The tea etiquette – An anniversary post

Dear readers and followers,

My beloved creature, Une belle infidèle!, is three years old, and I thought that what better way to celebrate it than with a proper Afternoon tea? You all know that I am based in London, but that is not all, I am a huge tea lover, and long before moving here my whole being would cringe at the sight of tea served in Italy. Let us then plunge into the foreign traditions and learn how to serve a proper Afternoon tea because, after all, if Italians do not want foreigners to teach us how to cook pasta, why should we assume we know more than the Britons when it comes to tea?

First of all, Tea O’Clock is 4 pm, not 5 as we think in Italy. Of course, with the time difference it becomes 5 for us, but not in Albion. To avoid problems, nonetheless, be assured that an Afternoon Tea is acceptable from 3 to 5 o’clock, 2 to 6 according to some people. Its purpose was to calm the stomach requests between lunch and dinner. If you are familiar with Downton Abbey, you will have seen the tea served in the library on small tables; for that reason, it may be called “small tea.” The now widespread name of “high tea” seems to be wrong and to recall the lower classes; the servants, in fact, would have their tea after the family, as we always see in the series, and they would have it on a high table, hence the high in the name.

Small tea

High tea

What is going to accompany the tea?

That may depend: Sandwiches, scones, cakes, or all the above. Two things seem to be a must: Scones should always be there and cupcakes should never be there! If all the food is included, the order should be sandwiches first, then scones, and cakes at the end. The sandwiches have a long tradition also in literature, as we will see soon, but some aspects must be clearly stated here: no crust, please (as if that needs any explanation;) no huge portions; small triangles, rectangles, or squares (especially if the Royal family is invited.) Why so much talking of cucumber sandwiches everywhere? Because they became the favourite of the Victorian aristocracy who could afford to have a meal with low nutritional value. Oscar Wilde perfectly depicted the emptiness of that period in The importance of being Earnest where he repeatedly named the cucumber sandwiches as the ones especially prepared for Lady Blacknell, the one that represents the aristocracy and the nonsensical social rules of that period. Here you have two extracts of Act I of the play from the web:

ALGERNON   I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.

JACK  I have no doubt about that, dear Algy. The Divorce Court was specially invented for people whose memories are so curiously constituted.

ALGERNON   Oh! there is no use speculating on that subject. Divorces are made in Heaven –

[JACK puts out his hand to take a sandwich. ALGERNON at once interferes.]

Please don’t touch the cucumber sandwiches. They are ordered specially for Aunt Augusta.

[Takes one and eats it].

JACK  Well, you have been eating them all the time.

ALGERNON   That is quite a different matter. She is my aunt.

[Takes plate from below.]

Have some bread and butter. The bread and butter is for Gwendolen. Gwendolen is devoted to bread and butter.

JACK  [Advancing to table and helping himself.]

And very good bread and butter it is too.

ALGERNON   Well, my dear fellow, you need not eat as if you were going to eat it all. You behave as if you were married to her already. You are not married to her already, and I don’t think you ever will be.

JACK  Why on earth do you say that?

ALGERNON   Well, in the first place girls never marry the men they flirt with. Girls don’t think it right.

JACK  Oh, that is nonsense!

ALGERNON   It isn’t. It is a great truth. It accounts for the extraordinary number of bachelors that one sees all over the place. In the second place, I don’t give my consent.

JACK  Your consent!

ALGERNON   My dear fellow, Gwendolen is my first cousin. And before I allow you to marry her, you will have to clear up the whole question of Cecily.

[Rings bell.]

JACK  Cecily! What on earth do you mean? What do you mean, Algy, by Cecily! I don’t know any one of the name of Cecily.


LADY BRACKNELL   I’m sorry if we are a little late, Algernon, but I was obliged to call on dear Lady Harbury. I hadn’t been there since her poor husband’s death. I never saw a woman so altered; she looks quite twenty years younger. And now I’ll have a cup of tea, and one of those nice cucumber sandwiches you promised me.

ALGERNON   Certainly, Aunt Augusta.

[Goes over to tea-table.]

LADY BRACKNELL   Won’t you come and sit here, Gwendolen?

GWENDOLEN           Thanks, mamma, I’m quite comfortable where I am.

ALGERNON   [Picking up empty plate in horror.]

Good heavens! Lane! Why are there no cucumber sandwiches? I ordered them specially.

LANE  [Gravely.]

There were no cucumbers in the market this morning, sir. I went down twice.

ALGERNON   No cucumbers!

LANE  No, sir. Not even for ready money.

ALGERNON   That will do, Lane, thank you.

LANE  Thank you, sir.

[LANE Goes out.]

ALGERNON   I am greatly distressed, Aunt Augusta, about there being no cucumbers, not even for ready money.

LADY BRACKNELL   It really makes no matter, Algernon. I had some crumpets with Lady Harbury, who seems to me to be living entirely for pleasure now.

ALGERNON   I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief.

LADY BRACKNELL   It certainly has changed its colour. From what cause I, of course, cannot say.

[ALGERNON crosses and hands tea.]


Going back to the food of the Afternoon Tea, the scones are served with cream and preserves, usually strawberry jam; from this, comes the other name of the Afternoon tea, which is Cream Tea. There is a lot of talking about how to eat the scones, but it usually is a matter of preferences with some absolute dont’s: The scones can be cut in half with a knife but it is not the best choice; if it is fresh and of good quality, a scone should easily break in the middle, and that is preferable; you can cut little pieces and top them with cream and jam, or cover the whole half, but do not put the two halves back together after, this is not the time for sandwiches anymore!

Cream or jam, what goes first?

It is your choice and the only suggestions depend on whether you follow what they say in Cornwall or Devonshire: Cornish people say that jam goes first, while Devonians prefer their clotted cream to melt on the warm scone and top it with jam. I had my first proper Cream Tea in Devonshire and I still put the jam first because I prefer the cream to keep it original texture. Actually, I had it in Victoria, Australia, before, but that is a shameful stain in my career; I didn’t know the rituals of tea and I fell for the call of cream even if that was scheduled at 11 am (I have so much more to tell about that, but that calls for a whole new post!) So far, we have talked about finger food, definitely no cutlery for the sandwiches and just a knife to spread the cream and jam for the scones. About the cakes, there is no specific selection, but they should be small, easy to eat with the fingers or a small fork. I have already said NO CUPCAKES, although muffins were included in the old days. One thing is sure: Do not plunge your food into the tea! I will share this image that I have taken from Bettys’ website not because I know the place but because it seems to me to properly represent the food of an afternoon tea:


Let’s now talk about the centre of this post: The tea. We live in a world in which even common sense seems to be lost in drinking tea. Tea is an infusion, therefore its strength comes from the length of time that the leaves are left in infusion, fairly obvious! That is what makes it different from coffee, which is brewed with hot water but not left in infusion; the strength of coffee comes from different factors (I am talking here about an espresso, because then the addition of milk vary strength and flavour) such as the amount of coffee, the coarseness of the powder, the pressing of the powder, and so on. I am not a coffee lover, I am not even a coffee drinker, but I have been trained as a barista, therefore I know some stuff about coffee as well, unfortunately. So, for a coffee you put as many shots of coffee as you need it strong, but do not forget that the caffeine comes out at the end, therefore, to stop the machine before its time means that you may be cutting on caffeine. Tea is different, to make tea stronger, you leave it in infusion longer, you do not put two teabags in a cup, that is a disgrace that I have seen in Starbucks and that has no description. Anyway, we are not talking about tea bags now. The time of infusion depends on the type of tea and on your taste, but it usually ranges between 3 and 6 minutes; usually, loose leaves are more delicate. There are several infusers, but you should always remember to leave space for the leaves to expand with the water. It is time for some vital questions now:

Milk yes or no? Milk first or after?

Milk yes I would say, but it also depends on the tea. Milk goes well with most black teas, although some people prefer citrus-flavoured teas without milk. If you like lemon, apart from receiving a frowned look from me (I can eat lemons, but I don’t like lemon-flavoured things,) you may take some aspects into consideration: Black teas go well with lemon as well, so they say, but not blends such as Earl Grey and Lady Grey, which already have citric in it and you would alter the taste; never pour the tea on top of the slice of lemon, again for the same reason; never squeeze the lemon in the tea, the flavour and the essential oils should release while infusing; the slices should be thin, the cloves should stay in, and the slice should not go on the saucer, neither before nor after going into the cup.

Milk after. Tea should always be the first thing in the cup to allow you to appreciate the strength and decide on the amount of milk. The old story of milk going in first to avoid cracking the cup is not completely correct. China cups would not crack with hot tea, that would only happen to lower quality crockery in the old days, but it is unlikely now that almost all the kitchenware is microwave and dishwasher safe. Definitely never milk before with take-away tea, that is basically watery milk with a tea bag inside and the blend will not infuse correctly or at all; personal advice, especially in a take-away cup, always take the milk separately.

If you like sugar, preferably cubes to avoid the little crumbles that fall from a teaspoon. Also, leave the cube to dissolve and then stir. In any case, do not forget that sugar modifies the taste of the beverage and it is not always good for your body. As with other beverages, you may use honey to sweeten your tea, but that is an absolute no for me. Not only I hate honey, but its flavour is too strong and specific and it would adulterate the tea killing the taste completely, it is healthier than sugar, but you will end up not drinking tea that doesn’t taste like tea anymore.

How to stir?

Never circular motions. The handle of your cup should be at four, imagining the cup in front of you as a clock, the teaspoon inside should stay at six and the motion should be 6-12, 6-12, never banging the sides of the cup. When finished stirring, a gentle flick of the teaspoon on top of the cup and the spoon goes on the saucer behind (never in front) of the cup, with the handle also at four o’clock as for the cup. Do not leave the teaspoon in the cup!

How to hold the cup and sip the tea?

If standing, hold the saucer in the palm of one hand and raise the cup with the other; if sitting, the saucer stays on the table. The index finger goes in the handle and the thumb closes the grip, the middle finger goes under the handle to secure the grip, and the rest of the fingers follow the curve. Do not raise the little finger!

Now, some extra details to make you a perfect host: For a strong tea, fill 3/4 of the cup with tea to leave space for the milk and avoid spilling; for a weak tea, pour half cup to also allow space for more hot water.

That said, when at home, I drink my tea very strong, I leave the infuser in the cup until I finish the tea, and I have it in a huge Tigger mug. Rules are there to be broken, but you need to know them if you want to break them!


If you want to know more about tea etiquette, here are some links I used to inspire this post apart from my personal knowledge: 1, 2, 3, and 4; you could also try one of the several menus offered by tea rooms and hotels; some of them are not too adulterate to please tourists and they also offer a written decalogue of what is socially acceptable. Café Royal in London, the place where Oscar Wilde loved to have his tea and to spend his evenings, also offers an afternoon tea in the room dedicated to the great writer. If you are visiting London and want to have a different experience, you could try some of the peculiar ideas offered by the city: The Afternoon Tea bus tour is a way to combine a relaxed tourist tour with a warm cup, and Time Out  also offers some unconventional menus and places that you may be interested in. Whatever your plans are, do not forget that the tea etiquette also includes a dress code that has not been treated here because it is often not required anymore due to the huge number of tourists that want to have this experience, but if you want to book an afternoon tea in a venue, you may also want to check the dress code to avoid being left outside.

Funny fact: When Queen Elizabeth visited Rome in 2000, the Italian press made a big deal about sharing a huge amount of gossip (as usual in Italy when the Windsor family is concerned,) and it was said that the monarch brought her own teapot because she would never travel without it and risk to jeopardise her tea routine. There is nonetheless no official information about that.

Now, before you enjoy your tea, don’t forget: keep being naughty, Knotty surely will!!! Cheers to Une belle infidèle!