An editor recently asked us to help explain the magic of afternoon tea to someone who’s never experienced it. Instantly, we conjured images of our favorite afternoon tea memories, and then, as is our fashion, we began to make a list. By now you know we love compiling lists (so far we’ve made lists of U.S. Afternoon Tea Venues, Tea Societies, Tea Party Caterers, Vintage Teaware Shops, American Tea Growers, Online Tea Shops and Tea Books)!
We look back regrettably on decades of life lived without the knowledge of afternoon tea, and wish that no person should have to miss out on the fabulousness of this scrumptious custom. In pursuit of this goal — to let one and all know the wonders of afternoon tea — we sometimes like to share the inner thoughts of an afternoon tea reviewer.
Speaking of which, especially for any of you traveling to London in future, you’ll want to follow local Afternoon Tea Expert Eileen Donaghey (check out her London tearoom recommendations).
[Photo Credit: @afternoontealondon on Instagram]
Only the Best
Like any event, at an outstanding afternoon tea, many elements are carefully orchestrated to create a moment of luxury and joy that becomes a beautiful memory you cherish. Only the most excellent afternoon tea hosts attend to each of the details in our list, some of which we admit are small. But isn’t this appropriate to afternoon tea? Where dainty, precious things and little creative touches make the experience feel like a special occasion?
1. Beautiful Ambiance
A gorgeous setting for afternoon tea is essential to the experience. Entering a beautifully appointed room or garden instantly improves your mood and signals to everyone that it is time to luxuriate properly. Live harp or piano music is a special treat, but to set the scene for this historical tradition, we have also enjoyed soft period music playing in the background (i.e., classical, ragtime, jazz, fifties crooners, etc.). Tea tables set with fresh flowers, themed centerpieces or elegantly printed menus enhance the ambiance. Some tearooms display their finest vintage teasets, which we are always curious to peruse. Whether in a new, modern space or a historic venue, interior design that impresses (and inspires our tea ensemble) is on our list of favorites.
2. Fabulous Teapots and Teacups
Here we lean away from the modern. We love to see a table set with beautiful, unique teacup designs from renowned china makers. Mix-n-match is fine with us as we play our game of “find my favorite teacup.” Actually, it’s not uncommon for afternoon tea guests to choose a seat with their favorite teacup. And then when the teapots arrive, it’s a delight to see one we’ve never seen before. The intricate designs of teaware come in so many beautiful shapes and patterns, that it’s part of the fun to meet a new one at an afternoon tea.
3. Decanted Loose-Leaf Teas
We know at least one of our reviewers would have asked for this to be #1 on this list, because as she says, “it’s all about the tea, c’mon, it’s in the name!” She’s right, afternoon tea served with grocery store tea bags is not our favorite. But just as worrisome, and something we experience all too often — even in major metropolitan, renowned tearooms — is premium loose leaf tea brought to the table floating loose in the teapot. Why do we inwardly cringe at the sight of these precious leaves swimming in our teapots? Simply because many teas (not herbal tisanes), if left to continue steeping past three or five minutes, produce a bitter liquor. So unless the entire teapot is emptied into cups around the table at once, second and third pours are ruined. When you think about all the work that goes into making and importing tea, we hate to see it wasted like this. Our favorite hosts go to the trouble of properly brewing tea in the kitchen (using the correct water temperature, and ratio of tea leaves to water) and then remove tea leaves before bringing the teapots to the table. Alternatively, if the host prefers to let guests decide for themselves how strong a brew to steep, we always appreciate a small dish to catch the infuser basket once steeping is done. And we surely don’t mind re-inserting that infuser later in the meal for a second infusion.
4. Presentation of the Tiered Tray
Almost every afternoon tea host takes the time to introduce all the items on the 3-tiered tray when it comes to the table. After all, it is a work of art, crafting these creative, dainty savories and sweets; it deserves to be presented with a flourish. Even if menu cards list all the items in each course, it is helpful when the server points out which is which. When this part of the ritual is skipped, as has happened at several afternoon teas we’ve attended, it results in a guessing game around the tea table, as we try to identify what we’ve been served.
5. Warm Scones
Traditionally, scones are served in the middle, second course of the 3-tiered afternoon tea tray, but we also welcome them to the table nestled in a basket, because we know what this usually means. They are fresh from the oven, coming warm to the table. Yum! There’s a trick to timing the scone course, if they are to be served warm, which we so very much appreciate, because there’s nothing like splitting open a warm scone, lathering on cream and jam, and taking that first bite. As opposed to a true high tea (a hearty supper menu with tea) where most items coming to the table are served hot, at a traditional afternoon tea, all the warmth comes from hot tea, and hopefully, warm scones.
6. Spoons for Scone Condiments
This is a minor thing, but definitely a plus at any afternoon tea, to keep things neat at this refined affair. The etiquette at afternoon tea is to serve oneself a dollop of the offered scone condiments (clotted cream, jam, lemon curd, etc.) on the side of your plate first. Then you break off a piece of scone, doctor it to your liking with the spreads on your plate, and enjoy. By thoughtfully providing small spoons or spreaders for each of the offered scone condiments, your host ensures that the lemon curd doesn’t get into the jam, and no one has to double-dip their personal utensils into the pots of cream and jam.
7. Scratchmade Treats
It’s no simple feat to make an afternoon tea menu entirely from scratch, which is why we celebrate such a menu. A typical afternoon tea offers about 4 savories/finger sandwiches, 1 or 2 scone flavors with sometimes homemade clotted cream, preserves and/or lemon curd, and 3 or 4 mini desserts. That’s about 10 homemade recipes at the stellar tearooms who make the entire menu themselves. We never take this kind of afternoon tea for granted because the chefs are truly spoiling us. When so much of our food today is processed and ready-made, we seriously prize a fully scratchmade menu for the gift that it is.
Planning the Details that Make A Difference
Along our afternoon tea travels, we have seen even the most upscale afternoon tea services miss some of these details. Really, what all of these items have in common is that they come down to thoughtful preparation. If you are planning to host your own afternoon tea, and want help organizing your event so that you check all these boxes, please download Destination Tea’s FREE Tea Party Planner. And let us know, what are some things you are happy to see at an afternoon tea?