Afternoon Tea: A Survival Guide

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What could be more British than Afternoon Tea? A bulldog lapping up a balti resting on a Paul Nicholas album? Nope, Afternoon Tea takes the biscuit. Apparently we should blame the 7th Duchess of Bedford for adding this extra layer of snobbery to our already tradition-laden customs as she had a sinking feeling by late afternoon and simply could not wait until dinner. So, as a Ginsters and a Mars bar was not really an option in those days, she ordered tea, bread and butter plus cakes and the rest, as they say, is history.

What is afternoon tea?

Because we have to confuse even the simplest procedures, the British actually invented two kinds of afternoon tea: Low Tea and High Tea. Our dear American friends still get gloriously baffled in that delightful way of theirs by the whole ‘scone and beverage’ business and they seem to think that High Tea implies a high class, expensive meal enjoyed by well-heeled members of the aristocracy. Well, as the Yankee Doodles say, ‘Lemme tell ya how it all be, pilgrim’.

High Tea actually refers to an afternoon tea served on a dining table and Low Tea tends to rest on a low table. Which makes sense.  Ironically, when you consider the perceived decadence and snobbery associated with a High Tea, it’s actually a working-class tradition, equivalent to supper and featuring a hot dish (probably not a Ginsters) substantially filled sandwiches, scones, cakes and biscuits, in fact the only thing missing is a wafer-thin mint.

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The afternoon tea on the other hand, is all about dainty finger sandwiches with traditional fillings like cucumber, a selection of tea cakes and pastries, together with warm scones plus jam and cream. Afternoon tea is where the real snobbery lies and let’s face it the Americans and many other people abroad have always struggled to understand our ways and customs. The Boston Tea Party, as well as sounding like a great laugh, ended America’s liking for both the British and their tea so they decided to drink coffee instead.

Many visitors from overseas still have an image of us all stopping what we are doing at 3.30 pm on the dot and congregating for Afternoon tea, possibly while singing a selection of Paul Potts hits. But one tradition that they are probably right about is tea with the Queen at one of her famous garden parties.

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Queen Tea

Her Majesty requests… are the opening words on the invitation to a tea that will fill you with fear and excitement in equal measure as you instantly start to worry about the etiquette surrounding such a wonderfully British occasion. The guest list is intended to be representative of a cross-section of UK society and often includes foreign dignitaries and Heads of State all of whom are expected to dress smartly and observe a strict code of conduct, so please don’t remind our most well-to-do and protocol-driven Queen about the time when President George W Bush was invited and arrived by landing his helicopter on the lawn. Oh dear.

With 20,000 sandwiches and miniature cakes served to some 8,000 invited guests that is truly the mother of all afternoon teas, so if you are invited to such a quintessentially British occasion, do you know the correct etiquette to observe?

Stirring your tea in the wrong way will certainly raise a few eyebrows in all the smart establishments. You must place your spoon in the 6 o’clock position in the cup and then agitate the tea towards the 12 o’clock position whilst at the same time making sure that your spoon, god forbid, never clinks against the sides of the cup, causing gasps of shock and much tutting from connoisseurs. Once you have negotiated this terrifying ordeal you must not leave the spoon a second longer in the cup and return it the saucer forthwith.

Cream or jam first? Well the debate goes on but just so you know, the Devon tradition is cream first and the Cornish people apparently wanted to be different from their near-neighbours and prefer to put the jam on first, but you will be pleased to know that neither is considered inappropriate when it comes to etiquette.

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Next on the etiquette list is that old pinkie problem, pinkies up or not? Absolutely not! One of the most common misconceptions is that outstretching ones little finger aids balance and makes you look like a sophisticated tea drinker, whereas the actual truth is pointing your little pinkie is absolutely pointless and it will make you look rather silly too.

Did I hear someone ask if it is acceptable to dunk their biscuits? Are we wasting our time here? Go ahead and dunk your Rich Teas in the privacy of your own home but you might even be thrown out of some posh establishments for committing such a sinful act. There endeth your etiquette lesson.

Rated P.G. Tips

Tea drinking and the joy of Afternoon Tea is ingrained in our culture and is almost as ubiquitous in movies as an appearance by Bill Nighy. There is a rather gloriously dignified tea party scene in Sense and Sensibility and Mary Poppins insisted that when it is tea time in England you are expected to arrive at the table without further ado, followed very shortly afterwards by that wonderful gravity-defying teatime scene where everyone is hovering in mid-air and no, we don’t know why either.

Willy Wonka and his edible teacup scene was a hoot but the surreal winner for us is the scene from Toy Story when Buzz is at the tea party with Hannah’s dolls and says “One minute you’re defending the whole galaxy, and, suddenly, you find yourself sucking down Darjeeling with Marie Antoinette… and her little sister”. Classic!

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If you are star-struck and want to see famous people drinking tea, then search out the site called, you guessed it, famouspeopledrinkingtea, and check out the celebs drinking a cuppa, and especially the brilliant photo of Boris Karloff in his role of Frankenstein, drinking a cup of Rosy Lee to recharge his batteries.

So if all this talk of Afternoon Tea has made you want to partake in this wonderful tradition yourself then you could probably do with heading to London if you want to try The Tea Guild’s 2013 award winner, the Goring Hotel, which fittingly is rather close to Buckingham Palace.

Previous winners include those timeless afternoon tea venues, The Ritz and Claridges but if you do get to go, please ladies and gentleman, dress up smart, keep you little pinkie firmly under control, stir your tea with all the concentration you can muster and for goodness sake, have you not been listening to any of this? Don’t dunk your biscuit!