Teatime is a wonderful ritual and an excuse to take a few minutes out of our busy lives for an afternoon lift. Leave it to the British, however, to keep the bar elevated on tea etiquette and if you do not know the rules, chances are, you will be raising a few eyebrows of those devoted to the rich tradition of proper tea taking. If they are taking the time to learn the ropes, they expect you to oblige as well. Otherwise, prepare yourself to be judged.
Taking tea is all the rage as of late. There are many highly-acclaimed locations across the country that have waiting lists and competitions for the reputation of best afternoon tea service which is traditionally served between 3pm-5pm. Afternoon tea became fashionable in the early 19th century thanks to the growling stomach of Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, who complained of being faint due to the long gap between lunch and dinner. High tea is traditionally served after 5pm and includes a meat dish and is intended to be more of a meal than a break.
There are all kinds of myths whirling around just to make matters more complicated. For example, the expression “pinkies up” is a dirty trick to annihilate our teatime etiquette. It suggests an extended digit held out with enthusiastic emphasis denotes culture when in reality, it is a posh affectation. The proper practice is to curl the pinkie and ring fingers just below the handle of the tea cup. Raising that pinkie is quite gauche and an immediate termination of future invitations to tea events for a lifetime. Please, tuck that pinkie in!
If you really want to make your fellow tea-timers faint, the practice of looking over your tea cup rather than into it, is a right for dismissal. You should always be demure when sipping and never make eye contact which is considered classless and rude. Place your spoon at a 12 o’clock position in the cup and softly fold the liquid back and forth 2-3 times to the 6 o’clock position and never swirl or clink the spoon on the tea cup. Besides being disruptive, this practice came about because the antique tea cups, such as Limoges, were designed to be so thin that you could see your fingers through them if held to the light. Needless to say, clinking a spoon against the paper thin porcelain could end up with a crack and a pool of shame in your saucer. The spoon should always be removed before sipping and placed quietly on the saucer.
Another source of teatime debate is the M.I.F (milk in first) or the M.I.L. (milk in last). When in doubt, ask what would the royals do? Tea cups have been made for centuries and some of those dainty versions could crack when boiling liquid was added. The royals, however, used only bone china which was heartier and allowed them the privilege of adding their milk after the tea was poured. The Queen, herself, prefers Earl Grey with milk and no sugar. She is a self-proclaimed M.I.L., so if it is good enough for the Queen, I think we have our answer.
Use your hands when eating sandwiches. Although that sounds like it would be a mistake, they are called finger sandwiches for a reason. Tear rather than cut and only use your knife for spreading. Take your portion of clotted cream, jam or lemon curd onto your own tea plate and break your scone in half with your fingers. Eat your scone one morsel at a time, breaking off a piece and spreading it with cream or jam, using your tea knife. Licking the utensils is, obviously, never a good idea. Start from the bottom of the three tiered tray with the savory items and work your way up to the scones and end with the sweets.
To be “royal worthy”, the details extend to seating positioning and preferred is the “Dutchess slant” and Kate always gets it right. Perfect posture and an invisible tie around the knees and ankles makes for a prim and proper poising. If your legs are crossed, it should only be at the ankles.
There are so many details but here is a quick list and crash course in case you get an invitation from Buckingham Palace.
*Allow the Hostess to pour the tea.
*Add sugar and lemon first.
*Never combine lemon and milk or they will curdle.
*Never dunk a biscuit.
*Tear baked goods, never cut them.
*Take dainty bites and small sips and never slurp.
*Eat the savory items first and then move to sweets.
*The handle of the tea cup stays at 3 o’clock, unless you are left-handed and then you turn it to 9 o’clock.
*Don’t add cream to your tea, only milk.
*Always use a strainer with loose tea (tea leaves in the teeth are never becoming)
Armed with these tips, you should be more than prepared for your tea festivities. If you break a tea cup or belch, just excuse yourself and never look back. Otherwise, bask in the joys of civilized culture and enjoy the experience. If you only remember one thing, keep your pinkies down and if it is any consolation, there is always someone whose teatime etiquette is probably worse than yours.
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