Milk or lemon? Leaves or bags? If you are wondering about a proper English tea and how to serve it up correctly, Mr. Poppins invites you to High Tea.
The Classic Form of Serving an English High Tea
Some might think inviting a friend or two over for a tea might require less effort than a dinner invitation, but in Great Britain, this isn’t always the case. There are a series of ironclad rules that surround this ritual, which many consider to be more social than culinary in nature.
It seems that the ritual of the proper English tea began with the Duchess of Bedford, who first started the custom of having an afternoon snack brought to her room, along with a steaming pot of tea, in order to break up the long wait between noontime lunch and evening’s dinner (8PM). Which brings us to the matter of timing: only when served between the hours of 3:30PM and 5:00PM is tea a proper “afternoon tea”. Otherwise, it is called “high tea” and resembles more of a real meal, with warm dishes served alongside the beverage.
Following are the rules for the perfect afternoon English Tea Party:
Make Sure You Have All The Necessary Items
Napkins, a tea pot (better to have two or more pots), cups, saucers, tea spoons, sugar, and a serving tray, preferably with more than one level on which to display the sweet and savory snacks. The napkins will be typically smaller than usual, and should be opened fully, hem side down, and spread out on the lap when the tea is served.
Heat The Water
The tea pot should always be warmed by rinsing it out with hot water, which ensures that the porcelain (often called ‘China’ as that’s where the porcelain first originated) doesn’t undergo a "shock" when the boiling water is poured into it, which may lead to cracking. Interesting note: porcelain or ‘China’ is crafted from lamb bone, hence the name “Bone China”.
Adding The Tea Leaves
Calculate a teaspoon of loose leaves for each guest, plus “one for the teapot”. The boiling water should be poured straight over the leaves. If you place the loose tea leaves directly in the pot, you will need to use a filter over each cup. If instead you don’t want the leaves to keep infusing in the hot water, you should use a tea "ball". Infusion times vary from 1 to 6 minutes. True tea connoisseurs will have more than one pot: one for Indian black teas, one for Chinese green teas, one for aromatic teas, etc. Normally, two will suffice when serving: one for the tea and other for the hot water (although a simple kettle will do). If available, the classic silver tea service is always a refined addition to the tea party.
Milk Or Lemon
Most Brits take tea with milk, a habit that originated from the fact that a drop of cold milk in the teacup prevented the dark, boiling tea from cracking or staining the delicate porcelain. With today’s cups, you can safely pour milk in afterwards. Sugar should be present in cubes or crystals, white and dark, and you should also provide honey and sweeteners.
Savory Or Sweet
Tea should be served with both savory and sweet snacks. There should be sandwiches, scones, pastries and cakes—served in this order: Savory (finger sandwiches with various fill-ins such as cheeses, watercress, and cucumbers); neutral (scones, crumpets, buns); sweet (cakes, biscuits with jam, and pastries). It’s fundamental to serve each item in bite-sized portions, as a classic English tea is served without cutlery other than a teaspoon.
The host or hostess can share the job of pouring the tea with friends, but he or she should always pour the first cup. Good form dictates that the plate should be raised with the left hand, while the tea cup should be held with the right hand. And watch those pinky fingers, they should be aligned with the other fingers.
Whilst I abhor saying "don’t" and love saying "Do break the rules and have fun",
one can’t break the rules until you know them!
Don’t use tea bags instead of loose tea
Don’t pour water when it is scalding. The leaves will be burned and the flavor ruined.
Don’t let the tea infuse for too long in the teapot. Remember a minimum of 3 minutes to a maximum of 5 minutes.
Don’t stir the tea when it’s in the teapot or the cup. Place the teaspoon at the "6 o’clock" position, and then gently move it to the "12 o’clock" position a couple of times. When done, place the teaspoon on the right side of the saucer, where it remains until finished drinking the tea.
Don’t take the sugar cubes with your fingers. Use the special sugar tongs.
Don’t lift your pinky finger when you raise the teacup.
Don’t leave the slice of lemon in the cup as you sip your tea. It should be removed beforehand and placed onto your plate.
Don’t prepare the sandwiches too far in advance. Thirty minutes is enough time. If you prepare them earlier, they’ll look old and wilted.
For your reference, here’s a small chart with infusion times for the most common teas (length depending on personal taste):
Assam, Ceylon, Darjeeling black tea: 3-5 minutes
Chinese green tea (Lung Ching, Pi lo Chun) 4-6 minutes
Chinese, Keemun, Yunnan or Szechwan black tea: 3-4 minutes
Japanese green tea (Sencha, Bencha, Gyokuro): 1-3 minutes
Oolong tea 1-7 minutes
Potter Poppins Academy is a butler training school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the United States. The Academy, led by esteemed head butler Ken Horne, offers courses such as Elite Butler Training, Hotel Butler Training, classes for principals new to managing household staff, courses in etiquette and protocol for business professionals, manners courses for children and young adults, and bespoke service consulting.