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Afternoon Tea at the Ritz in London

Another Tuesday and time for tea. While English cuisine still gets some bad press, taking tea is still revered as one of the pinacles of social grace and civility. Last week we welcomed South Africa to tea as they begin the Downton Abbey journey on BBC South Africa. Today we are going to focus on the social graces of taking tea.

Tea Tuesdays: A recap

A good host makes his/her guests welcome, and newcomers quickly briefed on topics of conversation they missed. A recap of what you may have missed on previous Tea Tuesdays.

Tea is for sharing confidences

While the grand dining scenes at Downton provide opportunity for the Crawleys to showcase their status in society, tea is perfect for intimate conversations, scheming and such. Even below stairs, gathering for tea in the Servant’s Hall (or in private quarters) provides opportunity to talk about life, love, and politics. While you may summon a friend or 2 for tea with a topic in mind to discuss in confidence, you can simply just want to enjoy each other’s company and enjoy a scone or two. But what to talk about? What about:

Sharing Downton Abbey news
Q: did you hear:

  • Cara Theobald will play Ivy, a kitchen maid
  • Lucille Sharp has joined as Martha Levinson’s lady’s maid Miss Reid
  • Matt Milne of War Horse fame, has signed up to play a footman named Alfred
  • Shirley MacLaine will portray Martha Levinson, Lady Grantham’s Mother.

Learn more about social causes: What is PornBot?
Downton Abbey had the suffragette cause, and you can use tea to discuss your friends opinions on a number of subjects. For example I came across a cause that Hugh Bonneville (who plays Lord Grantham) has become attached to. If you use Twitter you likely have already received spam tweets, and there is a specfic petition to bring attention to the proliferation of unsolicited tweets containing pornographic materials. If you are interested in learning more, connect with Tabitha by following @pornbot_ban, and/or sign the petition here.

Comment on your hosts’ tea service
Q: Where ever did you get such a lovely service?
A: Why thank you. I actually found all these pieces at Goodwill.

Engage in a lively debate: cleaning silver with polish vs. baking soda/tin foil

Proper Etiquette

Matthew’s manners

Displaying acceptable manners is a way of fitting in with a certain class. Pay attention to the “tea scene” (S1 E2), which will be broadcast in Canada tomorrow on Vision TV. Matthew comes home to find visitors, and decides to help himself to tea and madeleines to the horror of Molesley, the butler, and embarrassment of his mother, the Dowager and Cora. Yes, it is evident that this middle class lawyer is a diamond in the rough, and has a long way to go before he will become a true gentleman.

London is likely to be a very popular vacation destination this year, drawing crowds for the summer Olympics, and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. If you are taking the trip, and plan to enjoy the tea ritual, book an Afternoon Tea (not High Tea), and do take note of proper manners to fully enjoy the experience. You may recall I had dress code challenges when I tried to have tea with the girls at The Ritz, so book early and ask questions. In London, they do try to do things properly, which is why we adore Downton Abbey in the first place, right?

tea taking tips

Some notes from A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew:

  • Begin with a greeting/handshake
  • After sitting down — put purse on lap or behind you against chair back
  • Napkin placement — unfold napkin on your lap, if you must leave temporarily place napkin on chair.
  • Sugar/lemon — sugar is placed in cup first, then thinly sliced lemon and never milk and lemon together. Milk goes in after tea — much debate over it, but according to Washington School of Protocol, milk goes in last. The habit of putting milk in tea came from the French. “To put milk in your tea before sugar is to cross the path of love, perhaps never to marry.” (Tea superstition)
  • The correct order when eating on a tea tray is to eat savouries first, scones next and sweets last. We have changed our order somewhat. We like guests to eat the scones first while they are hot, then move to savouries, then sweets.
  • Scones — split horizontally with knife, curd and cream is placed on plate. Use the knife to put cream/curd on each bite. Eat with fingers neatly.
  • Proper placement of spoon — the spoon always goes behind cup, also don’t leave the spoon in the cup.
  • Proper holding of cup — do not put your pinky “up”*, this is not correct. A guest should look into the teacup when drinking — never over it.*

*Since ancient Rome, a cultured person ate with 3 fingers, a commoner with five. Thus, the birth of the raised pinkie as a sign of elitism. This 3 fingers etiquette rule is still correct when picking up food with the fingers and handling various pieces of flatware. The pinky “up” rule is actually a misinterpretation of the 3 fingers vs 5 fingers dining etiquette in the 11th century, but we won’t judge…much.

Clotted Cream

clotted cream tastes like a mix between butter and whipped cream

While I have recently been favoring greek yoghurt on my scones, clotted cream has always had a place at the tea table. Even if you don’t have a full afternoon tea, clotted cream is the “cream” in the legendary cream tea service which includes a pot of Indian tea, scones, clotted cream and raspberry or strawberry jam.

We recently discovered that a branch of my husband’s family tree extends into the Devon area, so I am learning more about that region. As it related to clotted cream, there is no doubt that clotted cream originated in South West England, but it is not clear whether clotted cream first originated in Devon or Cornwall.

From what I gather, the difference between a Devonshire cream tea and Cornish cream tea is:

  • Devon cream tea: the cream is put on the scone before the jam but on the
  • Cornish cream tea the jam is put on the scone before the cream.

So, I know know the proper etiquette when trying to fit in with family members when we visit for the reunion next year…who ever heard of putting on the jam first…seriously!

Making your own clotted cream is really simple. There are a few different methods (put in the oven, in the jar on window sill) which take considerable time. I love using science (it saves me a ton of time in cleaning silver!) so often follow advice of Food Network Chef Alton Brown, who has a great quick method, and you don’t fret about the cream going bad. Sara Moulton was actually just on Rachael Ray last week and confirmed that you can use ultra pasturised cream and still get the same results.


  • 2 cups pasteurized (not ultra-pasteurized) cream


  1. Set a coffee filter basket, lined with a filter, in a strainer, over a bowl. Pour the cream almost to the top of the filter.
  2. Refrigerate for 2 hours. The whey will sink to the bottom passing through the filter leaving a ring of clotted cream.
  3. Scrape this down with a rubber spatula and repeat every couple of hours until the mass reaches the consistency of soft cream cheese.