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Afternoon Tea

Text by: Jacque Crosswell Watene

The custom of afternoon tea began in England in 1840 when Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, grew weary of that "sinking feeling," which afflicted her each afternoon in the lengthy lull between meals. On one such afternoon, the Duchess asked for a tray of tea, bread and butter, and cakes to be brought to her chambers. She found the respite so enjoyable it became a daily ritual. Anna began inviting friends and intimates to partake in this newfound nicety, and thus, "Afternoon Tea," as we know it today, was born. The tradition quickly spread among the English court and gentry and eventually became part of daily life for even the most "common" of folks.

There have since been countless books recalling the proper etiquette for conducting one's self during afternoon tea, lending such anxious advice as, "those who take sugar in their tea are advised to propel the spoon with a minimum of effort and to remove it without fail before raising the cup." While such trifles and details of etiquette are well worth knowing, we will not be discussing them at length here today. Our main purpose is to give simple guidelines for properly hosting, and being a gracious guest at, an afternoon tea.

© Roger Ruth Photography

As a hostess, your primary obligation is to make certain your guests are at ease at all times. Engage them in conversation as sweet and light as the scones you are serving. Afternoon tea is no time to bring up heavy, debatable subjects such as religion or politics. The aim of afternoon tea is to relax, while still maintaining decorum and modesty, providing a perfect atmosphere in which to sip quietly, conversing as gently and beautifully as the service from which you drink. As a guest, it is your chief occupation to add, through your thoughtful conversation and gracious presence, to the loveliness of the occasion. Keep your voice gentle and your tone pleasing to all surrounding you, knowing that the most important thing is to take in, and savour, the beauty of the ritual; the aromatic scent of the hot tea; the tantalizingly delicious array of sweets and savouries; the beautiful sight of a well laid tea service; the feel of the fine porcelain cup in your hands; and the comforting sound of happy, convivial conversation.

Here are a few helpful tips to help you make the most of your afternoon tea experience:

*Serve tea from a tea pot, pouring gently, evenly, as you hold the handle with one hand, lightly touching the lid to keep it in place with the other hand. Do not rest the spout on the edge of the tea cup.

*When hosting an afternoon tea, be sure to offer an array of sweets, such as scones with clotted cream, preserves and lemon curd, cakes, and cookies. To balance the sweets, offer a selection of savouries, too. These should include a variety of tea sandwiches and may even comprise of soups, gourmet cheese and crackers, meat dishes, soufflés, and other finger foods.

*Use your best china, tea service, and silverware to honor the occasion of drawing friends and loved ones near in the act of taking tea.

*Do not stir your tea loudly or make any unnecessary noises (i.e. slurping your tea, licking your fingers, or setting your tea cup unceremoniously down upon its saucer) that would disrupt the relaxed, graceful cadence of afternoon tea.

*Keep conversation at its best. Gossip, back-biting, loud laughter, rude jokes and comments, sarcasm, and bawdy voices have no place at afternoon tea.

*Above all, whether you are a host or a guest, the most important thing to remember is to enjoy the lovely pleasantries and ritual of afternoon tea!

© Roger Ruth Photography