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Downton Abbey Cooks Online Guide to Afternoon Tea

An overview on what you need to know about Afternoon Tea.

Relaxing over Afternoon tea

20165 Abbey Cooks Afternoon Tea v2 cover
My new book with 60+ recipes and tips

Afternoon Tea is arguably the best contribution the British have made to cuisine.  A lovely tradition  My upcoming new book will provide all you need to know, whether you are planning to visit a famous tea house in London, organizing a fundraiser or just hosting a tea at home.  This article provides highlights on history, what to eat, how to eat, when to eat!.  Enjoy.

History of the English Tea Ritual

In 1662 Catherine of Braganza of Portugal married Charles II and brought with her the preference for tea, which had already become common in Europe.  As tea was her temperance drink of choice, it slowly gained social acceptance among some of the aristocracy as she replaced wine, ale and spirits with tea as the court drink.  It did take some time though to ween courtiers from enjoying ale at breakfast.  Baby steps.

Origins of Afternoon Tea

The actual taking of tea in the afternoon developed into a new social event some time in the late 1830’s and early 1840’s. It was Anne, Duchess of Bedford, one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting, who is credited for first  “inventing” Afternoon Tea, but actually it had been a gradual evolution. The gap between lunch and supper was widening, so Anne started asking for tea and small cakes to be brought to her private quarters. I am sure she quickly realized that a lot of gossip could be shared if she invited other ladies to her quarters to share her cakes. Queen Victoria herself was encouraged to start hosting her own parties as a way of re-entering society after the passing of her beloved husband Albert.  Legend has it that Victoria Sponge was named and served at her tea parties which became large affairs. Other women picked up the idea and spread like wildfire. Thus the ritual of afternoon tea began. Women do know how to get things done.

Tea lingo: Afternoon Tea is Not High Tea

teaparty
Nothing better than sharing tea with friends

There is nothing like enjoying tea with friends or colleagues.  Check out my recent tv interview about hosting a tea party. If you are planning a visit to the UK, watch Downton Abbey, Coronation Street, or other British type serials, it might be helpful to get proper knowledge of the terms used.

  • Afternoon Tea — What we imagine all British teas to be. An afternoon meal, served typically from 4 – 6 pm, which includes the tiers of smart little crustless sandwiches, scones, clotted cream, curd, 2-3 sweets and heaps of tea.
  • High Tea or Tea — High tea is eaten in “high chairs” at the dinner table. Afternoon Tea is traditionally served on lower couches and lounging chairs. High tea is actually is a meal that the working class had at the end of the day with cold meats, potatoes, as well as other foods with tea and perhaps a beer. Americans confuse the two, and since some London tea houses use the terms interchangeable to keep tourists happy, it adds to the confusion.
  • Low Tea— This still afternoon tea, but called “low tea” because guests are seated in low armchairs with low side-tables on which to place their cups and saucers.
  • Royale Tea — A social tea served with champagne at the beginning or sherry at the end of the tea.
  • Celebration Tea — Another variation of afternoon tea with a celebratory cake which is also served alongside the other sweets
  • Cream Tea — A simple tea service consisting of scones, clotted cream, marmalade or lemon curd and tea.
  • Elevensies — Morning coffee hour in England (I remember the Hobbits used this term in Lord of the Rings. I thought that they ate 11 times a day…just like me!)

Tea Etiquette: Learn by Example from Downton Abbey

Matthew helps himself to Madeleines (ITV)

Displaying acceptable manners is a way of fitting in with a certain class. Pay attention to the “tea scene” in S1 E2 of Downton Abbey. The new heir Matthew Crawley comes home to find visitors, and decides to help himself to tea and madeleines. Molesley, the butler, is horrified and his mother, the Dowager and Cora embarrased. Yes, it is evident that this middle class lawyer is a diamond in the rough, and has a long way to go before he will become a true gentleman, but we gradually see him growing into the role of heir apparent. If you plan to enjoy the tea ritual in London or your home town, book an Afternoon Tea (not High Tea), and do take note of proper manners to fully enjoy the experience. In London, they do try to do things properly, which is why we adore Downton Abbey in the first place, right?

The Dowager at Tea: always with an agenda (ITV)

Tea with the Dowager could be stressful since was always some plan she had in mind to discuss. To help make your tea experience less stressful, here are some tips to take to  the Dowager House, your local tea shop, or famous London tea house:

  • Sugar/lemon —tea is poured first,  then sugar or thinly sliced lemon and never milk and lemon together as it will curdle.
  • Milk goes in after tea — a nice little saying: “To put milk in your tea before sugar is to cross the path of love, perhaps never to marry.” (Tea superstition)
  • Who Pours? — If you are the hostess, you should pour.  If you are taking tea at a tea house, it is the person who is closest to the pot when the pot is brought to the table.
  • Proper placement of spoon — the spoon never stays in the cup.
  • Proper holding of cup — use both hands to lift both cup and saucer to drink from, and please no pinkies*. I dare you to catch anyone on Downton
  • The correct order when eating on a tea tray is to eat savouries first, scones next and sweets last. We have changed our order somewhat. We like guests to eat the scones first while they are hot, then move to savouries, then sweets.
  • Scones — the most practical approach according to Debrett’s is to split the scone horizontally before adding your favorite spreads.
  • Cream, then jam on scones? —This depends.  Devon tradition puts clotted cream first on scones, then jam.  In Cornwall, preserves first.  Eat with fingers neatly.
  • Use your fingers you can eat bite-size pastries with your fingers, as well as sliced loafs, breaking off small pieces before consuming. Use a dessert fork to eat larger pastries.
  • No dunk zone — unless your tea party is very informal, dunking treats in your tea will garner a scowl.

*Since ancient Rome, a cultured person ate with 3 fingers, a commoner with five. Thus, the birth of the raised pinkie was a perceived sign of elitism, however the  The pinky “up” rule is actually a misinterpretation of the 3 fingers vs 5 fingers dining etiquette.  You will never see the ladies at Downton Abbey raise a pinky.

Build a Tea Service on a Budget

mish mash of teacups

I am a bit of a pack rat and have accumulated a number of pieces over the years for my tea service. Some I have inherited, a few are treasured gifts from friends, but many I have picked up at yard sales and thrift stores over the years. Your tea service does not have to match and in fact it works out better when each person has their own personal cup to keep track of.

If you are keen on starting your own tea service, try checking out your local Goodwill store. You will be amazed at what you may find.

How to Make Tea

Don’t get too stressed about making tea, particularly since much tea is now sold in tea bags. To distinguish yourself as a tea aficionado, however, just follow the time honored tradition of first warming the tea pot. Add a bit of boiling water to the pot, give it a swirl and pour it out before adding your tea. Steep 3 or 4 minutes and don’t let the tea steep too long or it will become bitter. If you go with loose tea, the general guideline is to allow for 1 tsp per person, 1 tsp for the pot, and allow 10 ounces per person. Use a tea strainer and pour into cups. You may wish to fill your tea pot with tap water, pour into a measuring cup to determine how many cups your pot will hold. Debrett’s also advises that you keep a heated pot of water nearby in case to help dilute tea if it is too strong.

Let’s Eat: The Tea Menu

Queen of the Kitchen

The following are the types of items you will find at tea. Follow the links to locate recipes for items we have prepared in our travels. Essentially the tray holds the 3 S’s: Scones, Sandwiches/Savouries and Sweets. I mostly focus on traditional tea items (great food always has a history). I am a big fan of healthy eating and while many of these treats are “sometimes” foods, but I also include healthy versions of some treats which you can enjoy anytime. The general rule to the tea tray is that items can be eaten by hand so are cut into bite sized pieces, and generally cold, unless you have scones right out of the oven.

Afternoon Tea

Taking tea outside
—always time for tea (Carnival Films)

Afternoon tea trays have three levels: TOP:  SCONES

  • Abbey Cooks Magic Scone Recipe
    • Variations for plain, sweet or savoury scones:
    • Plain
      • Buttermilk
      • Cream
      • Whole wheat
    • Sweet
      • Chocolate
      • Glazed
      • Dried Fruit
      • Fresh/Frozen Berries
      • Wholewheat and date
    • Savoury Scones
      • Cheese and Chive
      • Fresh Herb

MIDDLE:  Sandwiches/Savouries Sandwiches

Savouries

BOTTOM LAYER:  SWEETS

 

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45 thoughts on “Downton Abbey Cooks Online Guide to Afternoon Tea

  1. You & your site are amazing! Thanks for all your hard work. This is such a beautiful, as well as informative blog. There are so many dishes I am inspired to make. So glad I found it!

  2. Hi Pamela! I am going to use this tea bible when the cast and crew of Titanic:A New Musical at TUTS Vancouver organizes a high tea to celerate the final week of rehearsals! Thanks so much!

    1. Yay! Someone that knows that high tea is supper and is serving a real high tea. You go girl.

  3. Thank you so much. Very helpful to us Americans!

  4. Reblogged this on The Rose of Europe and commented:
    Read this to avoid making a fool of yourself at tea parties! 😉 This is your tea bible!

  5. lovely article on tea. great info, thank you!

  6. Great source of information! Thank you for clarifications on the different types of Tea service. Americans still make the mistake of referring to a traditional afternoon tea as a High Tea (one of my pet peeves).

  7. Hello, in the Dowager Countess clip showing how to serve tea, she uses a hot water type urn to pour the water into the tea pot. Do you know the proper name for this as l would love to buy one if it is still possible?

    1. You know i really don’t know, but I would love to have one myself. Perhaps another follower will be able to provide some insight.

      1. I found out the name of it. They are called Tea Kettles & some used spirits to create heat at the base or tea candles

      2. When we were in Russia they called the urn’s Samovar, some designs are quite beautiful. Just found your blog today Pamela, Love it!

    2. We used to sell these in our tea room. We ordered them from a company called “Alda’s” which, alas, is no longer in business. They called them “tea tippers”. Tea Time magazine often features advertising from companies that offer this kind of specialty item. Actually, just google it. There are several options! Have fun!

  8. The tea story relating to marriage is about how young women’s suitors were tested for “proper breeding” before being allowed to court (proceed to woo her to wed).
    Poorer quality china (porcelain) cracked due to thermal shock if hot tea went in first- so the custom was to put in the milk, then the tea- thus lessen the thermal shock.
    Thus, if a man put milk in first- he could be seen to be from poorer stock- and lesser breeding thus successfully out out of the running by the Dowager.
    Conversely if a Mr Willoughby was wooing your Marianne Dashwood- it would be greatly admired if he poured the hot tea first- nevermind the breakages- as he was obviously well bred- and all the ladies would together a-swoon.

    1. That’s an interesting tidbit I hadn’t heard before. My understanding had been that milk was poured in first because the earlier china couldn’t stand up to the thermal shock, and that people only started reversing the process when higher-quality cups and such became available; it makes sense that those able to afford the higher-quality pieces would be the first to own them (and then proceed to make pouring milk into tea a status thing).

      Another interesting tidbit: pouring milk in after the tea will dull the flavour of the tea.

      1. How funny – an Irish friend told me the milk was poured in first to prevent staining or discoloration on the cups- both theories makes sense I suppose- I didn’t know pouring it after dilutes flavor! good to know-:)

  9. Great, informative post! I love tea and the rich tradition associated with it. Consider this bookmarked. 🙂

  10. What specific brands and types of tea are recommended?

    1. Generally you want to offer two or three types. Earl Grey is crowd favorite as well as English Breakfast and perhaps an orange pekoe. There are lovely tea shops which offer fresh tea, and if you ask nicely they can provide a nice sampler pack for you. If you are a fan of history, Typhoo Tips http://wp.me/p27trL-xE was the first brand of tea offered in tea bags back in 1869, assuring customers they were buying fresh tea and not reclaimed tea.

      1. Thank you so much!

  11. What a delightful site; Tea and Downton Abbey- What could be better?

  12. […] fete begins with tea” “Tea, treats requisite for watching ‘Downton Abbey’.”  “Downton Abbey Cooks Online Guide to Afternoon Tea” “Goodwill takes you to Downton Abbey” YouTube video “Dishes inspired by Downton […]

  13. Excellent information! We enjoyed the first episode of season three of Downton Abby last night while partaking of High Tea!

  14. Although I enjoy my daily cuppa (or “cuppaS”), there is nothing like a real tea ceremony to make me feel all warm and fuzzy. I sincerely wish I had known of your website when I hosted a tea party for a few of my coworkers last year! We had cucumber sandwiches, scones with clotted cream, jam, and lemon curd, and I made “lemon drops” which are essentially slices of homemade sponge cake with lemon curd between the layers and topped with whipped cream and a raspberry (or a gooseberry if you’re being authentic). Such good fun!!

  15. […] photos (I think a lot of us wish this were also available in print format). She has an excellent Online Guide to Afternoon Tea at her site, and does “Tea Tuesday” every week. Check out this recipe for Treacle […]

  16. Good Afternoon.

    I am English and over the years have attended many Afternoon tea parties Including once as a girl a Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace , I love them. I am just about to host my own Downtown tea party for 60. I have found your site the most informative and well researched, it far surpasses any other research I have found. The links to the recipes are very useful. Thank you for all your hard work and research. Your site is lovely.

    Suzanne, Oxfordshire, Uk

  17. An absolutely brilliant guide. Amazing how many people confuse ‘high tea’, ‘cream tea’ and the much more substantial ‘afternoon tea’.

  18. I’m constantly “on about” tea on my comfort food blog. Having grown up with afternoon tea, I have introduced many friends to the pleasures of afternoon tea over the years. Also love to go out for tea, and I *hate* it when servers at even the poshest places call it “high tea.” I think Americans do that because it sounds more “haute.”

  19. Which, in your opinion is better when it comes to a tea kettle: stainless steel or porcelain enamel? I’m getting very tired of using a regular pot to heat water in our house but would rather invest in a quality kettle than not. Any information you could give would be appreciated. Thank you. 🙂

    1. I have always used a stainless steel kettle, we currently have a smart looking brushed Cuisinart cordless version, and didn’t realize you could find porcelain, but you must live in a wonderful part of the world where they exist. As for a teapot, ceramic is the way to go.

      1. Thank you for your input! The porcelain kettles I’ve seen are online actually. Not many to choose from but there are a few companies that make them. Again, thank you for replying.

  20. Well. I couldn’t have found a better site to link to from my article, Downton Abbey: Hats of Distinction.

    As the Teapixie, I live for tea and the taking of tea. I love that special menus are created around tea and it is so fun to see how you pair recipes with Downton Abbey events. Even if the events are tragic.

    Isn’t television fun? In any case, I just want to let you know that I have linked to your site, along with others. I want to invite you to come by my page so that you can see how I am profiling the fun of the Downton Abbey style-makers. I am regularly updating the article with new links and new hats.

    Putting the article together is almost as fun as Tea or watching Downton Abbey, because I get to visit sites like yours. Thank you so much for creating a site with true tea ambiance!

    Theteapixie (twitter)
    Teapixie (squidoo)
    Pixie-Atelier (redbubble.com)

  21. I’m terribly sorry but I really feel that I must comment. Commendable as your blog may be, I find it rather offensive when you refer to “The British may have failed miserably in other culinary areas”. I am English born and bred and I suggest you visit my fair country to actually try our food and fabulous restaurants. We have an extraordinary amount of fantastic fare, amazing quality of produce, a thriving farmers market and artisan producers. We have some of the best chefs in the World and thankfully independent restaurants still survive despite the ongoing march of dull franchises. As someone who was bought up in a house of food, a brother who was a pastry chef at Fortum and Mason and cooked for the royal family; I suggest you try our cuisine for yourself and on our shores before you revert to a stereotypical and spread rather outdated and uneducated view. I think you might even enjoy the education. I wish you well.

    1. Oh CC! My roots are in England and I do have a special place in my heart for Jamie, Nigella, and Heston (a family favourite). Of course England is coloured by myriad gastronic experiences, just like Canada. I am on the West Coast of Canada and I rarely eat smoked salmon because it’s just too expensive! And a dish like Poutine is for those who wish to live short lives. But we eat lots of sushi, curry, Mexican, and Italian.

      It is hard to think of stereotyped British food without thinking of deep fried fish and chips, bangers and mash, and scraped toast. This is not meant as an insult to the country of England, it actually gives me warm feelings about my British Grandad – even the overcooked veggies that he loved. I have eaten food on your shores, many, many times. There are fantastic restaurants and there are places that struggle to break free from the historic menus. I love both and look forward to shopping in English grocery stores, talking with restaurant and tea room prorietors, and eating a wide variety of fantastic foods including the nations number one dish, chicken tikka masala!

      Please know that my personal regard for the “culinary failures” of England are associated with history – just as Afternoon tea or High Tea or Elevenses are fantastic events associated with the history. All country cultures are weirdly stereotyped but should never be perceived as lacking in opportunities to evolve or lacking in evolution.

      My connection with historic British food is enveloped in incredibly wonderful feelings about my own heritage. I am proud to say that I have a British culinary heritage.

      1. So am I! I cherish all my mother passed on to me. Not just cooking but the heritage as well. Rule Britiana. Joan Murphins

  22. I believe it is correct to say “elevenses” not “elevensies.”

  23. […] English tradition (not be be confused with “High Tea”. If you recall from my online Guide to Afternoon Tea,  it was one of Queen Victoria’s Lady’s in Waiting who came up with the great idea of having […]

  24. in English hi tea what hot snacks we can offer

  25. […] Downton Abbey and I came across a link that I found a really interesting about the history of afternoon tea and how to serve it properly if you want to read more about the afternoon tea tradition (although […]

  26. Dear Pamela,As a Brit, it’s nice to see someone from ‘over the pond’ who’s got most of the information about Afternoon Tea correct for a change: I now live in Vinci, Italy (yes where Leonardo was born), and now offer afternoon tea to Italians in our home dining business.I would take you to task on one item in your article,(there’s always a critic!) and that is about Cream Tea in which you say: “Cream Tea — A simple tea service consisting of scones, clotted cream, marmalade or lemon curd and tea.” Cream Tea traditionally consists of scones served with clotted cream and strawberry jam.Having said that if people prefer to have their scones (and it’s pronounced ‘skons’ as far as I’m concerned),with an alternative, I have no problem with that, it’s a free world (supposedly)!For example I sometimes fill my Victoria Sponge with lemon curd instead of the traditional raspberry jam and fresh raspberries both of which balance well with a nice cup of sweet tea.Good Luck with the book!

  27. Is Sherry served at Tea?
    When, before or after?

  28. […] online guide to afternoon tea.  (We got some after the womens’ […]

  29. […] party tea. Home. My account; easy returns; my english tea store tea type afternoon tea, black tea, Downton abbey cooks online guide to afternoon tea. Displaying acceptable manners is a way of fitting in with a certain class. Pay attention to the […]

  30. Your article is great, very helpful. Thank you very much !

  31. […] Downton Abbey Cooks Online Guide to Afternoon Tea […]

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