“The perfect choice
…a well deserved moment,
to collect my thoughts,
to breathe and think:
how good it is to have Some Tea.”

–  “Some Tea” by Alan Farnham

At the moment I stepped into the ritzy hotel decorated with holiday trim and took a seat at the dining table filled with fancy teapots, matching cups and saucers, warm scones, dainty sandwiches, and yummy pastries, my passion for Afternoon Tea was born.  As I listened to Vivaldi playing in the background (do you feel the elegance?) and enjoyed the aroma of a fresh pot of tea, I started thinking – what is the proper etiquette behind this lovely ritual?  Do I eat the scone first?

So after that first Afternoon Tea, I started reading books on tea etiquette, took a workshop on tea etiquette, and asked tea experts many questions.

What is tea etiquette?  It is a combination of consideration, kindness, and honesty in the context of tea that equals confidence.  During those early days of my tea-etiquette education, I didn’t feel very confident, but with time and learning, that has changed.

Most people enjoy Afternoon Tea and have a good time with friends, blissfully unaware that there is an etiquette for tea.

The concept of an etiquette related to tea started soon after the discovery of tea.  The Chinese emperors and monks had tea ceremonies, as did the Japanese emperors and samurai, always following very strict rituals.

Ana, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, never thought that her request for an afternoon snack would launch thousands of scones, tea cups, and all the rest that we have come to associate with Afternoon Tea.  Kudos to you, Ana!  With all the sophistication and details an Afternoon Tea entails, etiquette was a must.

During that first Afternoon Tea, I followed my common sense and ate the scone first.  After all, scones are served warm (or, at least, they should be), so that is the best time to enjoy them.  Here are some other etiquette points to keep in mind:

  • It is improper to slice a scone – break off a small piece and apply the cream, jam, or lemon curd with a butter knife.  If there isn’t a butter knife, use a regular knife.
  • Serve yourself a small portion of lemon curd, jam, and cream.
  • Always place the knife on the right side of the plate.
  • Do not dunk your scone into your tea!

There is even an etiquette around how to present the food that accompanies Afternoon Tea.  In the 1800s, the protocol was to place the scones on the top tier of a three-tiered stand, covered by a small dome to keep them warm.  Today, few tea houses or hotel lounges have this dome and most reserve the top tier for savories, the middle tier for scones, and the bottom tier for sweets.  However, some people prefer the top tier for sweets to show them off, or arrange the food in the order in which it should be eaten.  Guests generally serve themselves from the bottom up.

Remember, the goal of etiquette is to show kindness and consideration, so don’t make people feel badly if they don’t know the etiquette.  The bottom line is to relish the dainty courses, sip your tea, and relax.

Photo “New Apsleys Afternoon Tea Lanesborough” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License to the photographer “finedining indian” and is being posted unaltered (source)

Originally posted in May 2010 by Sarita Gomez