The Etiquette of Afternoon Tea
There’s a great deal more to it than actual tea
The tradition of taking tea and that little bit of something between lunch and dinner has long been a feature of smart households. In the roaring Twenties Fortnum’s was defined by a menu featuring our finest teas, delicate sandwiches and exquisite cakes, though the custom itself is widely credited to Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford in the 1830’s.
During the 1800’s, evening meals were fashionably shifting later and later in to the day, as more and more houses were able to cost-effectively light their homes well into the late evening. The gap between lunch and dinner grew and the need for light refreshment became apparent.
The Duchess began inviting her friends to enjoy tea in her rooms at Woburn Abbey. She continued the practice upon returning to London and the ‘Afternoon Tea’ became an increasingly sophisticated ritual among the social hostesses of the upper classes.
‘Tea rooms’ were all the rage in the late 19th century, quickly becoming THE place for meeting friends and sharing gossip. They were also considered one of the few respectable places for women to meet without a chaperone, so the out-of-home Afternoon Tea took off like a social network.
At some stage music was added to the occasion, and fashionable young people attended afternoon ‘tea dances’ in the most stylish of hotels, a practice which continued until the Second World War.
Nearly 200 years after the Duchess of Bedford’s innovation, sitting down to afternoon tea remains a byword for an elegant way of carrying on. For generations Fortnum & Mason has specialised in superb dining and fine afternoon tea. It is the essential place to enjoy the classic teatime experience.
When to take teaTea has been constrained by all kinds of rules and practices over the centuries. For your interest we have compiled a few ‘rules of etiquette to ensure an authentic afternoon tea experience.
How to hold the cup
Hold the handle between your thumb and fingers, rather than curling your fingers through the handle.
Stirring a cup of tea
It is best to move the spoon gently back and forth from front to back, rather than round and round, and to avoid clinking the side of the cup. Okay, that one is just basic good manners.
How to eat a scone
Instead of cutting the scone in half, break it off piece by piece. Spread it with clotted cream and then jam. Or jam and then clotted cream. Why not try both in turn? The choice is yours.
Crust or no crust?
Guess what? It’s entirely up to you. The Duchess of Bedford, one of the first people to popularise afternoon tea as a social occasion, had the crusts cut off hers; so if emulating Georgian aristocracy is your aim, go right ahead and excise. If cutting sandwiches into fingers, crusts don’t help. If triangles, either works.
When to take your tea
Whenever you see the famous Fortnum’s clock in an illustration, the hands are set to four o’clock. That's the traditional time for afternoon tea – a respectable distance from lunch, and not too close to dinner.
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