The Little Guide to British Tea Party Etiquette

Tea at Five | petereleven

Afternoon tea is excellent way to slow down in our ever busy lives, relax and spend time to meet with old friends and make new ones as you experience a truly traditional teatime event. These intimate and elegant events can be given in honor of visiting friends, new neighbors or for family reunions. Occasions for celebration include birthday parties, housewarming parties, graduation parties, retirement parties, summer garden parties, holiday parties, customer or employee appreciation parties, bridal showers and baby showers, can all take the form of a tea party. They are cost effective, yet it can be elegant and formal.

Invitations For Hosting A Tea Party

The type of elegant invitation should follow the how formal and elaborate your tea party is reflect the theme of the party. There are numerous invitation cards which can be purchased on-line.

A simple invitation printed on cream or pale colored paper, using these words as an example is an ideal way to mail the invitations out.

An Invitation to Afternoon Tea

Mrs Mary Holmes requests

The pleasure of your company

For afternoon tea,

Saturday June 6th

At 3pm


For traditional afternoon teas, invitations can be handwritten on tea note cards, which comprises of pictures of charming tea sets, English roses and similar motifs. Engraved, letter press type of invites can be done by a stationer. Of course these days, an email invite would suffice, depending on the formality of the afternoon tea party.

Making the invitation fun & special… suggests that people wear fancy hats, dresses and maybe even bring their own special cup & saucer (especially if you don’t have enough of your own).

How To Set The Tea Table

Setting the table for the tea party is one of the most fun parts of hosting a tea. This is where the table cloth comes out and the best china and tea pots can be used. Tea parties are best served from the main dining table. For lower numbers of guests, set the table for the number of people you have attending in a seated fashion. For larger groups, still use the dining table but serve the tea buffet style. White and/or lace cloths can look especially pretty & elegant, but feel free to select a cloth color which reflects the theme of your party or the season. Red or Green for Christmas, bridal colors for a shower, oranges for a fall party.

When Serving a Seated Party

Set each space setting with a small tea plate or side plate in the center of each setting towards the edge of the table, the cup and saucer (with teaspoon) to the right. Make sure both the cup handle and the teaspoon is positioned to the right. Most people are right handed and will pick up the tea cup using the right hand. The napkin is folded in to a long rectangle is placed below the cup and saucer, next to the plate. Place a desert fork in the center of the napkin. Linen napkins in a matching or complementary color are the most formal choice, but white or colored paper napkins also work fine.

Tea with cakes and macaroons set up in the garden | BBA Photography

Elegant Decorating Your Tea Party

The table can be decorated with fresh cut flowers. Be creative and use a teacup or even a tea pot to hold your flowers. This is a great way to use an old teapot which has lost its lid. You can use fabric runners across a white table cloth to add a splash of color, silver or colored confetti, and pretty matching napkins. Use silver serving trays, antique china platters or iron cake stands to serve the food from. For seating table preparations, you can even had a named place tag. All these little details make the day very special and make the table look stunning.

How To Serve A Good Cup of Tea

Traditionally, in Britain, the tea beverage is an English Breakfast Tea blend, served hot with milk. This requires an electric kettle (or stove top kettle), filtered water and a teapot. You can use either tea bags or loose-leaf tea. Loose leaf is the better quality if you want to impress your guests. Organic high quality loose-leaf tea is recommended, but a good quality every day British blend tea bag is also good when make correctly. Good quality everyday tea bag brands include Tetley, PG Tips, Twinning’s and Stash.

Steps for Making Tea

  1. Empty the kettle of old pre-boiled water. For the best flavor, fresh water is preferred as it loses its oxygen content after repeated boils. The oxygen in the water gives a fresh flavor to the tea. Water re-boiled can make the tea taste flat.
  2. Fill the kettle with fresh spring or filtered water.
  3. Bring to the boil.
  4. Once the kettle come to a boil, pour a little of the water in to a teapot and rinse to make the pot hot.
  5. In the teapot, place one bag or teaspoon of tea per person plus on for the pot. So for a group of 4 in a pop for 4 add 5 bags/teaspoons of tea.
  6. Make sure the kettle comes to a rolling boil and pour the water on to the tea/teabag. Add the lid and a tea cosie and leave to brew for up to 5 minutes, depending on how strong you like the brew. You can test for the color of the tea in an empty white cup. You are looking for a rich brown color. For guests who prefer a lighter brew, it is customary to serve them first as the first pour will be the weakest, after 2-3 minutes. For those wanting a stronger brew, the tea can stand for a further 2-3 minutes.
  7. To refill the pot, you can add an additional fresh bag or spoon of tea to the existing tea and add more boiling water, or you can make a fresh pot. This depends on the time between the first brew and the second. The tea cosie will keep the pot hot for over an hour, but by this time, the tea will become stewed and making a fresh pot is recommended.

How To Use Loose Leaf Tea

Tea bags are by far the easiest way to make tea, but loose-leaf can result in a better quality of tea flavor and enhance the overall experience. There are a number of ways to use a loose-leaf tea in the pot.

  1. Using loose-leaf tea straight to the pot and use a tea strainer as you pour the tea in to the cup. The strainer then sits on a tea strainer container to prevent drips (or you can use a saucer or spare teacup. This is the traditional way of making tea in the pot.
  2. Using loose-leaf tea in an infuser. Tea infusers are usually designed or single servings in the tea cup and aren’t suitable for use in the pot as they don’t contain enough tea for a larger pot. If you are making tea or 1 or 2 in a small pot, this method would work.
  3. Using loose-leaf tea in a Tea Pocket or paper tea bag. There are a number of products available, where you can add the tea of your choice to an empty tea bag. This makes clean up much easier. Each bag can hold up to 4-5 teaspoons, so add in more filled bags as required. Don’t over fill or the tea wont have space to brew and the leaves may come out.
Add the Milk First | enchanted fairy

Steps for Pouring The Tea

There is no hard and fast rule to who pours the tea. It can be the tea party host or someone designated to “be mother”, the name of the person typically pouring the tea in the phrase – “shall I be mother?” or each person can serve themselves. Note of warning: Tea pots when full are heavy and when using a tea cosey do stay VERY hot for a long time. You may need to help older and younger guests with pouring their tea. REMEMBER to hold the teapot lid in place as you pour. Many a spilage and a broken lid have resulted in not following this advice.

  1. Pour a little milk in to the bottom of the cup. Always use milk, never cream, 2% milk or semi skimmed milk gives the best flavor.
  2. Adding the milk first is the correct etiquette which first dates back to the Victorian era where fine china tea cups where used. It is said that by adding the milk first, the fine china cup is less likely to crack. It also allows the tea and milk to mix without the need for stirring, which is particularly useful if you don’t take sugar.
  3. Remove the tea cossie from the pot, holding the tea pot lid in place, tip up the pot and pour in to the tea cup. Leave a little space at the top of the cup to prevent spillages and to allow for the tea to have sugar added and stirred without spillages.
  4. Sugar can also be added in the form of sugarcubes or raw cane sugar, to sweeten the beverage. Use the sugar spoon provided in the sugar bowl to add the sugar to the cup and use the teaspoon provided in your saucer to stir the tea. Make sure you touch the bottom of the cup and stir in well, to prevent all the sugar and sweetness from being concentrated at the bottom of the cup.
Tea Party Food | Ruth Black

Traditional Tea Party Food

Tea party food is traditionally served on a 3-teir cake stand and consists of 3 small courses, a savory sandwich course, scones, preserves and clotted cream and a dainty pastries course.

Sandwiches are called finger sandwiches and are cut in to slim fingers or triangles on a soft doughy bread with the crusts removed.

Typical sandwiches can include filling such as egg mayonnaise and cress (egg salad), cucumber sandwiches, chicken salad and soaked salmon.

For a traditional English Tea party, scones are typically made small and round and cut in half served open faced with clotted cream and preserves. Typical scones include fruit scones made with raisins, blueberry scones, apple and cinnamon scones or even chocolate scones. See The Little Book of Scones for full recipes.

Clotted cream is typically made in Devon or Cornwall and can be purchased from a few select stores in the USA or on-line and is imported. Clotted Cream isn’t made in the USA. Heavy whipping cream can be used as an alternative. Please refer to The Little Book of Scones for more on creams to serve with scones.

A variety of different preserves can be served with scones including strawberry jam or conserve, raspberry jam, or even lemon curd. Please refer to The Little Book of Jams, Preserves, Curds and Chutneys for full recipes.

The final layer or course is the pastries selection and can form a number of cakes, tea breads and tarts, usually cut in to mouth sized bites. The aim of tea party food is to be dainty as well as flavorful and appealing to the eye.

Additional Tea Party Food

Additional options for a tea party might include more savory dishes such as Pork Pie or Sausage Rolls and Savory Spinach Rolls and sweet selections including fresh fruit platter, Sherry Trifle and Victoria Sandwich Cake.

Pork Pie – a chilled pork meat terrine, with galantine seasoned with sage and wrapped in a lard hot water pastry

Sausage Rolls and Savory Spinach Rolls wrapped in flakey puff pastry

Sherry Trifle served in glass tea cups

Victoria Sandwich Cake with Strawberry Conserve and fresh whipped cream

About the author: British born, Tina Jesson is a writer, international speaker, Traditional Food Chef, trainer and creator of Tina’s Traditional Old English Kitchen, a Pop-Up Tea Room & Tea Party catering service based in Indiana, USA.

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