Nothing is more fun than an afternoon tea party. The fragrant flowers adorning tables, the dainty porcelain teacups, and the stunning pastries all make for a sensual culinary treat. Best of all, throwing your own afternoon tea party is an easy affair and a great way to express your personality. Learn more about afternoon tea – and why you shouldn’t call it high tea — and start planning a tea party that suits your fancy.
In America, we frequently use the terms ‘high tea’ and ‘afternoon tea’ interchangeably. However, there is a distinct difference between the two different tea events. Although it may sound prim and proper, high tea is actually a traditional affair where working-class individuals enjoyed hearty evening meals such as steak and kidney pie, typically around 5 pm. The term refers to the high tables, similar to tall bar tables, where the meals were enjoyed.
On the other hand, afternoon tea is the dainty social affair we generally associate with British tea drinking. Afternoon tea is a fashionable, light meal featuring finger foods such as scones and cucumber sandwiches along with delicious herbal or true teas. It was originally enjoyed by royalty and elite society, though today it is widely practiced by large swaths of the population. To learn more about the significance of afternoon tea, it’s a good idea to start by delving into the history of the tea event.
Afternoon tea can be traced back to the mid 19th Century in England. Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford is credited with inventing the festive tea event. During this period in Britain, dinner in wealthier households was served around 9:00 pm. Anna Russell would often find herself famished in the early afternoon and would request a cup of Darjeeling tea and a few light snacks to be served in her living area. Soon, she began inviting friends to join her and when one notable friend — Queen Victoria — discovered the afternoon tea party, the practice took off and became commonplace in wealthy households across the country.
Afternoon tea was commonly served in the lady’s parlor, elaborate bedrooms, or living areas, often surrounding low tables. This, in turn, led to the event being referred to as ‘low tea’ in some circles. Afternoon tea became a time for socializing and creating connections and these events often included discussing local gossip, recent events, and sharing personal news with close friends.
Today, afternoon tea service is typically served as a three-course event using delicate-tiered displays. The menu includes savory snacks, scones, and sweet treats as well as tea pairings. For a proper afternoon tea event, patrons should eat the savories first, followed by the scones and then the sweet pastries. The finger foods are often served with spreads such as butter, clotted cream, and jam. High-quality afternoon tea is offered with loose leaf tea that can be stepped for multiple infusions, though there are also some versions where tea bags are used.
Afternoon tea services can be found at fancy hotels such as the Ritz Carlton and delightful tea rooms, but the special event can also be hosted right in your own backyard or in your dining room. All you need is some high-quality loose tea and a few ingredients to whip up tea sandwiches and pastries.
While we like to say that it's always tea-time, a proper afternoon tea party should be held sometime in the late afternoon — typically between 3:00 and 5:00 pm. You can set up multiple round tables to create an intimate feel even if you have a large number of guests or you can go the traditional route and set up a small afternoon tea service in your living room.
As tea parties grew in popularity, so did the manufacture of beautiful teacups and teawares. For a classic British touch, serve your tea in dainty ceramic or porcelain teacups and teapots. When it comes to décor, draping tables in lace is a good way to add an elegant feel while adding fresh flowers puts a fragrant touch on the event. You can throw themed parties such as an Alice Mad Hatter tea party or stick to the basics and turn your living room into a scene straight out of Devonshire with a cream tea service. Whatever type of afternoon tea service you choose to offer, put some thought into the ambiance to truly wow your guests.
The best part of afternoon tea is that the menu is actually quite simple. Staples include finger sandwiches, usually cut diagonally and without any crust, as well as scones and pastries. You can whip up these treats yourself if you love baking or simply snag a few options from your local bakery. If you’re looking to make your own finger sandwiches, we’ve got a great list of tea sandwiches to try right here.
Aside from the snacks, the only other staple item you must have is tea. While traditional afternoon tea service focused mainly on British and Indian teas such as Earl Grey, English Breakfast tea, and Assam tea, you can use any tea that suits your fancy. Drinking tea is all about enjoying the experience so serve teas you love, whether that means going with spiced teas like ginger tea and masala chai or a floral treat such as hibiscus tea. You can also serve iced tea in hot summer months to help guests stay cool.
It’s a good idea to give some thought to the visual aspect of the tea you are using. If you have a glass teapot, you can serve afternoon teas that offer a stunning visual to take your tea party to the next level. Teas like color-changing butterfly pea flower tea are a great option. This particular tea starts out as a deep blue color that then turns purple or fiery red depending on the pH of ingredients that are added. Guests will love watching the blue hue turn a violet purple when they squeeze a slice of lemon in.
Afternoon tea is a classic tea event that can be as simple or elaborate as you want to make it. You can host a princess tea event to get your children in on the fun or host the classic tea tradition with a few of your closest friends. Add a touch of regal elegance and serve each cup of tea with a glass of champagne. The possibilities are endless when it comes to hosting a unique afternoon tea party.
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