At Destination Tea, we don’t want to be too fussy about the “do’s and don’t’s” of afternoon tea etiquette, because what matters most is that everyone has a lovely, scrumptious time. Etiquette experts say this is exactly why these little politenesses do matter: they demonstrate thoughtfulness and care for all the guests and hostess. We like that intention, as well as honoring the historical customs of this 180-year-old tradition.
So, for the afternoon tea newcomer [like perhaps you recently saw Bridgerton and now are shopping online for a new teaset], here are some afternoon tea rules known to afternoon tea aficionados, gathered at 100+ afternoon teas we’ve attended over the years.
You’ll find these tips and much more in our new “Afternoon Tea History & Etiquette” slideshow, that you can download and share with friends at your next virtual tea party to test your knowledge.
Afternoon Tea Tip #1: Don’t Call It “High Tea”
Many folks say “high tea” when they really want afternoon tea. Just remember, the meals get their names from the table height they were typically served on, not the class of society with which they are associated. It’s an understandable mistake to make in the U.S., because we likely think, “high society” = “high tea,” but, historically, it’s quite the opposite.
In the early 1800s, high tea was a hearty working class supper of meat pies, cheese, bread, maybe dessert, and tea. Whereas “low tea,” also known as afternoon tea, derives its name from the low side table on which it was served, beside a comfortable armchair in the drawing room. It was a social affair, first of the upper classes, with friends gathering, dressed in their best. Over time, the afternoon tea meal, enjoyed around 3 pm, has evolved to include finger sandwiches, scones with spreads (clotted cream, preserves and/or lemon curd) and small desserts with tea.
A good rule of thumb: if you’re eating with fork and knife, the meal is closer to a true high tea. If you are eating finger foods, you are at afternoon tea.
There are tearooms that serve both afternoon tea menus (with the traditional 3 courses of finger sandwiches, scones and mini desserts), as well as heartier tea menus approaching a high tea, like Erika’s Tea Room in Clermont, Florida, where we enjoyed a delicious Holiday High Tea with soup, quiche, roasted turkey club, pecan pie and tea. Or the TWG Tea Salon in Vancouver, whose “tea sets” range from the traditional afternoon tea menu to a seasonal high tea menu we loved that included a fabulous fish curry, pastry and tea.
Afternoon Tea Tip #2: No Phones at Afternoon Tea
We know, this rule may be unpopular, what with phones practically becoming part of the place setting at dinner tables these days. However, to honor the true afternoon tea experience, we want to concentrate on the delicious teas, foods and conversation with one another. So snap some beautiful pics of your afternoon tea, and then stash those phones away. This way, notifications cannot distract you from being present, slowing down, breathing in the fragrance of your tea and tuning in to your friends around the tea table. If you simply must take a call, excuse yourself and return to the table when finished.
Afternoon Tea Tip #3: Wait for It…The 3-Tiered Tray Presentation
One of the best moments at an afternoon tea is when the 3-tiered tray is brought to the table. It’s like the big reveal moment on an HGTV show. To properly honor the scrumptious creations that have just arrived, it is customary for the server to present the courses, by describing each item on the tray. You will be understandably tempted to dive right in, but give the server your full attention and smile patiently to show your appreciation of the kitchen’s culinary gifts.
Afternoon Tea Tip #4: Work from Bottom to Top
There are variations to this rule, but generally, you will start with the savory course on the bottom tier (finger sandwiches, mini savories), then move to scones with clotted cream and jam and/or lemon curd, and finish with dessert on the top tier. Sometimes scones are served in a separate basket, wrapped in a cloth napkin, or on the top tier of the 3-tiered curate, covered with a dome, to keep them warm. Other times, they are brought out as a first course. We’ve also been to tearooms that served savories and scones on one tiered tray, then brought out a second tiered tray for dessert. Spoiling us! Don’t feel like you have to strictly adhere to the course order, this rule is just an FYI.
Afternoon Tea Tip #5: Doctor and Eat Your Scone
First, take your portion of clotted cream, jam and lemon curd onto your own tea plate. Break your scone in half with your fingers. Many scones are baked with a crease in the middle, so that they gently twist apart. Now, eat your scone one morsel at a time, breaking off a piece and spreading it with cream and jam, using your tea knife. If you desire more spreads, use the condiment serving spoons (not your own) to add more to your plate.
Though we see photos of “scone sandwiches” from time to time, it is not done to lather cream and jam inside two halves of a scone to eat it like a sandwich. Two reasons for this, one is good manners, the other is practical. Remembering that afternoon tea is an upper class affair, we don’t want to be biting into our scones in a two-handed, indelicate manner, as if they were cheeseburgers. Secondly, if you refrain from coating your entire scone with spreads, then you can take home any uneaten scone for later enjoyment, without worrying that it will be soggy.
Afternoon Tea Tip #6: Afternoon Tea Foods Are Finger Foods, Mostly
The origins of afternoon tea actually go back to the 17th century, when tea in Europe and America was served as a digestive and evening entertainment after the large midday meal. This is why the first foods served with tea in these cultures were toast, bread and butter, crumpets, or a slice of cake. This light offering made it very affordable to invite several guests to the drawing room for tea, who, if there wasn’t enough seating, could stand, holding their saucer with one hand and their finger food with another. In the event that a soup, salad or whole cake/pie is served with the tea menu, guests should be provided the necessary cutlery (soup spoon, salad fork, pastry fork). Otherwise, afternoon tea guests need only a teaspoon and a tea knife.
Afternoon Tea Tip #7: Keep That Pinky Down
We hear a lot of “Pinkies up!” amongst friends anticipating afternoon tea, and apologize in advance for being a (literal) downer, but raising the pinky finger is today known as a posh affectation. We have come across many explanations for the origins of this habit, the one we find most credible being that the original handle-less “tea bowl” was held with the thumb and first fingers on top and bottom, so as not to burn oneself. The unoccupied fingers floated, as in this 1725 portrait by Joseph Van Aken, “An English Family at Tea.”
Being that the teacup handle now makes this hold unnecessary, show you know what’s what by holding your teacup properly: index finger meets thumb through the handle, and remaining fingers tuck in beneath it.
Afternoon Tea Is For Enjoying and Making Memories
We admit, at Destination Tea, our nerdy side delights in learning about afternoon tea history and customs. We like knowing what the proper terms and practices are, but at the same time, the only rule that truly matters is that everyone has a wonderful time. You never want to make etiquette rules so important that people feel corrected or scolded. The heart of the afternoon tea ritual is about coming together to share in something special. And yes, why not also take advantage of this opportunity to practice our social graces and educate ourselves about this fabulous tradition?
Do you agree? Let us know if you have teatime etiquette practices you’d add to this list, and happy tea adventures!
Your site is one of the most delightful pastimes of this pandemic year. It is edifying, beautiful, human, interesting and just plain fun. Thank you for doing such a great job!
Thank you Cecelia! I am delighted to hear that you are enjoying Destination Tea’s content. Thank you for reading!
Angela, I loved this piece! Thanks so much for sharing this!
Kym, thank you, that means a lot coming from you. For anyone reading, Kym owns a charming teahouse in Hendersonville, NC that should be on your destination tea bucket list! See our review for a sneak peek.
Absolutely love this❤!
Thank you for reading, Delores!