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The Do’s and Don’ts of Afternoon Tea

By Seren Charrington Hollins.

Afternoon tea is very much in vogue and indeed save for complaining about the weather and going out in the midday sun there are very few  traditions more British than  ‘Afternoon Tea’.

What we now know as Afternoon Tea derives from the Duchess of Bedford’s desire to fill the gap between lunch and dinner with a light meal of tea, cakes and sandwiches in order to satisfy the hunger pangs. The practice soon caught on and became  so popular that it soon developed into an established social occasion amongst the upper classes.

When taking afternoon tea there are a few etiquettes that must be observed and so below is my guide to the do’s and don’ts of afternoon tea.

  1. First and foremost, you should be clear about the fact that afternoon tea is not the same as high tea.  High tea was what servants of a large house ate at around 6pm, after the upstairs had been given their (afternoon) tea. So unless you are planning on sitting in the servants quarters  and enjoying bread and butter, cold meats, potted meats and perhaps some ale, don’t term yourself as enjoying high tea.
  1. What is the dress code for Afternoon Tea? You may be wondering what outfit is suitable for a formal afternoon tea. Indeed many establishments that serve afternoon tea adopt a relaxed ‘smart casual’ dress code these days, so there is no need for men to wear a jacket and tie (unless otherwise specified) – trousers or smart jeans, collared shirt and clean/un-scuffed shoes are acceptable. However, no  sportswear or trainers. It must be said however, that the afternoon tea provides the perfect opportunity to dress up and indulge in the very best of vintage attire.
  1. The matter of sandwiches: everyone should know that tea sandwiches must have their crusts cut off, and presented either in the shape of triangles, rectangles or – as the royal household prefers – in small squares. 
  1. Cream Tea or Afternoon Tea or Royal Tea. The terminology used often confuses people when talking about Afternoon Tea. A ‘Cream Tea’ is usually just scones with cream and preserves served with tea. ‘Afternoon Tea’ is traditionally sandwiches, scones and a selection of cakes, served with tea. ‘Royal Tea’ is a less widely used term signifying the addition of a glass of champagne to a traditional Afternoon Tea, for those extra special occasions or those who wish to truly embrace the indulgence of the occasion.
  1. Milk – should it be added first or last? There seems to be a few people that believe that the correct way to drink tea from china cups is to add the milk first. Let me clarify now that milk is added last and there really is no negotiation on this. You must under no circumstances add the milk first if you wish to convey an image of class and good breeding, this is because the idea of pouring milk into a cup first  originates from servants of a large house who used to drink from unrefined clay mugs which could crack when hot tea was poured,  thus milk was added first to act as a coolant. Those  upstairs drank from fine bone china or porcelain so did not need to add milk to their tea first. 
  1. How should I stir the tea? Stirring in sloshing, circular swirls is not the done thing. Imagine the circumference of your tea cup as being a clock face. Place your spoon in a 6 o’clock position in the cup and in a controlled fashion, swirl the tea towards the 12 o’clock position whilst making sure not to ‘clink’ the spoon against the sides of the cup. You must also remember to not leave the spoon in the cup, instead placing it on the saucer to the side of the cup, again this maneuver should be done without excess noise. 
  1. Pinkies Up? Absolutely not – you shouldn’t even have to ask!. This pointless and slightly silly act should be reserved for comedy sketches. There is no need to stick a pinkie out  and this act  has rapidly become one of Afternoon Teas most common faux pas.
  1. Jam or cream first? Oh this is a whole other debate. There is no wrong or right when it comes to how to enjoy your cream scone and it must be said that there are more important matters to address such as ensuring the correct size of a tea napkin, which should be 12 inches square.

Well, I hope that these tips will help you to behave in a wholly appropriate manner when taking afternoon tea this season.