Untarnished Etiquette: Tea time!
by Zeda Dowell
Jul 12, 2012 | 1427 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The table is set for tea at the Westgate Hotel in San Diego. Courtesy of Zeda Dowell
The table is set for tea at the Westgate Hotel in San Diego. Courtesy of Zeda Dowell

Afternoon tea is one of the fastest growing trends in America.

It conjures up feelings of elegance and gentility. Tea time allows busy schedules to give way to the art of relaxed conversation.

But as tea time has spread so has the demand for learning tea etiquette. There are only three elements required for a successful tea party: a sincere feeling of friendliness, hospitality, and honoring your guests.

There are many stories about when afternoon tea really began, although tea time was credited to Anna, seventh Duchess of Bedford (1783–1857) who was reported to have “sinking spells” because of the long hours between breakfast and dinner. History also tells us that afternoon tea “Le goûter” was started in France by Madam de Sevigne (1626-1696) who had tea at 5 p.m.

While traditional tea time is 4 p.m., most tea establishments will serve tea from 3 to 5 p.m.

Afternoon tea is called “low tea” because it is usually served at low tables. “High tea” was traditionally a working class meal served at a high table after 5 p.m. High tea was a heavy meal with meat dishes, baked goods and ale for the laborers or miners coming home from work.

If you are invited to low tea, you would expect to have a variety of teas for your choosing. There are three primary types; Black (fermented), oolong (partially fermented) and green (unfermented). Unlike the others, black teas may be enjoyed with milk, sugar or lemon.

“Royal tea” consists of a four-course menu accompanied by a glass of champagne or sherry.

At an afternoon tea, the pouring of the tea is done by the host or a close friend or two.

The person pouring serves the tea, and then the guests help themselves to the refreshments as everything is placed on the table, family style.

The tea pots are made of china and each could have a different kind of tea, if preferred. I usually cover the tea pots while sitting on the table with a cozy. This helps to keep the tea at serving temperature longer.

There are typically scones on the table with Devonshire cream, lemon curd and jam. There is also usually an assortment of sandwiches or savories and sweets served on a three-tiered tray. Savories are on top, scones or pound cake in the middle and sweets at the bottom. 

The table for tea time is simple and elegant, yet we use our fingers for eating at this event.

The tea table is adorned with a tablecloth, luncheon-size china plates, and china tea cups on saucers to the right with handle out. There should be luncheon cloth napkins, which are smaller than dinner napkins, a butter knife with a knife rest, and a teaspoon on the right. The water glass is placed above the butter knife, and individual sugar tongs should be positioned there, if available.

If you use candles, unscented are preferred, and place cards are always a nice touch.

The idea is to have a good time with your guests, to take pleasure in a peaceful and relaxed atmosphere.

Dress appropriately for the season — a simple elegant dress, sometimes with a jacket, crochet, gloves and hat. Ladies can wear their hats indoors or out, though a gentleman must remove his hat when indoors or while seated outside. Gloves must be removed and placed in a purse while eating but can be put back on when you have finished eating.

I grew up with tea time as a part of daily life. My mother at 80 still has her afternoon tea. It’s as if an alarm goes off and the ritual of four o’clock tea begins. There were days when it was planned and formal, but most days it was a lull in the day when everyone would come together for some tea, cookies and conversation. 

Tea parties are not only for ladies, as tea time can also be enjoyed by a gentleman who has a special lady in his life. 

- Zeda Dowell of Ben Lomond answers questions, teaches classes and provides information about international protocol, dining, being a gentleman and cultural diversity. Contact her at zedadowell@gmail.com.
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