Sunday, April 13, 2014

Etiquette and Afternoon Tea Rituals

Anna Maria, 7th Duchess of Bedford is credited with the popular British ritual of having afternoon tea and a snack. Well, popular with most everyone other than writer Craig Brown, who wrote in 2007, "Afternoon tea is a make-believe meal, glimpsed only in television adaptations of Jane Austen books. In my experience, one is as likely to be offered a cucumber sandwich, a muffin, a fresh scone, cream and choice of jams in a private house as one is to be asked to dance an eightsome accompanied by a string quartet in powdered wigs. Nor is there any real need for afternoon tea, unless one has some sort of eating disorder, making it necessary to force a whole lot of dough, jam and cream down your throat a couple of hours after you've just finished lunch."

The Beginnings of the Afternoon Tea Ritual

The British ritual of afternoon tea is attributed to Anna Maria, 7th Duchess of Bedford. The Duchess was staying as a guest to John Manners, the 5th Duke of Rutland, at Belvoir Castle (pronounced beaver) in Leicestershire when she found herself experiencing a “sinking feeling” during the long hours between midday luncheon and late evening dinner. She requested a snack of tea and cake to curb her hunger and found that she so enjoyed it that she invited her friends to join her. She continued the social gatherings when she returned to her home at Woburn Abbey and even took her own silver tea equipment with her when she went to visit her friends in their castles and palaces.

A stunning, late 19th century silver and enamel tea service.  Tea services added to the ceremony of Victorian afternoon tea we know today.
As the popularity of this new found ritual spread amongst the upper and middle classes the Victorians unsurprisingly began producing new specially designed apparatus to further enhance the enjoyment of afternoon tea. So up sprang all the elegant tea pots and kettles and creamers and tea strainers, and subsequently the ceremony of afternoon tea grew into what we know today.
An afternoon, or "low tea." High tea is a completely different meal in itself.
Afternoon tea is traditionally known as low tea because it was served whilst sitting down on low sofas and chairs, whereas high tea is a completely different meal in itself. High Tea does not have anything to do with the overused and misused phrase, “high class,” but instead got its name due to being eaten on high tables amongst the working classes. After a long day’s hard labour the working classes would gather together for their evening meal which usually consisted of meat, fish and other heavy foods.  
It is still common to hear people from various areas of the country refer to their dinner as tea and their lunch as dinner.

At Fortnum’s “it is always time for tea!”  Because a large proportion of their customers are from overseas, and "afternoon tea" in many other parts of the world is confused with "high tea," some British hotels use the term"High tea in London" to advertise what are actually their "Afternoon Teas." 
Some venues do serve a special high tea menu, in addition to afternoon tea, which includes additional savoury items such as Welsh rarebit, English muffins and pies. 

The Charm of Afternoon Tea

Much of the charm of afternoon tea has to do with the etiquette and rituals that have evolved over the years; while most table manners still apply to having tea, there are also many other etiquette rules exclusively designated to the tea table.   In the words of Jack Buchanan during his 1930 song Everything Stops for Tea, “But no matter what the score, when the clock strikes four, everything stops for tea.” This is very telling as traditionally tea in England was served at 4pm. The illustration of Fortnum and Mason’s famous clock shows its clock hands permanently stopped at 4 o’clock to show that at Fortnum’s “it is always time for tea”; however it is said that Queen Elizabeth II has a cup of tea at 5pm every day without fail, her favourite blend being a mixture of Indian and Chinese tea.

Drinking from a saucer is now only reserved for cats.  Whereas it was once very common to see people drink from their saucers, it has been considered poor manners for the last hundred or more years. In the 1929 book Etiquette Junior, teens were advised, "Never blow on spoonfuls of food and never pour your coffee, tea or cocoa into a saucer to cool.  In addition, remember not to hold your cup up in space while you talk or gesticulate with it." and  "When lemon is served with tea, a small fork is usually provided to lift the slice of lemon into the cup."
A pivotal part of the tea table is the tea cup and saucer, and the saucer itself has an interesting history and etiquette associated with it. It wasn’t all that long ago when it was fairly common for the working classes to drink their tea directly from the saucer. By pouring the tea from the cup onto the saucer, it would cool the tea down and they would then proceed to drink it, this was particularly useful when they were in a hurry. My husband recalls seeing his grandfather engage in this practice many times when he was younger. The middle and upper classes needless to say did not follow suit but in fact have their own established rules on holding saucers. When seated in low chairs beside the tea table it is not required that you lift your saucer up when drinking from your cup; however should you be leaning farther back in your chair or standing up, then it is polite to hold the saucer.
A pivotal part of the tea table is the tea cup and saucer.

The teaspoon is found resting to the back of the cup and saucer, its handle extending out to the right. When using your spoon be sure to stir the tea correctly. In aristocratic circles you are expected to move your tea spoon in a south to northerly direction without touching the sides of the tea cup. Stirring the spoon vigorously in circles around the cup is very uncivilised.
Tea experts now say that to put milk in last is best as one can gauge the strength of the tea better.

The English have always loved to have milk or cream with their tea. In 1748 Per Kalm wrote in his Account of His Visit to England on his Way to America that “most people pour a little cream or sweet milk into the teacup when they are about to drink tea”. In polite society it is expected that one will pour the milk in last. The history behind it is that the working classes used pottery that couldn't withstand very high temperatures and so in order not to crack their crockery they put the milk in first, while the upper classes used very fine china that could withstand the heat and therefore poured the milk in last. This debate rages heavily still today, especially with tea experts now saying that putting the milk in last is better because you can gauge the strength of the tea better.
Not only does Disney have it wrong on the pinky finger sticking out, but Alice having her elbows on the table, is certainly considered rude.
Disney has it wrong I’m afraid; the extended pinky is a big no-no. The correct way to hold the teacup is to lightly grip the handle between your thumb and fingers but not clutch your fingers around the handle. Sticking your little finger out into the air whilst drinking tea in England will likely get you some strange looks and weak smiles but they won’t get you invited to the palace for afternoon tea, so please keep them tucked in nice and tight. Some people say that the “pinkies out” affectation dates back to the eleventh century when it was considered cultured to eat with three fingers and common to eat with five. Another explanation is that the earlier styled tea cups had no handles and therefore the little finger was extended to provide balance.

Many disagree on the whole pinky finger debate, but most anthropologists believe the lower classes watched the upper classes on how to hold their cups, and believe that heat had nothing to do with how people held their handless cups of tea.  After all, the tea and cups came from China and the Chinese held their handleless cups in a manner without fingers extended.  And prior to small salt spoons being used, other ways of salting one's food or adding spices were devised. "Pinky fingers were extended while eating, and kept away from the greasy foods so that they could be used for dipping into expensive spices." Bernadette Petrotta, The Art of Social Graces
A tea, when presented correctly is actually a three course meal, hence the prettily decorated three-tier stand.

The tea when presented correctly is actually a three course meal, hence the prettily decorated three-tier cake stand. Quite apart from being purely aesthetic, the cake stand represents the three courses and just like when dining you work from the outside in, when having tea you work from the bottom up. The bottom tier represents your first course and is usually laden with finger sandwiches, the middle tier sports warm, succulent looking scones and the top tier finishes the meal off with various cakes, pastries and petit fours. It is incorrect for the three tier cake stand to be arranged in any other way.
Scones are properly broken with one's fingers. One should never be seen to cut a scone with a knife.
The scone (pronounced as in “gone” not as in “cone”) is to be eaten in a very particular way. They are served whole and preferably warm from the oven, and as with bread you break a scone with your fingers; one should never be seen to cut it with a knife. Break your scone in half and spread the jam and cream on bite by bite in much the same way you would a bread roll. 
This looks delicious, but it is not the done thing to put the scone back together and form a kind of bulky sandwich.
Uncertainty abounds as to whether the jam or cream is spread on the scone first. Puritans often say that the jam should go on first but the argument appears to be strongest between the counties of Cornwall and Devonshire. Both counties produce clotted cream and both lay claim to the creation of cream tea; therefore while a Devonshire cream tea insists that the cream be spread on first the Cornish equally insist it should be the other way around.

The ceremony of afternoon tea is a tradition grounded in history, grace and decorum, so be sure to savour every bite, enjoy every sip, and allow it to transport you back to a time of elegance and beauty no matter how you choose to drink it.

Contributor Rachel North is an etiquette and afternoon tea enthusiast with a love for anything ancient and historical. You can visit her here:

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