What started as a stomach-filler for the Duchess of Bedford during the 1840s evolved into a daily ritual of the royal families. The practice then trickled down to the lower classes, until the entire British nation grew fond of it and did it, too. These days, afternoon tea has become a relaxed social affair wherein people come together to catch up, enjoy each other’s company, and savour treats before going about their plans for dinnertime.
That said, it still pays to conform to tradition just so you can have afternoon tea like royalty. In a recent Victorian afternoon tea event held at The Writers Bar in Raffles Makati, Sheila Viesca, protocol specialist at Talkshop, discussed these 11 points to remember when you find yourself in an afternoon tea session:
- Have your lunch first because afternoon tea is basically snacks. That way, you can fully enjoy the goodies and engage in lively talk. Also, don’t be surprised if the session goes on until early in the evening.
- During the olden days, participants of afternoon tea would come in their best gowns for the ladies and coat and tails for the gentlemen. In modern times, most places observe a smart casual dress code, so make sure to dress up nicely.
- To pour tea that’s served in a pot: first, put the strainer on the teacup, then pour the tea. Don’t fill the cup to the brim, only ¾ of the way to prevent spillage. Put back strainer to its place.
- To drink tea that’s served in a teabag: once steeping time is over, put away the bag. Never twist the string around the bag and squeeze the juices into your cup.
- When stirring the tea, make sure to do it vertically (from 6 o’clock to 12 o’clock position) without making clinking sounds. Always place spoon back on saucer.
- In a very posh setting, the teacup sets that are used are usually delicate little things that can break if not handled properly. Thus, when taking a drink, don’t hook a finger into the handle, but use index finger and thumb with middle finger as support to securely lift the cup. Contrary to popular belief, raising the pinky finger is not proper etiquette.
- If the table is low, make sure to take with you the saucer when lifting the teacup to drink. The teaspoon should always stay on the saucer even when lifting to drink.
- The three-tier afternoon set would usually have the following: scones on the top, dainty sandwiches on the middle layer, and finally, the sweets at the bottom. Following the host, always begin with the sandwiches, then scones, then the sweets.
- No dunking of pastries into the tea when in public.
- To eat the warm scone, pull apart the whole into halves (no slicing), then break it into smaller pieces. Depending on your preference, you can go Devon-style by putting cream topped with jam, or Cornish-style by spreading jam before cream.
- Do as the host does, and wait for cues as you go through the courses. Never put the host on the spot if a mistake has been made. Ask permission from the host if you wish to do something else.
It may be a bit cumbersome to remember all these things for an afternoon of tea drinking and biscuit munching, but proper etiquette must be obeyed to keep everything in proper order. As Viesca reiterates: “If you’re your own, in the comfort of your home, feel free to do as you like. But in the company of friends, certain rules and rituals must be observed.”