As you consider hosting the perfect afternoon tea, there are a few essential elements to remember. Afternoon tea is a long-standing English tradition dating back to the 1840s that has become popular worldwide. To create an authentic experience, you’ll want to invest in a classic tea set complete with a teapot, cups and saucers, plates, cutlery, and tiered stands to hold sandwiches, scones, and sweets. The ideal time for afternoon tea is between 3 pm and 5 pm, so plan and have everything ready to serve your guests promptly. A tea set is an item that can last for generations if properly cared for, so choose a design and brand you find esthetically pleasing and high quality. With the right ambience, menu, and perfectly brewed tea, you’ll be well on your way to hosting a delightful afternoon tea.
The Origins of Afternoon Tea: How the Tradition Began
Afternoon tea is a long-held British tradition that dates back to the 1840s. The Duchess of Bedford, Anna Russell, is credited with inventing afternoon tea. During the 19th century, lunch was served very early, around midday, and dinner was at 8 or 9 pm. The Duchess was hungry in the late afternoon and asked her staff to bring tea, sandwiches, and cakes to her boudoir. She began inviting friends to join her, and thus the custom of afternoon tea was born.
Afternoon tea is typically served between 3 and 5 pm. The menu classically includes:
- Tea: A variety of premium loose-leaf teas are offered, such as Darjeeling, Earl Gray, and English Breakfast. Tea is served hot in teapots with milk and sugar on the side.
- Finger sandwiches: Thinly sliced sandwiches with fillings like cucumber, egg salad, ham, and smoked salmon. The crusts are cut off.
- Scones: Light, fluffy scones served with clotted cream, jam, lemon curd or marmalade.
- Pastries: Mini tarts, tea cakes, macarons, madeleines, etc.
- Fruits: Fresh berries, petit fours.
For an authentic afternoon tea experience, use a proper tea set which includes: a teapot, tea strainer, milk jug, sugar bowl, tiered plates, tea cups and saucers, linen napkins, and cutlery. Many luxury hotels, department stores and tea shops offer afternoon tea service with all the trimmings using fine bone china tea sets. Treat yourself to this delightful British tradition and return to a bygone era of civility.
What Time Is Afternoon Tea? Etiquette and Customs to Know
As an important cultural tradition with a long and rich history, afternoon tea has certain etiquette and customs one should follow.
Afternoon tea is typically served between 3 pm to 5 pm. This time frame originated in Britain when the 7th Duchess of Bedford began taking tea and snacks in the afternoon to bridge the gap between lunch and dinner. The practice soon became popular and spread through the upper classes.
Dress for the occasion. While formal attire like dresses and suits are not always required, casual wear like shorts and t-shirts are inappropriate. Business or business casual wear is a safe choice. For special occasions, you may opt to dress up.
Pay attention to posture and table manners. Sit straight with your back against the chair, knees together and ankles crossed. Place your napkin on your lap. Extend your pinky finger while drinking from teacups. Chew with your mouth closed and avoid reaching across the table.
Know how to drink tea properly. Gently swirl loose-leaf tea in the pot before pouring it into teacups. Add milk and sugar (if using) before pouring the tea. Grip the teacup handle with your thumb and index finger, and raise the saucer to your mouth to catch any drips. Never leave a used teabag in the cup.
Engage in polite conversation. Discuss light topics like the food, the weather or a shared interest. Avoid controversial issues. Compliment your host and fellow guests. Say “please”, “thank you”, “excuse me”, and “you’re welcome” when appropriate.
Following these etiquette guidelines will ensure you and your fellow guests an enjoyable traditional afternoon tea experience. Savour the experience!
Choosing the Perfect Afternoon Tea Set
The material of the tea set is one of the most important considerations. Fine bone china is a classic choice that exemplifies an elegant afternoon tea. Look for a set that is dishwasher- and microwave-safe for convenience. Porcelain is also an excellent option, as it retains heat well and is durable. For a more affordable choice, stoneware or ceramic will also work nicely. Avoid plastic, as it lacks the sophistication of other materials.
The design of the tea set should match the formality of the occasion. Floral patterns, vintage designs, and gold accents evoke a sense of grandeur perfect for afternoon tea. Minimalist and geometric patterns in pastel colours offer a sleeker modern look. Consider sets featuring motifs related to travel, nature or books for themed events. The handle shape and rim style also impact the overall appearance. Curved handles and scalloped rims are ornate, while straight and plain rims are more understated.
A traditional afternoon tea set will include teapots, cups and saucers, plates, sugar bowls, creamers, and sandwich trays. A basic set with teapots, cups and saucers, and plates will suffice for a more straightforward tea. When determining how many pieces you need, consider whether you will serve sandwiches, scones, desserts, or all of the above. It is better to have too many pieces than not enough. Look for a set that includes at least 6 to 8 guest place settings. Extras such as tiered stands, linen napkins, and cake forks and knives can help complete the experience.
You can find an afternoon tea set at a range of price points. Fine china sets, especially those from renowned brands, will be on the higher end of the spectrum. However, a lovely set for under $100 will serve your needs perfectly well. Shop sales and discount retailers for the best deals. You can discover an elegant set that fits your budget with some hunting.
In summary, choose a material, design, and number of pieces, and set your price range. With so many options, you will find an afternoon tea set as refined as the finger sandwiches and scones it holds.
The Best Teas to Serve for Afternoon Tea
The classic choice for afternoon tea is black tea, such as Earl Gray or English Breakfast. Black tea leaves are fully oxidizedoxidized, giving the tea a bold, robust flavour that pairs well with dairy and sweeteners. Earl Gray is scented with bergamot oil, adding a bright, citrusy aroma and flavour. English Breakfast is a full-bodied, malty black tea ideal for starting your day or enjoying afternoon tea.
For a lighter option, consider green tea like Sencha or Matcha. Green tea leaves are unoxidizedunoxidized, which has a herbaceous, vegetal flavour. Sencha is a traditional Japanese green tea with notes of seaweed and spinach. Matcha is a powdered green tea from Japan with an intense jade green colour, spinach, and toasted rice flavour. The powder is traditionally whisked into a frothy tea to serve.
Caffeine-free herbal tea is always a welcome choice for afternoon tea. Peppermint, chamomile, and rooibos teas have soothing properties and naturally sweet flavours of mint, honey, and red berries that pair delightfully with tea cakes and sandwiches. Lavender tea has a floral aroma reminiscent of the English gardens that inspired afternoon tea traditions.
For an afternoon pick-me-up without the caffeine, a decaffeinated tea like Decaf Earl Gray or Decaf English Breakfast allows you to enjoy the experience of afternoon tea without worry. These teas go through a chemical process to remove most of the caffeine while preserving the flavour and aroma of the tea leaves. Decaf teas may contain trace amounts of caffeine, so avoid them if you want an utterly caffeine-free experience.
In summary, black teas, green teas, herbal teas, and decaffeinated teas are all suitable options for traditional afternoon tea. Choose a variety of teas to suit different tastes and moods for an enjoyable afternoon tea experience.
Where to Buy a Classic Afternoon Tea Set
Once you have decided on the perfect afternoon tea set for your needs, the next step is determining where to purchase it. There are several options for finding a classic set to enjoy your afternoon tea.
Large department stores like Macy’s, Nordstrom, and Dillard’s often have a selection of afternoon tea sets. They may offer a variety of patterns and price points to suit any budget. The sets available at department stores are usually high-quality, well-known brands that will last for years.
Check out stores specializingspecializing in English imports if you’re looking for an authentic English afternoon tea set. Locally-owned shops and online retailers like The British Shoppe and English Tea Store have a wide selection of bone china tea sets from top English brands like Wedgwood, Royal Albert, and Spode. These stores will also likely have accessories like tiered stands, tea strainers, and linens to complete the experience.
For the most extensive selection, shopping online opens you up to retailers worldwide. Websites like Wayfair, Overstock, and Houzz have hundreds of options for afternoon tea sets at lower prices. Higher-end sets can also be found on sites like Teasetbox, Pottery Barn, and Crate and Barrel. When buying online, check the dimensions to ensure the set is the right size, and look for a retailer with a good return policy in case it’s not what you expected.
Whether shopping in stores or online, look for a classic set of fine bone china and handcrafted details that suit your style. An afternoon tea set is an investment you’ll enjoy for years to come while making memories over pots of your favourite tea and bite-sized treats with friends and loved ones.
You now possess all the knowledge required to host the perfect afternoon tea. Armed with information on the history and tradition of this time-honoured custom, an understanding of the ideal tea set and proper etiquette, and recommendations for where to source the necessary items, you can invite friends over for an afternoon of indulgence with confidence. Once the tea has been steeped to perfection, the sandwiches and scones artfully arranged, and the table set just so, you’ll be transported back to a bygone era as the conversation flows and laughter echoes off the fine china. Though afternoon tea originated in Britain, its appeal is universal. With the proper accoutrements and atmosphere, this ritual can be appreciated worldwide. All that remains is for you to share it with those you hold dear.