The exacting etiquette of afternoon tea
Who’d have thought that the simple afternoon tea would say so much about who we are and where we come from? Etiquette expert William Hanson schools Rosanna Rothery in the art of doing it ‘properly’ – from whether milk should go in first, to how to hold a teacup …
Milk is added last and there is really no negotiation on this.
‘If you are going to add cold milk (and the Chinese and Indians are horrified by the suggestion), it needs to go in after you’ve poured the tea,’ says William. This is because by pouring the tea into an empty teacup you can clearly see the strength of the brew.
A more snobby reason stems from the Downton Abbey era when servants of a large house drank from crudely made mugs: the milk would act as a coolant to prevent the crockery from cracking. Upstairs the house would use fine bone china and there was no necessity to pour the milk first.
However, the idea that you can tell a person’s class from whether they put the milk in first or last is ridiculous according to William:
‘I’ve seen people from incredibly elevated backgrounds put their milk in first and people from not very elevated backgrounds put their milk in last.’
The correct way to hold a fine bone teacup is to pinch with your thumb and forefinger, with your little finger supporting the shape of the handle.
‘Some people will hook their index finger through and put the thumb on top of the handle which is not very elegant,’ says William. And never EVER drink with your little finger elevated: ‘Extending your little finger is an affectation and you will be laughed at,’ he warns.
The pretentious act of baby finger extension might hark back to the days of holding tea bowls (the teacup wasn’t created until the 17th century) which necessitated fingers being more spread. However, if you’re still in doubt about whether to extend or retract your pinkie, William cites another possible origin:
‘Some say it goes back to the court of Louis XIV where there was a lot of bed hopping, flirting and syphilis. It was not polite to sleep with someone without telling them you had syphilis so you would make eye contact and extend your little finger to alert them.’
Making circular motions when stirring your tea is not civilised. Cognoscenti stir in a back and forth motion (north to south).
‘Any added sugar dissolves quicker, it prevents splashing and looks more elegant,’ sums up William.
The host or hostess (the homeowner, the person paying the bill or whoever sent the invite) should always pour.
‘In the royal household, it’s said to be the Queen who pours the tea,’ says William. ‘If a host or hostess invites you to pour, it’s an honour and a sign of respect.
‘Tea used to be quite expensive so the hostess of the household always kept the key to the tea caddy around her décolletage. She would control how much tea would be used, hence the expression “mother pours”.’
Firstly, the pronunciation issue has to be cleared up: William rhymes ‘scone’ with ‘gone’. He also insists that, like all bread products, scones should be broken by hand and not cut with a knife.
‘Good quality French bread and scones are glorious and can easily be broken by hand. The only time you might need to use a knife is when eating a poor quality shop-bought scone that is impossible to break gently in half.’
Breaking bread has its roots in medieval times when hunting knives (as opposed to modernday cutlery) would have been reserved for cutting meat at the table.
‘It also has biblical connotations and can be a symbol of friendship,’ says William. ‘Jesus broke bread with his disciples at the last supper as a sign of peace. Admittedly, it didn’t go terribly well for him straight afterwards but at least he followed etiquette.
‘Any flavour of jam is fine, and as for the cream or jam first debate William resolutely refuses to be drawn. ‘It doesn’t matter! Obviously if you are in Devon and Cornwall there are no other bigger social issues,’ is his withering verdict.
Technology and changing social norms mean that the parameters of politeness are always progressing. ‘I’ve relaxed over the years. If I take clients to The Ritz to have afternoon tea and they want a coffee then fine, have a coffee. It’s not the end of the world – not everybody likes tea.’
Here are William’s tips for today’s decorum:
‘I’m not a huge fan of technology at the table. It’s not a good habit to get into. In formal dining, if you were invited to the Palace or the White House you usually shouldn’t touch your phone.’
‘I don’t love it. I can see why people want to photograph the food: a lot of these tea shops make everything look so glorious. However if you are serving hot food, by the time someone’s done a whole photoshoot it doesn’t quite taste as it should.’
‘Serving ladies first is really rather European and it is not what we would do in a private house in Britain. The guest of honour and their spouse, who sit on the right of the host and hostess, should be served first and then you work clockwise around the table.’
Food’s guide to tea with a twist
Today’s afternoon teas aren’t all cucumber sandwiches and Coward-esque quips with Cole Porter tickling the ivories in the background. While good company and sparkling conversation are a given, new ideas are reinvigorating this most delectable of rituals
Small talk and scones
It’s all about the long-drawn-outness, the convivial company, the sharing of the pot and the inevitable bartering: ‘I’ll swap you a scone for a sponge dainty’. There can be few better places to observe these sociable rites than in the Georgian splendour of The Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa in Bath. Afternoon teas include a flight of champagne, world teas sourced from Ronnefeldt, finger sandwiches, cakes, scones and Bath buns.
Those with a predilection for savoury over sweet will go weak at the knees at The Royal Crescent Tea, where mini morsels include the likes of a Bath chap beignet (pig’s cheek rillettes in breadcrumbs) with pickled radish and smoked rapeseed mayonnaise.
Chit chat and chocolate
As delightful as finger sandwiches can be, if you’re the kind of chocoholic who wolfs them down in order to move on to the ecstasy-inducing cocoa-infused treats, why not just skip the savouries altogether? At the Swanage house of award winning luxury chocolate maker Chococo, a cream tea comes with scones laden with chocolate chips and served with dulce de leche caramel and clotted cream.
If you forgo a cup of fine leaf tea for a mug of single origin hot chocolate we won’t tell anyone.
Bon mots and booze
At many hotels and restaurants, quaffing champagne while trading witticisms over tiers of treats is a boozy addition to the contemporary teatime experience. At Paschoe House in Crediton they go one step further: tea-infused cocktails are served in a teapot so nobody need know you’re not soberly sipping Earl Grey. A discreet red berry-laced tea with gin anyone?
This Afternoon Tea with a Twist, served in the light and airy Morning Room, also includes a changing menu of cakes, patisserie (chef Samuel Brook’s passionfruit macarons and millionaire shortbread slices are reportedly delish) and scones with cream and jam. If you’re feeling really naughty you can upgrade a Full Afternoon Tea or the Devon Cream Tea to include an effervescent glass of champagne.
Explore Paschoe’s menu of Tregothnan Teas. The Cornish tea grower was the first to create black and green teas from leaves grown on British soil. The Great British Tea (a hearty mix of Cornish leaves and premium assam) was created especially for 10 Downing Street to celebrate the quintessential British beverage.
Tittle tat and tarts
For sheer English eccentricity, a Mad Hatter Afternoon Tea Party aboard the Northern Belle, complete with purple sandwiches, cakes, sparkling wine and a strolling magician, makes for whimsical fun. Hark back to an era of elegant rail travel with an excursion into the English countryside and a silver service afternoon tea. Trains offering a variety of themed afternoon teas depart from Bristol Temple Meads, Bath Spa and Swindon.
Book in for an afternoon tea paired with four glasses of different Laurent-Perrier champagnes and add a bit of joie de vivre to your rail journey.
Gossip and guinness
Gender stereotypes aside, the advent of the gentleman’s afternoon tea sees mimsy cakes, miniature sandwiches and diminutive dainties replaced by the more butch-sounding cheese and bacon scone or the mini pork pie.
At The Greenbank in Cornwall, the Gentleman’s Picnic Tea is more of a nod to the traditional high tea (a filling meal dished up on the kitchen table after a hard day’s work) than afternoon tea. It includes macho fare such as steak and red onion chutney sarnies followed by chocolate Guinness cake and whiskey truffles.
Looking for somewhere to take the tots for tea? Children’s afternoon tea at The Greenbank includes a ham sandwich, a scone with cream and jam, and a frothy hot choccie.
Schmoozing and sandwiches
At Boringdon Hall near Plymouth, monthly themed teas are crafted around the time of year (as well as national occasions). In June, merry men and maids can enjoy a Robin Hood Afternoon Tea complete with a Sheriff of Nottingham macaron, a Sherwood black forest gateau, and King Richard’s gems (you’ll have to book to find out).
Savouries include filo money bags, sandwiches and a dressed crab salad. And, of course, no afternoon tea is complete without scones served with strawberry jam and clotted cream.
Join Boringdon’s afternoon tea loyalty club. Pick up a club card from reception and once you’ve collected a set of nine stamps you’ll be given a limited edition Boringdon Hall teacup and saucer. The hotel also caters for those on special diets, offering gluten-free and vegan afternoon tea menus.
Tete a tete and treacle
At The Salty Monk in Sidmouth there’s a nod to the old Cornish custom of a thunder and lightning cream tea where golden syrup is trickled over the clotted stuff for a stickily sweet thrill. Traditionally, this would have been served on a split (light bread rolls that are split when still warm) but at The Salty Monk the treacly treat is served on award winning scones.
As well as a great array of black, white and green teas and tisanes to be enjoyed over sandwiches, mini desserts, cakes and scones straight from the oven, you can turn your afternoon tea into a jovial affair with champagne, prosecco, Sidmouth Gin and tonic, or Pimm’s.