Tea Etiquette

I recently read an amusing little article in the New York Times about one tourist’s misconception of the English tradition of tea.

In it, the author makes the common mistake of confusing high tea and afternoon tea. High tea, which sounds very regal and la-di-da actually is another word for the evening meal- like supper (also just called “tea.” Now go find five usages in the Harry Potter books.). Afternoon tea is what we think of when we imagine having tea with the Queen (or am I the only one who imagines that?). My 18th birthday was actually celebrated with an afternoon tea party, because of course it was.

Afternoon tea became a thing in the early 19th century when the Duchess of Bedford found she was a little peckish in the late afternoons during a period where it wasn’t fashionable to have dinner until 8 in the evening. So she started having tea and some sandwiches and then invited some friends to join her and BOOM a defining cultural tradition is born.

High tea, the tea of the masses, was called such because it was served at a normal, high table, instead of the impractical little wobbly tables used by the aristocracy for their afternoon tea.

There is also a thing called a “cream tea” which is just scones with clotted cream and jam served with tea. I hadn’t heard of such a thing until I visited my sister when she was studying abroad in Brighton and we had it. Delightful! And much, much cheaper than the full afternoon tea spread.

Typically when you have afternoon tea, the food comes out in a particular order. Scones and clotted cream first, tiny sandwiches second, and little cakes and pastries third. Or they might come out all together on a big tier of plates and then you can eat in whichever order with reckless abandon. You will also be given a selection of teas and your own little pot of hot water to steep it in.

Some tea etiquette:

  • Sticking your pinkie out is an affectation, it should gently curve around the other fingers.

  • Eat scones the same way you would eat any roll at the table- break off bite sized pieces and put a small portion of cream and jam on and then eat and repeat.

  • Look into your tea cup when sipping instead of staring at your companions.

  • Don’t leave your spoon in your cup, rest it on the saucer.

  • If you are provided with a tea strainer, rest it over the top of your cup, pour the tea through it into the cup, and remove the strainer. There should be a little dish to put the wet strainer on.

  • Traditionally, milk was put in the cup before the tea because older teacups had a tendency to crack when the hot tea was added. However, both are acceptable today, according to your own taste.

  • If the sugar is served in cubes, use the provided tongs to serve yourself instead of your spoon or fingers.

  • If lemon wedges are provided, they might be tied up in a cheesecloth so that they can be squeezed without the seeds flying out. Place used lemon wedges on the side of your saucer if there is no plate provided for them.

  • The spout of the teapot should face the host(ess) when using one teapot for a group.

  • When sipping your tea, lift only your cup and leave the saucer on the table.


2 thoughts on “Tea Etiquette

  1. I was taught to eat a scone by tearing a whole scone in half round the middle, with cutting it being a huge insult, then spreading each half with jam and cream. They were then eaten like a pastry.

    • While that is a delicious way to eat a scone (and I do it myself in private), in public all breads should be torn into bite sized pieces and spread with butter/cream/whatever before being eaten. A lot of people don’t realize it, because it DOES seem counter-intuitive, but it is a pretty important part of table manners that has definitely not gone away.

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