup to the brim with tea, in order to avoid messy spills.
DO pour your tea before adding any lemon or milk. The tea is always poured first.
DO NOT stretch your little finger up whilst sipping. Contrary to popular belief, this is not a traditional way of balancing the teacup and frankly, it looks ridiculous.
DO get the order correct, with sandwiches, scones, and then the sweets (with no cheating!).

Finally, one more top tea tip in case you really do enjoy your afternoon tea. Did you know that at the end of dining, neatly folding the napkin with a crease and placing it back on the left of the plate is a traditional indicator to the host that you wish to be invited back?

If you enjoyed these insights into afternoon tea, keep an eye out for our next blog when we will explain the frequently misunderstood but crucial differences between High, Low and Afternoon Tea.

Image Reference: Majestic, Tea lounge set up, Roderick Eime from Australia

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