As an English tradition dating back to the 1840s, afternoon tea is a sophisticated repast meant for leisurely enjoyment with friends or family. However, to properly host an afternoon tea, there are certain rules of etiquette to follow regarding the tea service, display, and fare. From selecting an appropriate tea set to arranging the savories and sweets on tiered stands, every detail contributes to an enjoyable tea experience. While tea may be a casual affair for some, a traditional English afternoon tea is a stylish social event. If you aspire to host an authentic afternoon tea, familiarize yourself with the essential components needed and how each element should be presented to impress your guests. With the proper technique and decorum, you’ll be hosting a delightful afternoon tea in no time.
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What Is Afternoon Tea? A Brief History of the English Tradition
Afternoon tea is a long-held English tradition dating back to the 1840s. Anna Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, initiated the custom of taking tea, sandwiches, and cakes in the afternoon to bridge the gap between lunch and dinner. This respite in the middle of the day soon became a social event.
What to Expect at a Traditional Afternoon Tea
A traditional English afternoon tea service includes:
- Tea: A selection of loose leaf teas like Earl Gray, English breakfast, Darjeeling, etc. served in teapots with milk and sugar on the side.
- Scones: Light, fluffy scones (pronounced “skawns”) with clotted cream and jam. Clotted cream is a thick English cream made from heating and cooling cream until it reaches a spreadable consistency.
- Tea sandwiches: Thinly sliced bread with fillings like cucumber, egg salad, smoked salmon, ham, cheese, etc. The bread is cut into small triangle shapes with the crusts removed.
- Pastries: Bite-sized sweets such as macarons, tea cakes, petit fours, tarts, etc.
- Finger foods: Crudités, olives, nuts, crisps, etc. to nibble on.
The three-tiered tea stands and silverware add a touch of sophistication to the whole experience. Afternoon tea is meant to be lingered over for at least 1 to 2 hours while engaging in pleasant conversation. It is a chance to slow down from the hustle and bustle, relish delicious treats and bond over a cup of tea.
Afternoon tea traditionally replaced the evening meal, but today most people have it in addition to lunch and dinner. You can find afternoon tea at luxury hotels, tea rooms, and some high-end restaurants. An English tea set also makes a wonderful gift and can be used to serve afternoon tea at home.
Selecting the Perfect Afternoon Tea Set and Crockery
Selecting an Appropriate Tea Set
When choosing an afternoon tea set, consider a few key factors. First, the material. Fine bone china is a classic choice, as it retains heat well and has an elegant appearance. Porcelain is also suitable and more durable. For a proper English tea, avoid glass, silver or gold tea sets which are not traditional.
Next, choose a tea set that includes all necessary pieces. At a minimum, you will need:
- Teapot: Aim for a pot that holds 3-4 cups of tea. Silverplate or stainless steel pots with infusers allow loose leaf teas.
- Sugar bowl: Look for a bowl that holds lump sugar as well as granulated sugar. Silver tongs are a refined touch.
- Creamer or milk jug: A classic creamer will complement your tea set. For a vegan tea, select a non-dairy creamer.
- Tea cups and saucers: For afternoon tea, small cups with handles and matching saucers are ideal.
- Serving plates: Tiered plates allow you to serve finger sandwiches, scones and pastries.
- Serving utensils: Small tongs, spoons, knives and forks for serving.
An exquisite afternoon tea set and proper service make for a memorable tea experience. Purchase your tea set and accessories from a reputable tea or home goods vendor. With care and frequent use, a high-quality set can become an heirloom you cherish for years to come. By following tradition and paying attention to every last detail, you’ll be hosting the perfect English afternoon tea in no time.
How to Properly Set the Table for Afternoon Tea
How to Properly Set the Table for Afternoon Tea
To properly set the table for an afternoon tea service, there are several key components you will need. First, select a tablecloth, placemats or table runner in a pattern or color that complements your tea set. Next, gather the necessary tableware:
- Teacups and saucers: Place one teacup and saucer at each setting. The teacup is set on the saucer.
- Teapot: Have a teapot for each type of tea you plan to serve. Place the teapots on a tray for easy refilling of teacups.
- Creamer and sugar bowl: Provide a creamer for milk or cream and a sugar bowl with sugar cubes or granulated sugar for guests to add to their tea if desired.
- tiered plates or platters: Have plates or platters to display the tea sandwiches, scones, pastries and other bites.
- Napkins: Place one cloth napkin at each setting or have napkins available for guests in an accessible area.
- Flatware: Set out any necessary utensils such as small spoons, knives and forks for eating the accompaniments.
- Additional items: Include a waste bowl, milk jug, lemon slices, honey, jam and any other condiments you plan to offer.
Once you have gathered all the necessary tableware, you can begin setting the places. Set a teacup and saucer slightly above and to the right of each dinner fork. The handle of the teacup should face right. Place the napkin, folded or casually draped, on the service plate or placemat. Have the tiered plates, platters and any additional items centrally located on the table for easy access.
An afternoon tea should feel relaxed and leisurely. Keep things uncomplicated by focusing on quality, fresh ingredients and good conversation with friends new and old. Your guests are sure to appreciate all the care you’ve taken in putting together a proper English afternoon tea.
Step-by-Step Guide to Serving Afternoon Tea
To properly serve afternoon tea, you will need the following essential items:
- A tea set: This includes teapots, tea cups and saucers, milk and sugar bowls, tongs, and teaspoons. For an authentic English tea set, look for fine bone china pieces in floral or nature-inspired patterns.
- Loose leaf tea or tea bags: A variety of teas should be offered including Earl Gray, English breakfast, Darjeeling, and herbal tea options.
- Milk and sugar: Both cubed sugar and milk or cream should be provided for guests to tailor their tea.
- Three-tiered cake stand: The traditional way to present the fare is on a three-tiered cake stand with savories on the bottom, scones in the middle and sweets on the top tier.
- Linens: Have linen napkins, tablecloths and placemats on hand to complete the elegant table setting.
How to Serve
Follow these steps to properly serve a traditional English afternoon tea:
- Brew the tea in teapots and fill the tea cups 2/3 full. Place the filled teapots, milk and sugar on the table along with the three-tiered cake stand filled with savories, scones and sweets.
- Invite guests to be seated. Explain that the savories and scones will be served first, followed by the sweets. The various teas may be enjoyed throughout the service.
- Offer guests their choice of tea. They may add milk and sugar to taste. Provide tongs for the cubed sugar and small pitchers for the milk.
- Once most guests have prepared their tea, invite them to enjoy the savories like cucumber sandwiches, egg salad sandwiches and sausage rolls on the bottom tier.
- After 10-15 minutes, or once most guests have finished the savories, invite guests to enjoy the fresh-baked scones in the middle tier. Serve the scones with clotted cream, lemon curd and jam.
- Finally, once most guests have finished their scones, invite them to enjoy the sweets on the top tier like petit fours, macarons, madeleines and tea cookies.
- Tea may be enjoyed for up to two hours. Simply keep hot water in the teapots to offer guests refills. What a delightful way to spend an afternoon!
Where to Find Authentic English Tea Sets Online
To find an authentic English tea set online, visit reputable retailers that specialize in fine china and tea ware. Two recommended options are:
- The English Tea Store: This retailer offers a wide selection of tea sets, teapots, tea cups, saucers, tea trays and more. They work directly with English potteries like Royal Albert, Wedgwood, Royal Doulton and others to provide high quality, authentic tea sets. Prices range from under $100 up to $500 or more for a full set. They frequently run sales and promotions to find good deals on English tea sets.
- Teavana: In addition to loose leaf teas, Teavana sells a variety of tea sets, cups, pots and accessories. They carry traditional English brands such as Royal Albert and Wedgwood as well as their own Teavana branded tea ware. Teavana tea sets range from $60 up to $300 for a complete set including teapot, cups, saucers, sugar, creamer and tray. They also regularly discount select tea sets up to 50% off.
When purchasing from an online retailer, look for the following characteristics to ensure an authentic English tea set:
- Made in England: Tea sets that are handcrafted and manufactured in England, especially in Staffordshire, will be the most traditional. Sets made in China may be of lower quality.
- Fine bone china: Authentic English tea sets are made of fine bone china which is a type of porcelain that contains bone ash. It has a translucent, shiny appearance and delicate feel.
- Floral or garden motifs: Traditional English tea sets often feature colorful floral prints, garden and nature scenes. Gold accents are also common.
- Complete set: A proper English tea set will include teapot, sugar bowl, creamer or milk jug, cups, saucers and possibly a cake plate or tiered tray for serving scones and sandwiches.
By purchasing from a reputable retailer and looking for the characteristics of an authentic set, you can find a beautiful English tea set to create a charming afternoon tea experience. Savoring a cup of tea from an English tea set and enjoying good conversation with friends or family is a lovely way to embrace a timeless English tradition.
As you can see, afternoon tea is a delightful tradition with a rich history. Knowing how to properly display a tea set and serve tea sandwiches and sweets allows you to create an authentic English tea experience. While afternoon tea may seem an indulgence, when done right it can be a satisfying mini-meal to enjoy in place of lunch or as an evening treat. With the right tea set and ingredients, you’ll be well on your way to embracing a cherished custom and enjoying a little taste of Britain. So find your favorite Earl Gray or Darjeeling, set out the fine china, and invite a few friends over for an afternoon of tea, conversation, and decadent petit fours. Cheers!