A tea specialist shares her best tips on how to join in on the UK's favorite ritual.
As most visitors to London are well aware, tea isn’t just a beverage in the UK capital. It’s a social ritual, and a beloved part of life, that operates by its own set of rules and etiquette. If you can’t tell your English Breakfast from your Earl Grey, don’t worry. We sat down with Jane Pettigrew—a tea specialist, historian, and writer—to gather everything you need to know about mastering the art of British afternoon tea.
Do understand the history
To begin, it’s important to understand your tea history. As Pettigrew notes, the UK’s love affair dates back to the 17th century, when tea first arrived in England from China. Initially, tea was served in the early evening following the big midday meal, but habits gradually shifted. Dinner started to be served later in the day, and a light midday meal was introduced as a result. “People started feeling the need for refreshment in the gap between a light luncheon and a late dinner,” Pettigrew says, “so the after-dinner cup of tea moved to an earlier slot in the middle of the afternoon and became known as afternoon tea.”
Don’t confuse your terminology
That brings us to a vocabulary lesson: Not all tea-time ceremonies are interchangeable. “Afternoon tea is elegant, held in the drawing room or in the garden in summer” as well as in grand hotels, Pettigrew says. You’ll know it’s afternoon tea because “everything is small and elegant, and the food is eaten with the fingers.” Expect tiered trays topped with dainty nibbles (from scones and sweet treats to cucumber or salmon-and-cream-cheese sandwiches) and an individual pot of tea. High tea, on the other hand, is an evening meal accompanied by tea, while cream tea is “just scones with jam and clotted cream, and a pot of tea—served in cottage-style tea rooms in the country,” Pettigrew notes.
Do order black tea
Modern tea houses offer an array of choices, but black tea is still the most traditional option for afternoon. There’s a historical precedent for that preference: “Since the British started growing their own tea in India, Sri Lanka, and East Africa in the 19th century, those were all black teas—so it was all that was served,” Pettigrew says. “Teas from Assam, Darjeeling, Sri Lanka, and Kenya do pair well with the type of food served at afternoon tea,” though English Breakfast or Earl Grey (black tea infused with bergamot oil) are also common.
Don’t forget your manners
Afternoon tea began as a social occasion among the upper classes and is still governed by its own strict etiquette. For instance, “sandwiches should be eaten with the fingers, the pastry fork is for eating cakes, and the tea knife is for spreading cream and jam—never use the fork and knife together,” Pettigrew says. You should also ask for things to be passed to you, refrain from stirring your tea loudly, and, if you’re sitting far from the table, pick up the cup and saucer together. The degree of formality will vary based on where you go, but it’s a good idea to hone your manners and dress your best (avoid sneakers and sweatpants).
Claire Bullen is an award-winning food, drinks, and travel writer and editor who has lived and worked in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Paris, and London. She is the author of "The Beer Lover's Table: Seasonal Recipes and Modern Beer Pairings," and the editor at GoodBeerHunting.com. Her writing has also appeared in Time Out New York, The Daily Meal, Pellicle Magazine, and beyond.