How to Observe Afternoon Tea Like a True Brit
Afternoon tea is a mainstay of British culture, but there’s no reason to confine its traditions to faraway shores. The centuries-old practice can easily become a mainstay of your social routine. And with help from U.K. etiquette coach William Hanson, author of “The Bluffer’s Guide to Etiquette,” you can manage to pull it off with absolute aplomb like a true Brit:
It’s Not ‘High Tea’
Afternoon tea is meant to provide refreshment and reprieve during the mid-afternoon hours. According to Hanson, it typically takes place between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., “depending on one’s eating habits.” It’s rarely seen here in the U.S., but some establishments—particularly those with an English flair—do offer it. Despite what you may have seen or heard, Hanson is adamant that afternoon tea is never, ever called “high tea.” He explains that this is a fairly common mistake, both in the States and abroad, noting that high tea was traditionally the early-evening meal for household servants and laborers of the field. “When many people hear the words ‘high tea,’ they get confused and assume it refers to the high, three-tiered cake stands associated with afternoon tea,” he says.
Choose Classic Teas and Accoutrements
If you peruse the tea section at your grocery store, you’re sure to find plenty of newfangled blends and infusions. But Hanson says to pass these up in lieu of the traditional choice: a classic black tea. He recommends something delicate, such as a Darjeeling, an Assam, or an oolong. “An Earl Grey, Lady Grey, or Queen Anne would also be quite nice,” he adds.
But before you dash out to pick up a box of tea, note this important fact: Afternoon tea traditionally calls for loose-leaf tea instead of tea bags, which, of course, necessitates using a teapot with a built-in strainer. For dressing up the tea, Hanson says to present both milk (not heavy cream or half-and-half!) and white sugar cubes.
Serve 3 Distinct Courses
Regardless of its moniker, afternoon tea is not limited to tea. Three parts or courses—one savory and two sweet—are served. Here’s Hanson’s rundown of each:
- First course: Finger sandwiches—Hanson describes these as “delicate little sandwiches without crusts,” while noting they should generally be limited to one filling (don’t expect a BLT) and served on a small plate. “Cucumber sandwiches are great because they are very light, which is the point of afternoon tea—it’s supposed to be a snack and not a filling meal,” he says. Obviously, you won’t need cutlery for these sandwiches, but you should have a tea napkin, which is a cloth napkin that measures roughly 12 inches square. And before you move on to the sweet courses, a plate change is in order.
- Second course: Scones—Hanson says afternoon tea scones should be sweet (save those cheese scones for a later snack) and served with jam and cream, sometimes butter. For this, you’ll need a small knife and two teaspoons for the spreads.
- Third course: Cakes and petit fours—These vary depending on the chef’s preferences, but they are generally diminutive sweet treats, Hanson says.
Hanson adds that teahouses and hotels will often display the three courses using a tiered cake stand (sandwiches on the bottom, scones in the middle, cakes and petit fours on the top), but flat dinner plates are appropriate for a private in-home setting.
Speaking of servingware, Hanson says to break out the best. “You need chinaware and a matching teacup and saucer—no mugs,” he says. “The teacup you use should be footed, meaning it has a foot and is not completely cylindrical like a mug.”
Practice Proper Etiquette
Like any civilized dining experience, afternoon tea calls for proper etiquette. In addition to your everyday manners, you should, according to Hanson, refrain from this glaring faux pas: extending your little finger when you hold your teacup. “When you hold your teacup,” Hanson instructs, “your thumb and forefinger should pinch between the handle, and your middle finger should serve to provide support underneath the handle.”
To avoid embarrassing spills and splashes, Hanson cautions against making a circular motion when stirring the tea. “Instead, go back and forth—think 12 and six on a clock face,” he says.
And for a final piece of etiquette advice, Hanson says to wait for the host to offer each course, and to be careful to take only a little bit on your plate at a time. (Remember, afternoon tea is meant to be a light snack.) The host should also pour tea for guests.
Although Hanson acquiesces that one could certainly have tea alone, he notes it’s meant to be more of a social gathering. “It’s a nice way to catch up with friends and family, especially now that we lead such busy lives,” he says, adding that the occasion should be a time to switch off your mobile phone and focus on the people in front of you.
And this, of course, is a practice that makes sense for everyone—regardless of which side of the Atlantic you’re from. So follow these instructions from Hanson, call up your best mates, and share in the joys of this delightful British tradition.
Just don’t forget to steep in the moment.