The historical rules of tea etiquette. Dunking the biscuit, extend the pinkie finger - find out all there is to know about traditional afternoon tea decorum. We’ve been exploring all things classically British and have taken a closer look at some of the quintessentially British customs and traditions surrounding tea.
In this article we thought we’d have some fun and imagine an afternoon tea party that focuses on all the various historical ‘rules’ of etiquette to be observed and the faux pas to be avoided.
Is it considered rude to dunk one’s biscuits?
To pour milk before or after?
What about the pinkie finger?
So please mind one’s manners and dress accordingly, as we get all prim and proper with some of the Victorian era's quirky traditions that may, or may not still be observed today (if one was to be so inclined, of course).
Setting the Cake Stand
Food offered at an afternoon tea party should be presented in a tiered cake stand - we all have one of those cluttering up the cupboards, right? In which the top tier is used for scones (in the 1700’s when tea parties became popular, the top tier was the only one that would fit a warming dome over, so that’s where the scones had to go), the middle tier for sandwiches, and the bottom tier for sweets, pastries and deserts.
The order in which food should be eaten is sandwiches, scones, and then the sweets (with no cheating!).
Scones - “sc-on” or “s-cone”?
However one pronounces the word scone, the only thing to remember in terms of correct etiquette is how they should be eaten.
Never cut them directly in half and spread jam and butter on them, the proper way is to place the scone on a plate and tear off bite-sized chunks, then take a knife and apply butter, jam and cream.
Take Note of the Napkin
The truly formal way to place a napkin is to the left of the plate, with the folded edge to the left and the open edge to the right. This rule applies to whatever shape the napkin is, be it square, rectangular or triangular.
Under no circumstances should a napkin be left on a chair, if excusing yourself from the table, then the napkin should be set back to the left of the plate.
Did you know that at the end of dining, by neatly folding the napkin with a crease and placing it back on the left of the plate, that’s an indicator to the host that you wish to be invited back?
It’s customary for the person doing the hosting to pour the tea out, and for the teapot to be left on the table with the spout facing the person who poured.
If sat at a table, the proper manner to drink tea is to raise the tea cup, leaving the saucer on the table, and to place the cup back on the saucer between sips. It’s considered rude to look anywhere but into the cup whilst sipping tea, and absolutely no slurping!
A few more absolute no-no’s are; unfortunately, is it inappropriate to dunk one’s biscuits in tea! (of course, this only applies when in polite company!), and also, no using tea to wash down your food!
Don’t Cause a Stir
Under no circumstances must you stir tea in a circular motion! The ‘proper’ way to stir is to place the spoon at a 12 o’clock position in the cup and softly fold the liquid back and forth 2-3 times to the 6 o’clock position, and never ever leave the tea spoon in the cup. When your tea spoon isn’t being used, pop it back on the saucer, to the right of the cup.
The age old question of whether milk should be poured before or after the tea is still hotly debated today. Back in the early days, milk was added to delicate, soft porcelain first in order to prevent the cups from cracking, but once tougher porcelain began being made, it made it unnecessary. So today it’s really down to your own personal preference.
Put Down the Pinkie
Once considered a sign of class and elegance, the risen pinkie finger is now one of the most common faux pas of afternoon tea.
The origins of a raised pinkie could goes back as far as Roman times where cultured people would eat with three fingers, and commoners with their whole hand, but it is more likely to do with the first tea cups used.
The porcelain cups that made their way from China in the early days of tea being popular had no handles, so in order to drink from them to avoid spilling it on yourself was to spread the hand around with the pinkie up for balance and support in the stretch. This continued even after cups were introduced with handles, whilst nobody really knows how it started, it’s important to ensure that you just do it!
So there you have it; a few morsels of etiquette know-how to get you through a formal tea party.