When you think of a proper English tea party, what comes to mind? For me, romantic images of beautiful Victorian décor in bone china, set in a stunning English rose garden and attended only by respectable English gentry are conjured.
Tea parties as we know them have certainly evolved into elegant affairs, based upon the English tradition of Afternoon Tea. This means that as a host or hostess, you might be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed and intimidated when required to plan and host one of your own.
And although hosting a tea party properly may seem too difficult a task, a tea party can be the perfect option for many occasions, such as bridal showers, baby showers, birthdays, retirements or a simple catch up, when a luncheon or dinner party simply doesn't suit.
By following my tips on etiquette, menus, décor and more, you will be able to host a proper English tea party with confidence and finesse!
Let's Sip to History
The discovery of creating a beverage from tea leaves is believed to have commenced in China, some 4000 years ago. Drinking tea became common in Britain in the seventeenth century, although enjoying it in the afternoon was not popularised until later.
At the time in Britain, dinner was served around eight in the evening, with no meal break between lunch and dinner time. Serving tea at home with light appetisers such as sandwiches and small cakes (petit fours) became popular by the 1800's with the upper class and known as afternoon tea. Afternoon tea is still very popular in Britain today.
Today, High Tea is often served at catered events and hosted at upmarket hotels. The term high tea is often used interchangeably with afternoon tea, but they are not one and the same. Traditionally, High Tea was a heartier supper meal served amongst the working class, around six in the evening. It consisted of cold meats, cheeses and bread.
With British colonial rule, drinking tea transformed from an exclusively upper-class pastime, to a beverage enjoyed by every social class. As the custom of tea time has evolved with time, it has become the quintessential English custom. Mainly served mid-late afternoon, afternoon tea usually consists of a selection of dainty sandwiches, scones, cakes, and various pastries.
Types of English Tea Parties
You may or may not be aware that there are more than one form of traditional tea party. For the purists out there, it can be most helpful to know the different types of tea parties and how to best host them. Some tea parties are deemed quite formal, and others more casual. Although, turning up to even the most casual tea party in your thongs (flip flops) and grasping a stubby holder is a definite no-no.
Also named Low Tea, Afternoon Tea is set around a low table. For example, afternoon tea is generally served at a small coffee table or side table, in a comfortable living room/loungeroom. It is usually an intimate affair for family and close acquaintances.
The setting is absolutely more relaxed as opposed to a High Tea, but is not necessarily more casual. Light snacks are served.
Just as an afternoon tea is set at a low table, High Tea is served at a high table; which predominantly means a dining table, or can be any table higher than one used for a low tea.
When hosting a modern-day high tea, you may opt to serve small snacks as with an afternoon tea, but if the event is being held close to dinner time, it may be a good idea to offer a heavier meal other than light snacks.
Just as with an afternoon tea, Cream Tea is hosted in the afternoon. However, it is called as such because of the menu being served, which often includes clotted cream with scones.
A Royale Tea is named such when sherry or champagne is added to the tea being served.
Invitations to your tea party may be extended and accepted by telephone, face-to-face, or by mailing them at least a week in advance. The format and style may be informal or engraved, handwritten in calligraphy, or by a calligraphy font. Be sure to inform your guests on the invitation of the kind of tea you are hosting, so they know what to expect and how to dress.
Choose the Brew
When you think of tea, which variety first comes to mind? My personal favourites are Irish Breakfast and English Breakfast. And because everyone has their favourite, if you offer different varieties of tea at your tea party, there is a much higher chance of pleasing your guests.
If you prefer to be true to tradition, it is noteworthy that all true tea is derived from the same plant - the Camellia Sinensis. It is the source of black, white, green and oolong tea. Other so-called teas are not actually true tea, but herbal or fruit infusions.
Herbal infusions aside, there are many different tea blends to choose from, and keeping in mind that tea is the main focus of a tea party, it is best to put some effort into it. Your guests will really appreciate it.
Tea bags are acceptable and much easier to source. Although, loose tea is much preferred at a tea party, if at all possible.. The experience of drinking loose tea is a rare treat for guests and makes a tea party all the more special.
When hosting your tea party, it is good practice to serve popular varieties of tea, such as English Breakfast, Earl Grey, Peppermint and Jasmine. However, it is also a nice idea to incorporate some less common or exotic blends, so your guests can try something new.
We've included some examples of traditional teas served at tea parties below:
Black Tea - one of the most popular drinks (let alone tea) worldwide, black tea is highly consumed in Britain and Ireland especially. They consume approximately 165 million cups of black tea every day.
English Breakfast - A high quality blend of black tea, that is full bodied and brisk. It is ideal to drink first thing in the morning, hence it's name. As with other breakfast teas, it is best served the traditional way, with milk and sugar.
Irish Breakfast - this robust and malty blend is stronger than English Breakfast, but milder than Scottish Breakfast.
Scottish Breakfast - considered to be much bolder than other breakfast teas, this blend has a woody flavour that comes from the strong Assam tea component.
Earl Grey - A very popular tea, Earl Grey is a delicate blend of Chinese and Darjeeling teas scented with oil of bergamot. It has a full fragrance and pairs well with sweet snacks. Is best served with lemon or a spot of milk.
Oolong Tea - less robust than Black tea and less subtle than Green Tea, Oolong Tea is highly fragrant with a delicate floral and fruity scent and flavour.
Darjeeling - Considered the finest tea by many, Darjeeling has a floral fragrance and is light in colour with a delicate flavour.
Jasmine - This semi-fermented and low-caffeine blend of Green Tea is light in colour and flavour and has a gorgeous fragrance, as it is laced with dried jasmine blossoms. Serve plain or with a slice of lemon.
If you would like to serve more than just the basics, below are a few more tea varieties to consider for your tea party:
Chai Tea - black tea blended with steamed milk and spices, this tea is usually creamy and a little spicy. It is a wonderful choice for a tea party held in the cooler months.
Chamomile Tea - a popular tea, Chamomile has a light, floral taste that is slightly bitter. It can have a calming effect and so makes a good bedtime drink.
Peppermint Tea - even with it's strong scent and flavour, this blend is still one of the most popular herbal teas. It is soothing and refreshing.
Spearmint Tea - with a milder flavour than Peppermint Tea, this herbal tea is cooling and refreshing.
Rooibos Tea - pronounced roy-boss, this caffeine-free tea is very popular, with its complex flavour that is a combination of fruity, spicy and nutty. It can be enjoyed with or without milk or sugar.
White Tea - the most delicate of all teas, White Tea has a subtle and natural sweetness, and is generally lower in caffiene than other tea varieties.
And don't forget about infusions and flavoured teas. Flavoured teas available include chocolate, vanilla, passionfruit, cinnamon, apple, apricot and raspberry. This list is not comprehensive in anyone's language, so do some research and you will find much more exciting blends to try.
Also consider that if your party is being held in the warmer months, try serving some different flavours of iced tea and cold infusions, in case guests prefer to sip on a cold beverage. Another great option is barley tea, which is traditionally served cold with ice and makes a refreshing summer beverage.
What about coffee drinkers? Well, don't forget about the coffee. Be sure to serve some delicious coffee as well as tea at your tea party, for those guests who appreciate it more than tea.
In addition, consider that some guests may not drink cow's milk, and that it may be wise to serve alternatives. Don't forget to serve sugar, sweeteners and other condiments as well. Sugar cubes are lovely for a tea party, but incorporating other variations such as loose sugar, raw sugar, honey and sugar-free sweeteners is also a good idea. Even lemon slices are a good idea, for those guests who like lemon in their tea.
More than Just Tea
We've established that tea is the foundation of a good tea party. But with that covered, we know that man cannot survive on tea alone. So let's take a look at what makes a great tea party menu.
To accompany your tea selection, be sure to offer a menu that compliments the range of tea flavours served, and is appropriate for your party setting. It is helpful to remember that food served at a tea party should essentially be finger food and easy to eat without many utensils.
A traditional tea party menu is served in two courses; first the savoury, followed by the sweets (the best part). Savouries are served on the bottom tier of multi-tiered stands, and the sweets are served on the top tiers, with the sweetest and most delicate desserts on the top level of the display.
Another common menu item, sandwiches are usually served cut into quarters with crusts removed. A variety of fillings are recommended to appease as many guests as possible, and are chopped into small pieces so dainty bites can be taken.
You can opt for white bread for sweeter fillings and brown bread for stronger fillings, or otherwise; as long as the bread is fresh and soft, it won't matter too much. Some suggested fillings include:
- Egg Salad
- Smoked Salmon and Cream Cheese
- Crab Salad
- Ham and Brie
- Chicken and Cranberry
Turkey and Watercress
Scones are a very popular choice for tea party menus, especially if you wish to host a traditional British tea party, where scones are served with clotted cream and jam. Clotted cream is a British delicacy made from full cream cow’s milk. But you can also serve other varieties, such as cheese or pumpkin scones, for example. Note that scones are not meant to be eaten with utensils.
Another popular and elegant savoury choice, canapes work well at tea parties. The topping choices are endless; including salmon, prawns, chicken or ham, teamed with cucumber, dill, avocado, egg, asparagus, cheese and more. Some quick research will render hundred of recipes and ideas, so you're sure to find some that appeal to you.
There are many other savoury dishes that you could serve at your tea party, including mini tarts/tartlets, mini quiches, panini, savoury muffins, oysters, mini frittatas and more.
Sweets are a must for any tea party, and it is best to serve a selection. Muffins, tarts, cupcakes, biscuits, macarons and small cakes are popular choices, and are served in small, bite-sized portions that are easy to hold and for the most party, eat without the use of cutlery. It is a nice idea to include some chocolate menu items, as chocolate pairs well with several tea blends.
It sounds like a lot of food, doesn't it? A variety is nice, but as a tea party is designed for a social gathering more than a food fest, it is not necessary to serve a large amount of food. Guests should be able to snack at their own leisure from the bottom tier, through to the very top tier, whilst still drinking tea and enjoying the company of the other party guests.
Below is a quick guide to tea and food pairings. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it will be enough to suffice for a lovely menu.
Hibiscus - apple, cheese and creamy desserts
Green Tea - savoury sandwiches
Jasmine - berries, salmon, and chocolate
Black Tea - savoury meat and sweet desserts, especially chocolate
White Tea - cucumber, light cheese and seafood
Oolong - seafood and syrupy desserts
Fruit Teas - dark chocolate and cakes
Earl Grey - chocolate
Chai - chocolate and custard
Darjeeling - fresh fruit and fruity desserts, custard
Décor for Decorum
A proper English Tea is an elegant and tasteful event. As the host or hostess, you can easily create the right atmosphere with lovely décor. Tea parties take place around the table settings, so this is where to focus your decorating efforts.
The best place to start is choosing a tablecloth/s, which can then determine the style of the rest of your décor. You can opt for a colourful pattern, romantic lace or a simple and elegant linen.
Cloth napkins are a much nicer option than paper napkins, if possible. Cotton or linen is fine to use.
Doilies are decorative mats used for food presentation. They are usually placed on serving plates and trays, beneath cakes and sweets in buffet style settings. Traditionally doilies were handmade from cotton and trimmed with lace, or crocheted. Today, these types can be difficult to source, but paper varieties are easy to find, are very affordable, and look lovely on a serving table.
The nicest addition you can make to the party table is flowers. They add colour, visual interest and a lovely fragrance.
Because a tea party is all about the tea, your tea cups and tea pot/s will also be a focus. The only rule is to ensure that you serve with tea cups and saucers and not mugs (unless you are serving coffee, in which case it will be fine to use mugs for that).
Tea pots and cups do not have to match, but it is nice to keep a certain theme, such as florals, colour scheme etc. A cute variety of cups and saucers will add interest and fun, allowing your guests to choose something unique for themselves.
It is really nice to serve with bone china, but any porcelain is fine, and there is no need to spend a lot of money. Beautiful treasures can be found at thrift stores, or borrowed from friends. If possible, invest in a tea set that includes the milk jug, sugar bowl and cake plates too. Otherwise, find some plates that will closely suit your party style.
Tiered serving trays and stands are the perfect addition to tea party décor. Not only do they provide a beautiful focal point, but they're also very practical and can hold a lot of food.
Silver and/or gold serving sets make for beautiful décor at a tea party and can add a special touch.
In order to set the table properly, it is helpful to understand the traditional etiquette involved. Let's look at a few suggestions below.
It is most polite for the party host/s to pour the tea for the guests. Hence, the teapot needs to be placed within the host's reach on the table. It is fine to scatter carafes and jugs for milk and bowls of sugar on the table within easy reach. The tea tray and china tea set are usually placed at one end of the table.
When serving cake that is very soft and sticky or filled with cream, forks must be laid on the tea table.
If jam or cream is to be eaten on scones or bread, there must be knives or butter spreaders. If there are dishes with jam and cream where everyone takes a portion, each dish should have its own serving spoon. Never use your own utensils to dip into the jam or cream dish.
If you will be setting guest places, each place should consist of the following:
- teacup and saucer
- tea strainer, if guests will be self-serving
- snack/bread plate
- napkin, place card and
utensils for refreshments
Sandwiches, scones and canapes should be eaten with your hands, but it is nice to provide guests with small forks to eat the cakes.
At a traditional tea party, the host or hostess pours tea for the guests. Do not feel pressured to do this if you have a large guest list! However, for a small gathering, this is a really nice gesture. It is best practice to serve each guest in turn.
Replenishing the tea makes for a good host. Allowing the teapot to run empty is unacceptable at a traditional tea party. More than one teapot is going to be required, even for a small gathering.
Tea is best served hot after being poured from a kettle to a porcelain or ceramic teapot and then poured into guests' china tea cups.
To properly serve the tea, first pour boiling water into your tea pot to heat it up before brewing the tea. This trick prevents tea from cooling too quickly. Then, place loose tea leaves or a teabag in the pot. Pour hot water and make sure to steep according to the tea assortment.
Let the tea settle long enough for the flavours to flourish, but not long enough for the blend to become bitter. The ideal length of time is usually a few minutes. Be sure to decant the tea by straining the leaves before serving. Serve first to guests who prefer a weaker tea.
As the host of a tea party, you need only to serve the tea yourself. It is perfectly acceptable for guests to self-serve the food. Besides, you also need time to sit, relax and enjoy some time to be with your guests. Spend some time with them, not all your time spent on them.
It is best to prepare the menu prior to guests arriving. It is your choice whether to present it on a serving table in a buffet style, or to pass serving plates around the dining table, as both are acceptable.
More than Tea Sipping
So, when you've got your party guests all fed and watered, what's next? More than about tea and food, a tea party is a social gathering, whether it is formal or more relaxed.
Creating the atmosphere for your guests to relax and have fun is your job as their host. The best way to create atmosphere is to host your party somewhere comfortable, or particularly pretty, such as in a warm and cosy living area, or in the garden amongst the roses. There is no need to stress too much about it though; your guests will appreciate anything you create for them.
A fun suggestion is to carry a theme. For example, you might like to implement a Victorian theme and wear lace or crocheted gloves and hats. Or a spring theme with guests wearing something floral.
Another sweet idea is to give out party favours/favors. We share some lovely ideas below.
- teacup and saucer
- loose tea/tea bags
box of sugar cubes
milk jug or sugar bowl
Personalised gifts are often the nicest to offer and your guests will absolutely love them.
At the end of this post, you can download a freebie to help with your tea party favours.
Tea party conversation is the most pleasant when it is kept light and fun. As the host, this is not always within your control, but if the chatting is going downhill or escalating into a debate, do your best to simply change the subject. Most guests will take the hint. You might like to play some light-hearted games, but these are usually not necessary for a proper tea party, as most guests are happy to simply mingle.
Tea Party Etiquette
When hosting a proper English tea party, one of your biggest concerns may be getting the etiquette wrong wrong wrong! Well, firstly, you'll find that most people are unaware of the proper protocol and even those who are will be very forgiving, even in a formal environment. And secondly, there's no need to worry, because we've got you covered.
English Tea Party Do's
If you are fearful of appearing impolite, there are a few ground rules to follow at an English tea party.
- take small sips of your tea and small bites of food and chew delicately
- use your napkin - gently blot your mouth with it. Otherwise it sits on your lap. Only lift it to the table when the meal is finished.
- add small amounts of food to your plate. It is better to make multiple trips to the buffet rather than pile up your plate
- pick up your cup and saucer together to stand, but leave the saucer on the table to sit
- the sugar spoon lives in the sugar bowl, so leave it there
- add jam (jelly) first to scones, before cream
- use a tea strainer for loose tea
add milk last after pouring your tea. Are you gonna argue with the British Royals' butler?
dress nicely for the occasion. A tea party is not a jeans and t-shirt event
English Tea Party Don'ts
- don't noisily hit the spoon against the cup when stirring, and stir gently back and forth, not around
- don't lift your little finger - that's a myth, not classy
- don't leave your spoon in the cup; place it on your saucer, at the back
don't dunk biscuits or any other food into your cup
So hopefully these ideas and tips will help you host a fun tea party with confidence and flair. And make sure that you enjoy a nice, hot cup of tea for me!
Now, would you like your tea party freebie? (do I hear a resounding YES!)? To help you give your guests some cute little party favours, I've included a tea party printable for you.
This freebie comes from one of our Tea Party Printables Packs, which appears in the image above (click on the image to see it in more detail).
Your free tea party download consists of a single-page printable file (in PDF format) which contains gift tags, teabag tags (to customise your teabags) and a cute little printable pouch to place them in.
Click on the image below to download your freebie!
Happy Partying and Tea Sipping!