The old rules still apply at tea time
“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”
– Henry James, “The Portrait of a Lady”
The dolls were seated with their hands resting against the small table.
“Grandma, we’re ready!”
I joined the ladies on the floor. With accented gestures, I placed my napkin on my lap. My granddaughter followed. My granddaughter poured the apple juice tea into my pink tea cup. We sipped our juice tea. “It’s lovely,” I told my hostess. “Oh yes” she responded. Then she, whispered, “Grandma,” as she wiggled her pinkie finger at me. She was reminding me that proper tea etiquette requires that I must hold up my pinkie finger.
Oh, busboy, proper tea etiquette. Do we “drink” tea or “take” tea? We absolutely “drink” tea. The saying “takes tea” came from the working class in England. They had to “take” time out from work in order to have afternoon tea. The non-working class gentry would have time for tea.
So do we hold our pinky up when drinking tea? The raising of the pinkie is a natural response to balancing the tea cup. For centuries, all tea cups were made of China, called China because they came from China. In the 17th century the Chinese began making cups with handles specifically for the English. Chinese do not use handles. The cups were held by clasping the handle with the thumb and forefinger, never putting the finger through the handle, and balancing with the pinkie.
Tea cups are small, four ounces, with a wide brim to allow the tea to cool. Hot tea is served very hot and the cup should be filled three-quarters. Saucers are for resting the tea cup . The cup is never placed directly on the table. When sitting at a table, the saucer is not lifted with the cup. If there is no table, the saucer, held by the left hand, may be rested in the lap. Both can then be raised when the tea is sipped.
Once used, the spoon is placed on the saucer. The spoon is placed across the back of the saucer when one does not want anymore tea. For single service, the tea bag is removed with a spoon, not the string, and placed on the saucer or other plate. It is never squeezed with the string.
Most tea food, or “dainties,” is finger food and should not have to be cut with a fork and a knife.
Scones, a Scottish quick bread of wheat, barley or oats, are a basic component of English teas. They should never be cut, but a piece should be broken off. The cream cheese and jam is then spread with the butter knife on the broken-off piece.
The same rules of talking etiquette are the same at all meals. Talking with your mouth full, spitting out unwanted food, interrupting others, shouting for the server, or snorting when laughing are rules that should be followed no matter what is being served. One should never swing or wave the tea cup even during celebrations.
Smoking should never be allowed when drinking tea. Tea absorbs the taste of tobacco. Besides, smoking isn’t good for people and other living things.
Water is the second most important ingredient in tea. Tap water is usually fine but spring water is best. Distilled or long-boiled water is not good as some air in the water enhances the tea flavor. Tea should be served very hot. Water should come to a boiling point. A bit of hot water can be placed in the cup to warm it.
For an afternoon tea, the tea pot and spout are placed facing the hostess or pourer. A table hostess should pour tea for as many cups as the pot holds, usually about six. Tea is poured first. At one time milk was put in first to protect the delicate china. The teapot is designed with a lower rounded body to insure the tea leaves have the proper room for expansion during the blending or infusion process. The spout is low to allow infused tea to come out without disturbing the tea leaves.
The cup should be filled two-thirds full, leaving room for milk – cream is too heavy to be used in tea. A lemon slice should be put into the tea, a wedge squeezed with the hand. It should have a cheese cloth tie over it. Never mix milk and lemon. A sweetner, either sugar cube or honey, may be added by the hostess or the guest.
Never click the side of the cup when stirring tea, but move the liquid gently back and forth. When sipping tea, don’t look around but cast your eyes down on the tea to keep from dribbling it down your shirt.
The tea table is set with the dessert plate in the center position, with the saucer and tea cup placed on top of it. Silverware is determined by the type of tea and the food offered.
Gloves have come back into vogue for wearing at afternoon tea. The glove should be removed before shaking hands, eating or drinking tea.
I must remind my readers as I would tell my students, there are five ways to do things: The right way, the wrong way, my way, your way and the only way. Today we discuss the proper way. You are free, as always, to drink tea your way. There is no tea police.
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