Afternoon Tea: What It is, Recipes, and High Tea

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A Tea Sommelier’s guide to afternoon tea from how to properly eat a scone to how it’s not the same thing as high tea. “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” – Henry James

Three-tiered tray and tea on a table for afternoon tea.

What is Afternoon Tea?

  • Afternoon tea is a mid-day light meal usually served between lunch and dinner, between 3PM and 5PM. It’s a set meal consisting of three courses of savories, scones, and sweets to be enjoyed as an occasional luxury.
  • Afternoon tea is NOT the same thing as high tea. High Tea is a working class family evening meal or dinner, made up of hearty dishes and it was served between 5PM and 7PM.
  • It started in the 1840s in England by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford. In the late afternoon, around 4PM, the Duchess would get hungry but she didn’t want a full meal since dinner was just four hours away at 8PM. The concept of afternoon tea grew once she started inviting friends over and it became a social gathering for women in the wealthy social class.
  • Afternoon tea is also known as ‘low tea’ since tea is served on low tables with comfortable chairs. High Tea, on the other hand, is eaten at a high table (dining room table).

Proper Afternoon Tea Courses

Traditional afternoon tea is served in three courses on a tiered stand along with a pot of tea. Tea sandwiches are eaten first, then scones with clotted cream and jam, and then finally, the sweets.

First Course: Tea Sandwiches
Tea sandwiches are small and bite-sized, to be eaten with your fingers, not with a knife and fork. They’re usually made crustless to make it easier to eat and to give it a more delicate look. Classics are cucumber, egg salad, and smoked salmon.

Second Course: Scones
Scones are served with clotted cream and jam. The scone is placed on your plate with small scoops of clotted cream and jam. A knife is used to spread the cream and jam onto small, broken scone pieces. Use your fingers to eat the scones. Get step-by-step instructions on how to eat a scone properly.

Third Course: Sweets
Sweets are to be picked up and eaten with your hands. The sweets are mini pastries that can be eaten in 2-3 bites.

Pot of Tea
Each person chooses their own tea and it’ll be served in a teapot. The pot of tea is served first, before the food comes out. If you finish your pot of tea and want more, just ask for hot water, which can be poured into your pot of tea.

See more info on afternoon tea course order.

How to Order

  1. Select an afternoon tea set menu.
    There are usually only 1-2 options (with or without champagne). Everyone at the table orders their own afternoon tea so the pricing is per person. You don’t choose the individual food items in the set menu.
  2. Pick a tea.
    On the menu, flip to the page with a list of teas. Black tea, oolong tea, green tea, white tea, and herbal tea are options to choose from. The traditional tea to have with afternoon tea is black tea. If you’re sensitive to caffeine, or if it’s for kids, go with an herbal tea.

The pot of tea will come out first followed by the food. You can pour the tea and drink it before the food arrives at the table.

If you’re vegetarian or have food allergies, let them know when you make the reservation and when you place your order after you’re seated. Most places will accommodate this request.

Etiquette

Pinky finger down
The proper way to hold a teacup is to use your thumb and index finger to hold onto the handle. The third finger rests on the handle and the pinky is not to be raised or sticking out — it’s considered rude, unsophisticated, and definitely not proper.

Utensils
Never place a utensil directly back on the table after it has been used. After a knife or fork has been used, place it on a dish. Same goes for your napkin, once it has placed on your lap, never put the napkin back on the table. Instead, put it on your seat if you need to leave the table.

Teaspoon
Don’t drink the tea with the spoon still in the cup. After using your teaspoon to stir in sugar or milk, place it on the saucer, behind the teacup.

Teacup and saucer
The proper etiquette is to keep the teacup and saucer no more than 12 inches away from each other. If you’re sitting up at the table, you shouldn’t need to raise the saucer with the teacup. If you’re finished with the food and are leaning back away from the table, pick up the saucer but keep it at waist level while you sip from the teacup.

See more afternoon tea etiquette rules to follow.

Afternoon Tea Recipes

TEA SANDWICHES

See all 24 delicious tea sandwiches with expert tips to make them perfect!

SCONES

  • Easy Scones
    Step-by-step instructions on how to make these scones. Make sure to serve with clotted cream and jam.
  • Pumpkin Chai Scones
    A fall twist on a classic scone.

SWEETS

Questions You May Have

Do I eat everything with my hands?

Yes! The tea sandwiches, the scones, the sweets, are all to be eaten with your hands. Utensils only come into play when spreading clotted cream and preserves onto your scones. You may need a fork if your dessert is too messy and require a little assistance.

How long is afternoon tea?

Afternoon Tea usually lasts about 2 hours.

What do I wear for afternoon tea?

Afternoon tea is a relaxing experience but it’s somewhat formal so you don’t want to look like a mess. It’s best not to wear sneakers or jeans — wear business casual at the minimum. It’s a great reason to get dressed up.

Is it ok to bring home leftovers?

Unless you’re asking them to pack up your half-eaten finger sandwich, don’t be shy about taking home the leftovers from your afternoon tea.

What’s cream tea?

Cream Tea is a shortened version of afternoon tea with just scones with clotted cream and jam. No savories or sweets are served.

Tea Etiquette Cheat Sheet

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