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Award Winning Afternoon Tea at the Manor House, one of 25 grand houses featured in Beyond Downton Abbey

Every week I host Tea Tuesday, a virtual tea party which was inspired by Christine, a follower who lives in France, who was curious about English tea traditions. The British may have failed miserably in other culinary areas, but they excel in the tea ritual. Each Tuesday, I dish on Downton Abbey and share other topical tea issues one might discuss at tea, served up with a tea treat with a history.

The Online Guide will be updated weekly as I add new recipes, so bookmark and return to whenever you are looking for tea history and new recipe ideas.

History of the English Tea Ritual

In 1662 Catherine of Braganza of Portugal married Charles II and brought with her the preference for tea, which had already become common in Europe. As tea was her temperance drink of choice, it gained social acceptance among the aristocracy as she replaced wine, ale and spirits with tea as the court drink.  Seriously!

Origins of Afternoon Tea

The actual taking of tea in the afternoon developed into a new social event some time in the late 1830’s and early 1840’s.  It was Anne, Duchess of Bedford, one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting, who “invented” the Afternoon Tea.  The gap between lunch and supper was widening, so Anne started asking for tea and small cakes to be brought to her private quarters.  I am sure she quickly realized that a lot of gossip could be shared if she invited other ladies to her quarters to share her cakes.  Queen Victoria herself was encouraged to start hosting her own parties as a way of re-entering society after the passing of her beloved husband Albert. Victoria Sponge was named and served at her tea parties which became large affairs.  Other women picked up the idea and spread like wildfire.  Thus the ritual of afternoon tea began.  Women do know how to get things done.

Tea lingo:  Various Tea Times

If you are planning a visit to the UK,  watch Downton Abbey, Coronation Street, or other British type serials, it might be helpful to get proper knowledge of the terms used.

  • Cream Tea — A simple tea service consisting of scones, clotted cream, marmalade or lemon curd and tea.
  • Elevensies — Morning coffee hour in England (I remember the Hobbits used this term in Lord of the Rings.  I thought that they ate 11 times a day…just like me!)
  • Afternoon Tea — What we imagine all British teas to be.  An afternoon meal, served typically from 2 – 4 pm, which includes the tiers of smart little crustless sandwiches, scones, clotted cream, curd, 2-3 sweets and heaps of tea.
  • Low Tea— This still an afternoon tea, but called “low tea” because guests are seated in low armchairs with low side-tables on which to place their cups and saucers.
  • Royale Tea — A social tea served with champagne at the beginning or sherry at the end of the tea.
  • Celebration Tea — Another variation of afternoon tea with a celebratory cake which is also served alongside the other sweets
  • High Tea — It’s not what you think.  It is more like the North American dinner hour, so avoid disappointment by booking a ”high tea” when you really wanted an afternoon tea.  Confusing, I know.  You think it means a fancy (scones and sandwiches are fancy, right?).  I would watch Corrie Street and wondered about the big fuss about ”tea” at the end of the day and I never saw a single scone!  High tea consists of meat and potatoes as well as other foods and tea. It was not exclusively a working class meal but was adopted by all social groups. Families with servants often took high tea on Sundays in order to allow the maids and butlers time to go to church and not worry about cooking an evening meal for the family.

Tea Etiquette

Matthew helps himself to Madeleines (ITV)

Displaying acceptable manners is a way of fitting in with a certain class. Pay attention to the “tea scene”  in S1 E2 of Downton Abbey.  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, but we gradually see him growing into the role of heir apparent.If you plan to enjoy the tea ritual in London or your home town, 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?

The Dowager at Tea: always with an agenda (ITV)

It always seems that whenever the Dowager has tea, there was always something in particular she wished to discuss.  Regardless, there are some tips to make the tea less stressful.  Some notes from A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew:

  • Greetings —Begin with a greeting/handshake
  • After sitting down — put your purse on your lap or behind you against the 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.

How to Build a Tea Service on a Budget

mish mash of teacups

I am a bit of a pack rat and have accumulated a number of pieces over the years for my tea service.  Some I have inherited, a few are treasured gifts from friends, but many I have picked up at yard sales and thrift stores over the years.  Your tea service does not have to match and in fact it works out better when each person has their own personal cup to keep track of.

If you are keen on starting your own tea service, try checking out your local Goodwill store.  You will be amazed at what you may find.

How to Make Tea

Don’t get too stressed about making tea, particularly since much tea is now sold in tea bags. To distinguish yourself as a tea aficionado, however, just follow the time honored tradition of first warming the tea pot.  Add a bit of boiling water to the pot, give it a swirl and pour it out before adding your tea. Steep 3 or 4 minutes and don’t let the tea steep too long or it will become bitter. Watch this clip as the Dowager Countess demonstrates how one makes a proper cup of tea while still catching up on current events (video ITV).

If you go with loose tea, the general guideline is to allow for 1 tsp per person, 1 tsp for the pot, and allow 10 ounces per person.  Use a tea strainer and pour into cups.  You may wish to fill your tea pot with tap water, pour into a measuring cup to determine how many cups your pot will hold.

Let’s Eat:  The Tea Menu

Queen of the Kitchen

The following are the types of items you will find at tea.  Follow the links to locate recipes for items we have prepared in our travels.

I mostly focus on traditional tea items (great food always has a history).  I am a big fan of healthy eating and while many of these treats are “sometimes” foods, but I also include healthy versions of some treats which you can enjoy anytime.

The general rule to the tea tray is that items can be eaten by hand so are cut into bite sized pieces, and generally cold, unless you have scones right out of the oven.

We add a new recipe each week, so be sure to come back.