Do you put the milk in the tea first or second? Cornish- or Devonshire-style cream? Do you actually eat finger sandwiches with your fingers?
Afternoon tea service is a great British tradition that’s laced with rules. For those of us who didn’t grow up with a spot of as part of their regular schedule, it can certainly get confusing. Luckily, few know their tea etiquette better than Jeremy Goring, owner of London’s The Goring hotel near Buckingham Palace, and the hotel’s manager, Stuart Geddes. The Goring is not only a favorite of Her Majesty’s for tea and cucumber sandwiches, but also holder of the Tea Guild’s Top London Afternoon Tea award.
First: Learn the proper terminology. Not all teas are created equal. “Afternoon tea” is typically a social affair intended to help fill the gap between lunch and dinner. And “high tea”—though often confused with afternoon tea—was originally a more substantial evening meal with a savory dish or two consumed by the working classes after a long day at work. To complicate matters further, “cream tea” is a variation of afternoon tea that includes scones, cream, jam, and tea, explains Geddes.
Ready to enjoy a spot of tea? Here, Goring and Geddes share their dos and don’ts.
- Use clotted cream, preferably Cornish style, under the jam. Both the Cornish and Devonshire people lay claim to the invention of the cream tea, and each have a view on the order of the toppings. The Devon tradition is cream first with jam spread on top, while the Cornish tradition is to slather the jam on and top it off with clotted cream.
- Always use loose tea. It tastes so much better.
- Let the tea steep as long as you like. If it is not to your taste, ask for a fresh pot. Tea should be replenished regularly.
- Feel free to request different milk. At The Goring, soy, skim, and almond are all available.
- Stir the tea delicately. If cracks appear in the fine china, perhaps you have been a dash overzealous.
- Eat the finger sandwiches with your hands. They are designed for and named after their purpose.
- Cakes tend to be more delicate and require at least a fork. A scone with cream and jam needs a guiding hand.
- Enjoy at a leisurely pace.
- Add the milk first. Milk should be added after the tea so you can properly gauge how much you need to balance the strength of the brew. Though this is one of the most hotly debated of all the tea-related enigmas!
- Forget the strainer over your cup.
- Serve white tea, green tea, and infusions with milk. Black tea, however, is suitable with milk.
- Extend your pinky finger.
- Pronounce the long “o” in “scone.” It is properly pronounced “scon.”
- Dunk your biscuits.
- Plan a big dinner afterward. You will likely regret it.
- Wear sportswear or sneakers. Afternoon tea is a much more relaxed affair these days, but you should still look smart.