The month of May often is a month of tea parties, afternoon tea and creamed teas to celebrate big life events. In fact, I enjoyed afternoon tea last week in a chic urban tea parlor. It doesn’t matter the location, time of day, or what is served at tea time. What is relevant during tea time is what is placed on the tea table. I needed a reminder myself regarding what could be set in a tea table. Manners matter. The saying “Everything has a place and everything in its place” is very appropriate for tea time.
Tea Time Is Anytime
Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world, water being number one. Tea is a beverage that can be enjoyed any time throughout the day or evening. Afternoon Tea, High Tea, and Low Tea vary due to the time it is served, what is served, and how it is served.
High Tea was established during the Industrial Revolution in the mid 1800’s in England. People were working later into the day due to factory work. They were having dinner later in the evening, forgoing afternoon tea. The solution was to serve tea with a meat dish, making the tea more of a meal than an afternoon pick me up. The meal was served from a sideboard, or high buffet server.
Low tea was a tea service originally staged in a hotel lobby on low tables during the afternoon. It often included finger sandwiches, or simply a scone. It currently is served anytime during the day.
In England in the 1840’s, Anna Maria, Duchess of Bedford, implemented what we call today Afternoon Tea. In the early eighteen hundreds in England, the extended work day created a large gap from the midday meal until dinner. Dinner was usually served later in the evening, closer to 8:00 pm, or later. To fill the break between a midday meal and dinner, Anna Maria would have petite sandwiches served along with her tea.
Eventually friends were invited to the Duchess of Bedford's afternoon tea on her estate. Guests enjoyed an afternoon filled with tea, finger sandwiches, and socializing. The afternoon tea party was born! Afternoon tea is typically served from 3:00 - 5:00 pm and includes sweets, scones and finger sandwiches.
The Tea Table
As I looked around the tea parlor everyone seemed to be enjoying their formal tea service. The tables were set with white linen tablecloths, tiered tea trays, china, and glassware. And then I saw them. Items that were precariously placed on the tea table between the cream and sugar, or resting against the tea pot, or juxtaposed near the flatware. These items in question are items I am guilty of placing on the tea table.
There are a few items that are best left off the tea table. Hats, gloves, scarves, and mittens are ought to be excluded from the table. In addition, purses, wallets, bags, and satchels should be placed on the floor, a nearby chair, or on a lap instead of the table. There is no room for these big, and bulky items on a tea table set with delicate, fine china, crystal, and perhaps silver.
Several smaller items need to be relocated off the tea table as well. Sunglasses, prescription glasses, lipstick, Kleenex, and face masks are items that can be placed elsewhere. A small but important item that also needs to be kept off the tea table is the cell phone. I am guilty of placing my cell phone on the table from time to time. It is so easy to just plop the phone down on the table. However during tea time, it is the antithesis of serenity, peace, and rest when the cell phone is buzzing, beeping, and ringing.
Tea bags can pose a dilemma while at the tea table. If a tea bag is placed directly onto the teacup saucer, the tea bag could leak tea onto the saucer. Every time the cup is lifted off the saucer, tea could potentially drip off the bottom of the cup onto the table, or clothing. Ideally there should be a small plate next to the teapot to collect the used tea bag and packaging. By taking this action, the table will be kept clean.
The Tiered Tea Tray
Part of the charm of sitting at a tea table is enjoying the attention to detail, and presentation of tea time food. During afternoon tea, food can be served as individual courses or placed on a three tiered tray. A three tiered tea tray is a beautiful way to display intricately prepared finger foods.
The food is arranged in a specific order on the three tiered food stand. Consumption of food should begin with the bottom plate of food, and finishing at the top plate of food. The category of food arranged on each tier is consistent when utilizing a tiered tray for afternoon tea. On the bottom tier savories and finger sandwiches are placed. Next, the middle tier includes scones and little pots of lemon curd, jam, and Devonshire cream. The top tier consists of delicious desserts.
Tea time can be a respite for the soul, mind and body. When having a cup of tea at an elaborately set table, it is nourishment for the senses not only for you but for everyone around you. By keeping the tea table tidy, you are helping to make the world a more esthetic, serene and pleasing place during tea time!
Baldrige, Letitia. The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book Of Etiquette: A Guide To Contemporary Living. Doubleday, 1978
Johnson, Dorothea and Bruce Richardson. Tea And Etiquette: Taking Tea For Business And Pleasure. Benjamin Press, 2009.
About the Author
Leslie Sundberg is a World Tea Academy Certified Tea Specialist, a World Tea Academy Apprentice Tea Sommelier, a Specialty Tea Institute Levl IV trained Tea Specialist, and a Tea and Business Etiquette Specialist. On any given day, Leslie can be found teaching, speaking or sharing in the joys of a cup of tea. No matter what Leslie is doing or where she is, one thing remains constant: 4:00 in the afternoon is tea time!