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Afternoon tea: How to do the convivial tradition right?

Hosting an afternoon tea is a birthright of many and a right of passage for others. Learning how to master it like a true English royal takes practice.

Sipping afternoon tea while resting on a gilded hotel armchair is a delightful British tradition, but hardly sustainable as a daily pursuit. Hosting your own afternoon tea party, however, allows you to live like a royal - if only for a day. 

Tea, Anyone?

The long-standing tradition of an afternoon tea is rumored to have begun with Anna Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford in the 1840s, who set out to bridge the hangry lull between lunch and dinner. At that time, dinner was often served after 7:30 pm, leaving a long stretch between meals and a huge gap for hungry stomachs. Now, for many of us, the prospect of flitting around fine china is enough to cause a mild panic. Trying to avoid an accidental swipe of the pinkie in a cloud of clotted cream is downright nerve-wracking. Nevertheless, the leisurely pace, sheer variety of pastries, scones, and sandwiches, as well as the treat-yourself mentality provides a welcome respite from day-to-day concerns. For these reasons, it's important to carefully consider every aspect of the event before hosting.

Setting the Scene

A proper English tea party is a mélange of trends, each one complementing the other for the most delightful results. Of course, such an endeavor must consider the stage on which the tea is set - that is, the atmosphere guests will arrive and depart in.

Elegant swaths of Britain's red, white, and blue can provide a hint of origin. Extend your table and toss a decorative table cloth on top. String bunting along the serving area. Illuminate the sense of purpose with a royal soundtrack (wedding music, anyone?). Consider an eclectic collection of vintage-chic mixing and matching of the plates, cups, and serving utensils that can be had at most antique markets and secondhand stores.

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Become Versed in the Proper Terminology

"Afternoon tea" is typically reserved for the time between lunch and dinner, served between 3:00 and 4:00 pm, and is a largely social affair, explains Vogue Magazine. Often confused with afternoon tea, "high tea" is a more formal evening affair with a savory dish as the highlight. "Cream tea," on the other hand, is a twist on the afternoon tea with a spread of scones, cream, jam, and tea as punctuation marks.

Afternoon tea is also known as "low tea." This term is derived from the tradition of guests sitting in low armchairs with low side tables for their cups and saucers during an afternoon tea.

Delectable Delights

Of course, the centerpiece of an afternoon tea remains the tea, but what about those goodies that are meant to usher away empty bellies? There should be a variety of scones, crustless finger sandwiches, macaroons, cakes, and quaint pastries available.

That said, there are a few etiquette rules that any proper host and guest must follow when it comes to eating those delectable delights. Here are several of them.

  • Split scones horizontally with a knife, and place the curd and cream on a plate. Use the knife to dab cream/curd on each bite. Eat with fingers neatly.
  • Eat the savory food first, followed by the scones, and last, enjoy the sweets.
  • Place your nap on your lap or behind you against the seat back before consuming any food.
  • Unfold the napkin and place it on your lap; if you must leave the table for a stint, place the napkin on your chair.
  • Avoid pronouncing the 'o' in scone. It should be said 'scon' instead.

As for the Tea...

Of course, no guide would be complete with mention of the highlight: tea. Loose tea is more appealing for the taste buds, and while it should steep as long as an individual prefers, there's no harm in asking for a fresh pot. Tea should be replenished frequently. Also, ensure the following for proper etiquette:

  • Guests should look into the tea cup when drinking, not over it.
  • Place the spoon behind the cup and avoid leaving it in the cup.
  • Stir gently; any clanging of utensils is inappropriate.
  • Unless you want to be accused of elitism, do not place your pinky up. The general guideline is to eat and drink with three fingers if you're a cultured person; with five if you're a commoner.

Hosting an afternoon tea is a birthright of many and a right of passage for others.

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