What makes the quintessential English afternoon tea?
A national icon, the English afternoon tea is a staple of Britishness and an institution all of its own, with strict rules and traditions for setting up, what to serve, and even how to behave. For the well-meaning newcomer to this most cherished of national icons, here's a very quick guide to getting it right.
Set-up an afternoon tea
Afternoon tea parties can be held outside or in, but preference should always be given in the latter case to a venue with plenty of natural light. A large table is also important, complete with a tablecloth and lots of space for your fine bone china teaware and arrangement of homemade treats.
The basic kit you'll need in your afternoon tea catering package will be two teapots, one with extra hot water, a selection of vintage teacups and saucers, a sugar bowl, milk creamer, plate for the lemon slices, and of course a three-tier cake stand.
Cakes are a mainstay of afternoon tea, and the options are virtually limitless. From fruit muffins to chocolate éclairs and chocolate chip cookies to mini fruit tartlets, hosts are free to choose whatever they wish. Some traditional favourites, however, include assorted macaroons sandwiched with cream, classic raspberry jam-filled Victoria sponge cake, and miniature scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam.
You should also provide a selection of finger sandwiches. These are cut into little triangles, rectangles, or, as is the royal preference, squares – always with the crusts removed.
Again, there are no absolute rules on what fillings to choose, although smoked ham and salad, creamy egg and cress, or cheese and homemade chutney are some traditional favourites. Some other, more eclectic options include chicken and pesto, lemon, cucumber, and prawn, or smoked salmon, caper, and cream cheese.
Traditionally, the range of teas provided would reflect the host's good taste and class. Nowadays, the best afternoon tea caterers offer a vast range of choices. You could showcase a range of fragrant green teas with floral accents or go for rich, dark varieties such as oolong or pu'er. It's a good idea to serve a good mix of traditional, exotic, and herbal teas – especially if you have a large guest list.
You might also celebrate afternoon tea with champagne cocktails, such as mimosas, along with other sparkling wines, while sloe gin and Pimm's will help to keep things English.
One could write an entire blog post on afternoon tea etiquette and still only scratch the surface. Ultimately, it's all a bit of fun. Some key points to remember, though, are that tea should be stirred in back and forth motions – never in a circle – and care should be taken to avoid touching the sides of the cup. After stirring, the teaspoon should be returned to the saucer and the cup lifted with one hand by the handle. Extending the pinky is optional.
The sugar and lemon, if using, must go into the cup first, while the milk is always last. It's also traditional to start with the sandwiches and move on to the scones, before finishing off with the cakes. Finally, never make the rookie mistake of calling it 'high tea'. It's not.
Afternoon tea catering is a great way to welcome overseas clients and foreign friends to London. You could even have an afternoon tea wedding party. Just be sure to keep it proper!