Afternoon Tea: Everything You Need to Know (And How to Do It Properly)

table set for afternoon tea

Afternoon tea has been a cherished part of British culture for generations. Starting as a way for upper class women to pass the time between lunch and dinner, it has since developed into a sophisticated dining experience that combines delicious food, tea, and socialization. If you’re interested in hosting your own tea party, visiting a tea room, or just learning more about this classic tradition, this ultimate guide to afternoon tea is for you. It provides all the information you need to know about afternoon tea, from its origins and etiquette to the menu and types of tea.

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What is afternoon tea? (A Brief History)

Afternoon tea was first introduced in England, among the wealthy upper class, during the 19th century and has since become a popular tradition around the world. 

Afternoon tea is a lighter meal that is served in the late afternoon, typically around 4pm, and is typically a more formal and elegant affair enjoyed as a social occasion with full tea service alongside finger sandwiches, scones, and other pastries.

Where can I get afternoon tea?

Most major cities have several great venues to enjoy afternoon tea. Whether it be a hotel restaurant or a charming tea house or cafe, chances are you will be able to experience afternoon tea and all it has to offer. 

Check out our guides to find the best places to have afternoon tea near you!

Is afternoon tea the same thing as high tea?

No! Afternoon tea is actually something completely different from high tea!

While “high tea” sounds like an elaborate high society affair, it actually referred to a more substantial meal served to lower class workers in the early evening (around 6pm), often as a replacement for dinner. 

High tea typically included hot dishes such as soup, meat pies, and potatoes, accompanied by tea and bread.  

High tea earned its name after the high top tables that the manual laborers ate at to refuel after a long day of work. 

What is Cream Tea?

Cream tea is a simplified version of the traditional afternoon tea, and usually involves only scones, clotted cream, and jam, served with a pot of tea.

It’s a more relaxed affair and is frequently enjoyed in a casual setting, such as at home or in a tea house.

This option is ideal for those who prefer a lighter tea experience, without all the accompanying foods.

What is Royal Afternoon Tea?

Royal afternoon tea puts a fancy twist on the traditional afternoon tea experience by adding a glass of champagne or sparkling wine to the spread.

Royal afternoon tea is often seen as a more indulgent, celebratory experience, and is popular for special occasions such as birthdays or anniversaries.

What are the etiquette and customs associated with afternoon tea?

The ceremony of afternoon tea is steeped in both tradition and etiquette. Here are some of the most common customs and manners associated with this elegant meal: 

1. Look the part

Afternoon tea is meant to be an elegant affair. Don’t show up in your workout clothes or sloppy jeans. More on this below (see “what is the dress code for afternoon tea”).

2. Pinkies down

Contrary to popular belief, it is actually a huge tea faux pas to hold your pinkie up in the air! Keep reading (below) to learn the proper way to hold a teacup at afternoon tea.

3. No slurping

Sip, but don’t slurp. It is just bad manners to make noises while enjoying your tea. 

4. Stir quietly

While we’re on the topic of making noise, be sure not to clank your spoon against the sides of the tea cup while stirring. Instead, quietly move your spoon in a back and forth motion (picture moving the spoon from the 12 o’clock position to the 6 o’clock position). 

5. No blowing

Don’t blow on your hot tea in an effort to cool it down faster. Just wait for the tea to cool down to your preferred drinking temperature on its own. This is not fast food, it’s afternoon tea. No need to rush things. 

6. Milk after tea

If you are adding milk to your tea, add it in after the tea has been poured into your cup. Not the other way around. We should also mention that adding milk to any tea other than black tea is typically frowned upon. 

7. Mind your spoon

Once you are done stirring your tea (quietly), place the spoon back onto the saucer. Do not leave the teaspoon in your teacup, and definitely do not put the teaspoon in your mouth! 

8. Use your fingers (most of the time)

It may seem counterintuitive for an elegant setting such as afternoon tea, but believe it or not, you should use your fingers to eat the food! The tea sandwiches, scones, and mini pastries served are actually meant to be had with just your fingers – no forks and knives necessary. 

There are just two exceptions to this rule:

1. Spread your cream and jam with a knife.
2.Take sugar cubes with the provided tongs.

9. Use your napkin

This should go without saying, but nevertheless: utilize the napkin provided to you. 

Meaning, do not lick your fingers! Also, if you have something on your face, gracefully dab your napkin to remove it, don’t wipe and smear like you are cleaning a toddler with a Wet-One. 

10. Eat tastefully

Although most of the food served at afternoon tea is petite in size, refrain from “popping” an entire finger sandwich or mini pastry into your mouth. These items are meant to be savored over a few small and delicate bites. 

Also, avoid “dunking” any of the food items into your tea.  Save that for the milk and cookies at home. 

Lastly, while all of the food is usually placed on a tiered server and brought to the table at once, there is a “course order” that is typically followed during afternoon tea.

Scroll down to learn about the courses served at afternoon tea and the correct order in which to eat them.

What is the dress code for afternoon tea?

Afternoon tea is traditionally an elegant and sophisticated event, requiring more refined attire. 

There may be different levels of dress code depending on where you are attending afternoon tea. 

While some venues are more laid back and simply suggest “smart casual attire”, others adhere to a more formal vibe, requiring a jacket and tie for the men, and a dress or skirt for the ladies. 

It is best to check the expected dress code with the venue you will be attending beforehand. 

However, you should never attend an afternoon tea wearing items such as workout gear, sneakers, flip flops, ripped jeans, etc, regardless of where you are having it. 

What is the proper way to hold a teacup at afternoon tea?

There are a few things to avoid when sipping your tea. 

First, as mentioned before, keep your pinkies down! It is actually a faux pas to hold your pinkie in the air while drinking your tea. 

Second, do not cup both of your hands around the tea cup. While you might do this on the couch at night with a warm cup of cocoa, it is best to refrain from this approach during afternoon tea. 

Third, leave the saucer on the table. Think of the saucer as the resting place for your teacup and spoon. There is no need to raise it up off the table with your teacup while you drink. 

The only exception to this is if you are standing for some reason why drinking tea; then you would hold the saucer in the opposite hand. 

So what, you might ask, is the CORRECT way to hold a teacup at afternoon tea? 

It is customary to hold a teacup by the handle using your index finger and thumb, with your pinky finger slightly curled under the cup. Your other fingers should be relaxed and not visible.

What courses are served at afternoon tea?

Afternoon tea traditionally consists of three courses, often all served at once on a tiered serving tray.

The bottom tier features the “savories”, otherwise known as the finger sandwiches. You may find miniature watercress, cucumber, egg salad, or smoked salmon sandwiches.

The middle tier typically contains scones, which are served warm with clotted cream and jam. 

The top tier usually consists of small, bite-sized pastries and sweets such as petits fours or chocolates. 

What order should you eat the foods in at afternoon tea?

Although all of the food is often served at once, it is customary to enjoy the tea foods in a specific order. 

Just remember, you should typically follow the tiers of the server from bottom to top. 

The first course begins with finger sandwiches, or “savories”, found on the bottom tier. 

Next, warm scones are enjoyed with sides such as clotted cream, jam, or even lemon curd. 

Last are pastries or chocolates, found on the top tier of the server. These sweets provide a nice contrast to the savory sandwiches and the scones, ending the tea on a high note. 

It is important to mention that some venues may actually serve their courses individually on separate trays, allowing you to enjoy the savories first, followed by scones, and finishing with sweets. 

What is a scone?

A scone is a type of baked good made with flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, butter, and milk or cream. 

While some people think scones resemble biscuits, they are in fact very different. Scones have a different flavor and are crumbly in texture, not flakey. 

Scones can be flavored with additional ingredients such as dried fruit; however, for most traditional afternoon teas, scones are most commonly enjoyed plain with toppings such as jam and clotted cream. 

How do you pronounce scone?

The “correct” pronunciation of scone is a long standing debate across the globe. 

In short, there is not one correct way – the pronunciation can vary depending on where you live in the world. 

In the United Kingdom and other close-by countries, it is commonly pronounced as “skawn”, which would rhyme with “gone”. 

In the United States, it is commonly pronounced as “skohn”, which would rhyme with own. 

What is the proper way to eat a scone?

The traditionally “proper” way to eat a scone consists of breaking a small piece off with your fingers and using your knife to spread jam and clotted cream on said piece before eating it. 

While you can cut a scone in half with a knife, this is not the classic approach to consuming  scones. 

The biggest thing to remember is to never create a scone sandwich. It is considered a major tea-time faux pas to cut a scone in half, spread jam and cream and top it with the other half. 

Can I host an afternoon tea at home?

Hosting an afternoon tea at home can be a delightful and memorable experience for both you and your guests. 

In order to ensure the success of your tea party, careful consideration should be given to various elements such as the tea and food menu, table settings, and overall atmosphere. 

Check out our full guide on how to plan and host a successful afternoon tea party, where we provide in-depth information on topics ranging from crafting the perfect menu (with recipe ideas) to creating a beautiful table setting. We even provide you with a free downloadable planning guide! 

In conclusion, afternoon tea has been a beloved tradition for centuries and is still more popular than ever today. With its delicate teas, dainty sandwiches, and delectable pastries, afternoon tea is a sensory experience that indulges the taste buds and lifts the spirit, while providing a much-needed respite from the hustle and bustle of daily life.

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