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Tea Etiquette

The traditional time for afternoon tea is four o'clock. Today, most hotels and tearooms in North America serve from three to five o'clock with the hours often stretched slightly in either direction. Along with a choice of teas, there are three distinct courses:

  1. savones (tiny sandwiches) first to blunt the appetite,
  2. then scones, and finally,
  3. pastries.

Afternoon tea has also been called "low tea" because it was taken at low tables placed beside armchairs. (It's never properly referred to as "high tea".)

invitations

Invitations may be extended and accepted by telephone, face-to-face, or by mailing them at least a week in advance. Depending on the geographic location, perhaps two weeks or longer in advance is not unreasonable. Invitations may be informal or engraved, handwritten in calligraphy, or by a calligraphy computer program.

Invite a close friend or two also as "pourers" and set up a schedule of when each will be "on duty" dispensing tea. No one should pour for more than fifteen or twenty minutes. It is an honor to be asked to pour tea. The pourer is considered the guardian of the teapot, 'which implies sterling social graces and profound trust.

teatime

Traditional teatime is four o'clock; however any time between two and five o'clock is appropriate for certain areas.

guest of honor

Let your guests know whom you are honoring. When there is a guest of honor, it is your duty as host to stand with that person near the entrance of the room and introduce each arriving guest to the guest of honor. When the tea is over, guide your guest of honor back to the room entrance to say good-bye to your guests.

NOTE: Tea etiquette used to dictate that no one depart a function until the guest of honor had left the primacies. The exception was when the guest of honor was also a houseguest. In today's social gatherings, you will find this rule practically nonexistent.

The protocol of the guest of honor departing first, however, is still practiced at diplomatic and official functions. At the White House, the guest of honor departs, then others are free to leave. This protocol is practiced universally at events where world leaders are in attendance.

equipment

If it is not a large formal tea, a silver tray and tea service are not necessary.

A china tea set, consisting of

The tea tray and china tea set are placed at one end of the table.

On the right, set out the necessary number of cups and saucers and teaspoons to accommodate your guests.

Plates, flatware, and tea napkins are placed on the left.

Platters of refreshments can include tea sandwiches in fancy shapes, various kinds of nut breads, cakes, pastries, and cookies.

flatware

Flatware is defined as flat table utensils­ knives, forks, spoons, plates, platters, and so forth. Flatware is necessary at teas in the following situations

When serving cake that is very soft and sticky or filled with cream, forks must be laid on the tea table.

If jam or cream is to be eaten on scones or bread, there must be knives or butter spreaders.

If there are dishes with jam and cream where everyone takes a portion, each dish should have its own serving spoon. Never use your own utensils to dip into the jam or cream dish.

When seated at a table in a private home or in a tearoom, there should be at each place setting:

teacups

how to hold cups and saucers

Place the saucer holding the cup in the palm of your left hand and move it forward to rest on the four fingers, which are slightly spread apart.

Steady the saucer with your thumb resting on the rim. A left-handed person simply reverses the procedure.

A handled cup is held with the index finger through the handle, the thumb just above it to support the grip, and the second finger below the handle for added security.

The next two fingers naturally follow the curve of the other fingers. It is an affectation to raise the little finger, even slightly.

faux pas

the gaiwan

The gaiwan (Chinese covered cup) is held, when not drinking from it, very much like a teacup and saucer are held. Place the saucer holding the cup in the palm of your right hand and move it forward to rest on the four fingers, which are slightly spread apart. Steady the cup with your thumb resting on the rim. A left-handed person simply reverses the procedure.

To drink from the gaiwan, use the thumb and index finger of your left hand to hold the lid by its knob, and let the other three fingers follow the curve of the gaiwan, Tilt the lid slightly away from your lips so that it serves as a filter holding back the leaves as you drink the liquid. The cup is never removed from the saucer.

faux pas

It is considered poor form in most cultures to make unnecessary noises with the accoutrements one uses while eating or drinking.

A scene in the award-winning film The Last Emperor, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, emphasizes this point with great style. Several Chinese empresses have gathered in a room at the palace and are drinking tea from gaiwans.

stirring a cup of tea

Stirring a cup of tea is done gently and noiselessly by moving the teaspoon in a small arch back and forth in the center of the cup. Do not allow the teaspoon to touch the sides or rim of the cup. Remove the spoon and place it on the saucer behind the cup, with the handle of the spoon pointing in the same direction as the handle of the cup. Visualize the face of a clock on the saucer and properly place the handle of the cup and the handle of the spoon at four on the clock.

faux pas

tea spills in your saucer

In upscale establishments or someone's home, tea spills may be remedied by requesting a clean saucer. In a very casual setting, it is accept­able to fold a paper napkin and slip it under the cup to soak up the liquid. Remove the unsightly soggy napkin from the saucer and place it on another dish if one is available.

You can prevent saucer spills by filling the teacup only three-quarters full.

napkins

The word napkin derives from the old French naperon, meaning "little tablecloth."

The first napkins were the size of today's bath towels. This size was practical because one ate the multi-course meal entirely with the fingers. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used them to cleanse the hands during a meal, which could last many hours. At many such meals, it was proper to provide a fresh napkin with each course to keep diners from offending each other, since it was believed they would get sick watching each other wipe their mouths on filthy napkins.

Today, in all dining situations, the napkin is properly picked up and unfolded on the lap, not above the table level. A large dinner napkin is folded in half with the fold facing the body, while a luncheon or tea napkin may be opened completely. In upscale restaurants, the wait staff are trained to place the napkin on your lap, often with too much of a flourish to suit me. Pause for a moment to make sure you and the wait staff do not reach for the napkin simultaneously.

If you need to leave the table temporarily, place your napkin on your chair, not on the table. Push your chair back under the table if the setting is appropriate.

In upscale restaurants, the wait staff will refold the napkin and place it on the table to the left side of your plate or on the arm of your chair, a practice I thoroughly abhor, even though they are trained to handle the napkin is little as possible. Return the napkin to your lap when

The host or hostess picks up his or her napkin to signal the close of the tea. He or she makes certain all of the guests have finished before making this move.

At the end of the tea, the napkin is not refolded but picked up by the center and placed loosely to the left of the plate.

faux pas

tea infuser/filter, tea strainer, mote spoon, and caddy spoon

Tea infusers / filters are used to contain the leaves and permit easy removal of the used tea leaves. Some teapots are fitted with infusion baskets, also called filters. Be sure to give the leaves inside room to expand in the water when using the stainless-steel wire-mesh infusers, called "tea balls." It is advisable to employ two tea balls in making a six-cup pot. Avoid cute infusion devices made of pot metal. These often impart an unpleasant metallic taint and are, besides, inefficient.

Tea filters work best because they allow a lot of water to circulate without releasing the leaves into the brew.

Tea strainers are designed to be held above or to rest on top of the cup to catch leaves  that escape from the teapot when the tea is poured. I still use one, even though I don't need to since the leaves are contained in my tea filter. It's the ritual of holding that little silver object over the cup, and the pouring of tea into it, that forces me to slow down and enjoy the whole process.

A mote spoon or mote skimmer is usually made of silver with holes in the bowl. It is used to transfer tea leaves from the caddy to the teapot and also to skim off any stray leaves, or "motes," that may have escaped into the cup. The sharp point on the end is used to unblock the teapot spout if it gets clogged with tea leaves.

Caddy spoons have short handles so they will fit in the tea caddy. They are used to convey the tea from the tea caddy to the teapot.

pouring tea properly

Tea should be served by the host/hostess or a friend (not servants). Do not pour multiple cups at a time and pass several cups at a time. Guests should take their cup directly from the server.

The pourer holds the teacup and saucer in his or her left hand and asks each guest whether they prefer their tea strong or weak.

Tea Pouring Faux Pas

strong tea requests

Pour the cup three-fourths full to prevent the tea spilling into the saucer. Then ask, "With milk, sugar, or lemon?" Add the requested ingredients and place a spoon on the saucer if it is not already there.

Weak Tea Requests

Pour the cup about one-half full, leaving space for the addition of hot water. Add the hot water and then ask, "With milk, sugar, or lemon?" Add the requested ingredients and place a spoon on the saucer if it is not already there.

Sugar and Lemon Requests

Add the sugar first, otherwise the citric acid of the lemon prevents it from dissolving.

When the Guest Responds Plain

No addition of milk, sugar, or lemon is required. It is not necessary to place a spoon on the saucer.

the tea strainer

The person pouring the tea, if necessary, holds a tea strainer in one hand while lifting the teapot and pouring with the other hand.

milk, sugar and lemon

The habit of putting milk in tea reportedly started in France. Madame de Sevigne described how Madame de la Sabliere launched the fashion: "Madame de la Sabliere took her tea with milk, as she told me the other day, because it was to her taste."

It is a given that milk complements full-­bodied India and Ceylon teas and that cream masks the taste of any tea. This settled, let's launch right into a hotly debated issue.

Milk is poured after the tea. You may have heard or read that milk precedes the tea into the cup; but please, please, dear tea lovers, don't be guilty of this faux pas (another reason for banishment to the Tea Drinkers' Hall of Shame).

Don't put the milk in before the tea because then you cannot judge the strength of the tea by its color. Also, you need not hear some snobbish, chilly remark such as, "Oh, she's the milk-in-first type of person."

Where did this old milk-first tale come from? Samuel Twining has theorized that milk­first prevented early china from cracking in reaction to boiling water. That theory appears rather shaky today since boiling water is not poured directly into the cup. Boiling water is poured over tea leaves in a teapot. The leaves steep at least three minutes, producing a liquid of a temperature much reduced from the boiling stage.

Sugar

Sugar cubes are preferable, not only for the ritual of using elegant sugar tongs, but for their neatness. There's nothing messier than spilled sugar granules. Allow the cube(s) to rest briefly (to dissolve) and then stir gently and noiselessly.

Lemon

Lemon is agreeable with most black teas. Lovers of fragrant Earl Grey and smoky Lapsang Souchong, however, say they are best enjoyed unadulterated.

Lemon is offered thinly sliced (never in wedges!) and placed on a dish near the milk and sugar. A lemon fork (with splayed tines) or a similar serving utensil is provided. The tea pourer or the tea drinker can then put a slice directly into the poured cup of tea.

Should you desire another cup of tea, the pourer will remove the slice of lemon from your cup and pour your tea. The tea pourer or you may add a fresh lemon slice. You may also be offered a fresh cup, depending on availability.

Lemon Faux Pas

- , Editor, Etiquette Scholar

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