Going to Afternoon Tea School

I have an announcement to make: yesterday I met one of my afternoon tea idols, Jane Pettigrew! I am still starstruck.

Jane’s name was one of the first I encountered when starting Destination Tea research, and continues to be a mainstay in the world of afternoon tea. In addition to writing SEVENTEEN books on tea (some of which can be found in our Tea Books recommendations), Jane also writes for TeaTime Magazine and is the Founder and Director of the UK Tea Academy. She has been working with tea since 1983, and she is a former tearoom owner.

Table set for Virtual Tea Party with Jane Pettigrew of UK Tea Academy
I brewed a Milky Oolong from Zen Tea in Chamblee for this early morning teatime.

I didn’t mind waking up at 5:30 am to attend Jane’s monthly UK Tea Academy Virtual Tea Party, this one focused on afternoon tea etiquette. [The UK Tea Academy also offers a History & Etiquette of Afternoon Tea Masterclass, delivered in four webinars or self-study modules].

Jane had set a small table for afternoon tea, pausing her talk to remove hot scones from the oven. In addition to describing the advent of the afternoon tea tradition, and popular British afternoon tea foods including holiday favorites, she showed us how she pours the tea, holds her cup, displays her tea sandwiches, eats a scone, and uses a small tea knife and pastry fork.

What Did I Learn from The Master?

It was reassuring to get confirmation that Destination Tea’s content on afternoon tea history and etiquette is well informed, but of course, there is always more to learn in life. What I love about this small group format is that we actually have an opportunity to converse with Jane, introducing ourselves and telling what’s in our teacup, but also, by asking questions in the chat. Carri Hecks, UK Tea Academy’s Course Manager and Head Brewer was wonderful about interspersing our questions to Jane throughout the presentation, and answering some herself. Of course I had plenty of questions and was so grateful to have them all answered.

Jane Pettigrew at UK Tea Academy Virtual Tea Party
Jane shows us how today’s teapot mimics the shape of original Chinese teapots

Afternoon Tea Facts from Jane

About Afternoon Tea Traditions and Menus…

  • In the 17th century, the aristocracy ate their lengthy, main meal at midday, followed by withdrawing to the drawing room to take tea, as a digestive. It was part of the evening entertainment. But as artificial lighting became widespread in the 1800s, dinner moved later and later in the evening, and the ritual of taking tea jumped to an earlier slot in the late afternoon. By the 1830s, there was a 7-hour gap between lunch and dinner, so light finger foods began accompanying the tea ritual, served during afternoon social visits. If there were too many people to all be seated, guests would stand, holding their teacup, and so had to be able to take the food with fingers.
  • At the same time, the Industrial Revolution saw the working class migrating from farms to factories, mines, offices and shops. Employees were traveling more for work, taking lunch with them, and looking forward to their main meal when they got home in the evening around 6 pm. This was not an elegant, refined meal, but a hearty supper, called high tea, for the high kitchen table it was served on.
  • Scones were not at first part of the afternoon tea menu. The big afternoon tea menu really did not become popular until the 1870s, when recipe books for it began to come out. Scones — originally more of a farmhouse food that you might quickly put in the oven when a friend pops — appeared at afternoon tea around 1890. Then in the early 20th century, when the big hotels were built with palm courts or tea lounges, hotel chefs formalized the menu with the 3 courses on tiered tray we recognize today.

About Teaware and Tea Table Etiquette…

  • The teapot handle points towards the person who will pick it up.
  • Before manufacturers began attaching handles to teacups, Europeans copied the Chinese, drinking from “tea bowls,” similar to today’s porcelain Gongfu teacup.
  • Teaware was a popular item for potteries to make, because the pieces are small and unlikely to crack in the kiln like big dinner plates.
  • If you placed your teaspoon across your cup or left it inside, it signaled to your hostess that you had had enough tea. By passing your cup back with the spoon on the saucer, she would understand you would like another pour.
  • When your table is more than an arm’s reach from your seat, pick up both your teacup and saucer to prevent tea from dripping on the carpet or your attire.
  • The pastry fork has the last two tines fused to help portion bites of cake or pie, but it is designed for right-handed people (the injustice!!). The tea knife is meant for spreading, not cutting. When setting the tea table, both fork and knife may be placed on the napkin upon the tea plate, or together on the side of the plate, but never split apart on either side of the setting.

About the Making of Jasmine Tea…

The sweet perfume of jasmine flowers’ essential oils naturally flavors jasmine tea.

Jasmine Tea is famously produced in the Fujian province of China, where tea leaves are first harvested in the spring and made into green tea. When jasmine flowers are harvested in the summer, pickers choose the flowers that are just opening, full of essential oils. The tea is carefully spread on long tables or slabs, then mixed with the flowers and left to sit overnight. The next day the flowers are removed by hand, and a fresh batch of flowers is mixed into the green tea. They repeat this process for a week with fresh flowers daily to make the best jasmine teas. This gives me a new appreciation for a high quality jasmine tea!

Bonus! Identifying My Favorite Teacup

You have likely seen this cup before – it is my most prized teacup. I was so happy when Carri noticed it during the virtual tea party, but when she asked me about its origin, I was stumped. I found this teacup at a thrift store years ago, and when I turned over the saucer, I found only this disintegrating sticker for a clue.

I felt like a forensic scientist as I tried to make out the wording. What my naked eye couldn’t see, an enlarged photo revealed: “Sterling China – Japan.” Though Internet research turned up very little historical information about this Japanese teaware company, I did learn that these lusterware teasets were popular in the 1930s to 1950s.

I love having something that is from before my time. Thank you Carri for spurring me to discover this!

Thank you Jane and Carri!

I recommend exploring the UK Tea Academy’s course catalog. Especially now while we are at home so much, why not feed our brains, and meet our heroes? Jane and Carri, you were lovely hostesses and I so enjoyed our virtual teatime together.

There’s no point eating clotted cream if you don’t eat lots.”

– Jane Pettigrew

Tea Voyageuse, discovering the world of afternoon tea, based in Atlanta, Georgia.


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