Tea anyone?

February 15, 2000

See also: Tea: A brief history

Afternoon teaBy KATE COLEMAN / Staff Writer

photos: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Does the thought of attending a proper English afternoon tea make you nervous? Too much ceremony, too much etiquette, do you think?

cont. from lifestyle

"Etiquette is very misunderstood," said Liz Thompson of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., who owns The Elegant Gift, an online corporate gift company at It's not about snooty old maids making up rules, she said. The rules developed so dealing with people would be less dangerous and more pleasant, Thompson believes.

Less dangerous? The custom of shaking hands in greeting came about to let people know that they weren't going to shoot each other, Thompson explained.


She recently spoke about etiquette and the convention of afternoon tea at Curry's Corner, an antique shop in Charles Town.

Thompson grew up in a military family, and teas have been in her family forever, she said. The silver tea service that was the afternoon's centerpiece belonged to her great-grandmother.

She poured cups of Earl Grey, asking if guests wanted their tea strong or weak, with milk or lemon, with one lump of sugar or two. The ladies sipped their tea and enjoyed three traditional courses of savories, scones and sweets. Thompson flavored the afternoon tea with a little history.

Anna, Duchess of Bedford, is credited with creating the convention of afternoon tea about 1840 when she invited friends for tea and light snacks late in the afternoon to stave off her "sinking feelings" until dinner later in the evening, according to information on A World of Tea Web site at

English ladies had "at-home" days and "calling days," according to Thompson. Afternoon teas fit very well into that social schedule. Thompson believes that they should fit into present-day schedules, although she admitted that she rarely makes the time.

Afternoon tea is not ceremony for the sake of ceremony. It's about tranquility, Thompson believes.

SconesTerms, tips and etiquette

At an afternoon or "low" tea, guests are seated around low - not dining - tables. The "high" tea that sometimes is promoted in non-English establishments and better hotels is not really "high" tea at all, said Liz Thompson, who does etiquette and business protocol consulting.

High tea came about during the Industrial Revolution in England. It was dinner, eaten at "high" or dinner-height tables when people got home from work. Cakes and finger sandwiches never would have been served at high tea, she added.

Other tea terms:

"Royal" tea is a tea at which sherry or champagne is served.

"Nursery" tea was a tea for the children in the nursery, of course, with their governess or nannie. Bread or toast and cocoa or milk flavored with tea would be served.

Here are some tea and etiquette tips from Thompson:

* To brew tea, bring cold, running water or bottled - not distilled - water to a rolling boil for a second or two. Remove kettle from heat. Pour some water into a teapot, swish it around to warm the pot and dump it out.

Thompson properly used loose or bulk tea - one teaspoon for each cup and one teaspoon for the pot - placing it in the warmed pot and pouring the water over it.

Depending on the size of the tea leaves - smaller leaves require less time - steep the tea from 3 to 7 minutes.

Decant tea into a second teapot, pouring it through a strainer. If you plan to use a tea ball instead, use two or a large one so the leaves have enough room.

* The hostess pours at a small tea. For a larger gathering, a friend would be asked to pour and would consider it an honor to do so.

* There has been a "raging debate" about whether milk - if you like milk in your tea - should go in the cup before the tea to keep the cup from shattering.

That myth has been debunked, according to Thompson. Tea is not boiling when poured and generally, milk is added after the tea, she said.

* Lemon in tea, a Russian custom, was introduced in England by Queen Victoria. If lemon is used, it is in very thin slices, sometimes studded with cloves, but never cut in wedges.

* Stir your tea gently without clanging the spoon on the side of the cup.

* "Never, ever, ever do this," said Thompson as she sipped her tea holding her pinkie and ring finger out in exaggerated elegance. Certain foods were eaten with the fingers. The lower classes would use all five fingers; the upper classes, just three. Extreme pinkie extension is considered an affectation, she explained.

* If you are served a cup of tea with a tea bag, never dip it in an up and down motion, a sign of impatience, according to Thompson.

"Tea is definitely not the time for impatience. Tea is supposed to be relaxing."

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