Etiquette de Manille & Red Archon

Posts Tagged ‘Tea Service’

The Romance of Genteel Tea Leaves

In Articles, Service Etiquette & Protocol, Tea Etiquette on March 22, 2013 at 8:30 am

By Pauli Antoine

FINE BONE CHINA TEA SET with wooden handle tea strainer

FINE BONE CHINA TEA SET with wooden handle tea strainer


 Showers and birthdays, intimate jewelry, art and poetry exhibitions in dainty afternoon teas are in vogue.  Restaurants have kept tea menus to pick up business during the afternoon slack.  This trend prompts many to hop onto the bandwagon of tea-time offerings with the help of party planners and protocol advisers.  Events over lunches and dinners are now organized as tea parties.  With bite-size food and alcohol not expected, a tea party is not as expensive as a dinner party.


“High” and “low” are descriptions for the height of the table—high for dining, low for parlor furniture.

High Tea was more of a working class family meal than an elite socialgathering, served on a high table at the end of the workday between 5 to 7 pm.

ORIENTAL TEA SET: Teapot with balancer, tea cups and tongs on a wooden tray with a drain underneath

ORIENTAL TEA SET: Teapot with balancer, tea cups and tongs on a wooden tray with a drain underneath

Afternoon or Low Tea was once a ladies’ social occasion with manners, doilies and dainty foods, served on a low table between 3 to 5 pm on low tables, hence its two names. 

Afternoon tea gatherings started in the mid-1800s by the Duchess of Bedford, at a time when gas or oil lamps began permeating wealthier homes.  There were only two meals each day—a mid-morning breakfast and a fashionably late dinner.  The Duchess felt melancholic (most likely fatigue from the long wait between meals), and decided to invite friends for tea. News of the quaint gatherings spread across high society and became a favorite pastime. 

FORMAL: White linen, buffet style in the dining room. All finger foods. Guests not formally seated and encouraged to mingle. Candles lit after 5  pm, curtains drawn.

  1. Place tea service at one end of the table with a milk pitcher, sugar bowl, and a small platter for lemon slices or wedges.
  2. Place finger foods on the other end on tiered stands or serving dishes along with plates, serving silverware, napkins and cutlery.

INFORMAL: Salon or outdoors with either placement or casual seating on low tables. Candles are never used.

  1. For each guest: a tea cup and saucer, dessert plate, silverware, napkin and a placemat or a lace doily for that extra touch of elegance. 
  2. Set up tea service much like a formal buffet near the head of the table.  You can set up another table for more seating.  For a more intimate affair, arrange the service at the center of a large table. 


New Picture (65)While etiquette and customs evolve over time, some practices remain non-negotiable if one is to embrace such a lovely genre. The etiquette police will not be hiding in your teacups, but an effort should be made on setting things straight.

GENTLEMEN, PINKIES UP!  Raising the pinky is not an affectation, but a graceful way for men and women to avoid spills. Porcelain teacups originated from China and had no handles. So as not to spill the hot liquid, the proper way to hold the vessel is to place one’s thumb at the 6 o’clock position, and the index and middle fingers at the 12 o’clock position. Gently raise the pinkie for balance.

Even if a handle was added to the teacup in the 18th century, raising the pinkie is still necessary for balance.  Grasp the ear with your thumb, index and middle finger. Imagine the handle as a flat disk with no hole.  Never loop fingers through the handle, nor cradle the vessel in your palm.

MILK BEFORE TEA?  That is a matter of preference. Originally, milk was added before tea to temper the teacups made from soft-paste porcelain. When hard-paste china porcelain was introduced, it was no longer necessary to temper the teacups. Milk is served instead of cream which is too heavy and masks the taste of tea.   The Chinese did not use milk in their tea then, as the blends were white, oolong, and green.

SUGAR TONGS.  Using sugar tongs for compressed sugar is about being considerate and hygienic.  When not in use, lay the tongs beside the sugar bowl or drape it over the handle of the bowl.

LEMON AFLOAT?  A slice of lemon with a clove in the center can be set to float in the teacup. Wedges are wrapped in gauze or cheesecloth. Without a lemon press, use your fingers to gently squeeze out the juice into your teacup, then rest the wedge on the side of your saucer or service plate.

STIR OR FOLD?  Never stir in sweeping circular motions. Place your teaspoon at the 6 o’clock position and gracefully fold the liquid towards the 12 o’clock position, two or three times. Do not leave the teaspoon in your teacup. Rest it on the right side of the saucer. Never wave your cup in the air.   If you are at a Buffet Tea, hold the saucer with your left hand, and the cup with your right hand. When seated, rest the cup on the saucer and lay it on a table or your lap.

NAPKINS ON THE LEFT.  A formal table has only one correct placement for a napkin—the left side of the place setting.  Fold with the closed edge to the left and the open edge to the right—no exception.  Less formal affairs allow a fancy, folded napkin in the middle of the place setting.

There is never a proper moment to leave napkins on a chair. When excusing oneself from a table, gently place the napkin on the left side of place setting. This rule is non-negotiable. If the napkin is soiled it could damage the seat covering.  Table cloths, can be laundered with more ease.  Besides, the tabletop is cleaner than the seat. 

At the end of the tea engagement, pick up the napkin from its center. Let it gracefully drape on your palm, then rest it on the left side of your plate.  Twelve inch napkins are used for Afternoon Tea.

PLACE SETTINGS.  When in doubt, follow the “outside towards the inside” rule.  A petit knife and fork may be used for open-face sandwiches and pastries, preferably not for closed sandwiches. Savories should be properly crafted; nothing should be dripping or gooey. Never place used utensils on linen or a table top.

THREE-TIER STANDS. Top for scones, middle for savory sandwiches, and bottom for sweets.  In the 1800s, modern heating equipment did not exist. A warming dome was placed over the top tier adorned with scones. The savory sandwiches, followed by the sweets, were placed beneath and served in progression.

EATING A SCONE.  A hostess should insist that the scones be made into bite-size servings.  Break off a small piece and place the rest on your plate.   Apply jam and cream on the smaller portion. No dipping!

The best etiquette of all is to relax and have a good time without noticing the faux pas of others.

Eggshell-thin, hand painted BONE CHINA TEA SET and antique pots

Eggshell-thin, hand painted BONE CHINA TEA SET and antique pots


BRIDGE TEAS: Custom dictates that bridge games begin at 1 pm followed by casual or elaborate tea at 3 pm.

CREAM TEA: Very light — scones, Devonshire cream and preserves.

LIGHT TEA: Afternoon Tea excluding assorted sandwiches and savories.

LUNCHEON ALA AFTERNOON TEA: Ah, the best of both worlds so as not to forsake tea.  Many establishments offer Afternoon Tea menus during luncheon hours.

NURSERY TEA: In the Edwardian era, when children of the upper class were cared for by a nanny, one of the rare times of the day that children interacted with their parents was in the mid-afternoon at the nursery.  Nursery teas were not elaborate— simple sandwiches, boiled eggs on toast and jam, puddings, tarts and sweet buns. Milk or lemonade for the children.

PLOUGHMAN’S LUNCH OR FARMER’S TEA: A working-class’ lunch similar to High Tea but served between noon and 2 pm originated in English pubs during the Industrial Revolution.  The menu included meat pies, assorted cheeses and fruits on crusty bread.

ROYAL TEA: Afternoon Tea with a glass of champagne or sherry. 

SPORTING TEAS: Following a hunt, a croquet match or a day in the water, iced tea was the preferred choice.  The menu consisted of picnic foods if served in a casual setting, but can be elaborate if served in a formal manner.

STRAWBERRY TEA: Traditionally served during spring and summer with whole or sliced, fresh strawberries, Devonshire cream, and granulated, brown or confectionery sugar.

TEA DANCE OR THÉ DANSANT: (French, literally dancing tea), is an afternoon or early-evening dance among women of leisure and men of prominence.  The fashion was as elaborate as the music, from Ragtime, Tango to the Charleston.  Special china porcelain with a gold border was created to celebrate the popularity of the Tango Teas.

This article was published in the June 2011 issue of F&B World Magazine, Front of House.

Styling and Visual Poise Direction by Pauli Antoine.  Photos by Andrew Tadalan / Chef Jill Sandique’s private tea set collection photographed at her studio kitchen.


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