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Pinkies up! How to throw the perfect tea party

From tea party etiquette to brewing the perfect cuppa, these tips from British pros will ensure you're doing tea time right.

Tea party

Hang bunting over your table to complete your tea party. (Photo, Roberto Caruso.)

The impending arrival of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s second child, the soon-to-be newest member of the royal family, has brought out the British aristocrat in us all. Follow these tips to hold the ultimate traditional British tea party from William Hanson, royal protocol expert, and William Gorman, chairman of the UK Tea Council.

Timing is everything
Afternoon tea should be at 4pm sharp. It’s been this way since the seventh Duchess of Bedford decided to do something about her peckishness in between lunch and dinner and had servants bring her tea and buttered bread in her rooms. Soon she started inviting guests and the practice became very stylish.

How to brew the perfect cuppa

1. Choose your tea.
Traditional choices are Earl Grey, English Breakfast or Darjeeling. The Queen herself drinks Darjeeling, sometimes called the “Champagne” of teas. According to Hanson it’s the tea of the moment.

2. Use loose-leaf tea.
Never use a tea bag for Afternoon Tea. And remember that loose leaf tea must be stored in air-tight metal containers.

3. Fill the kettle with freshly-drawn water.
Never re-boil the water because water loses oxygen when left standing and this noticeably affects the taste of the tea.

4. Warm the teapot by swishing boiling water in it.
You can also warm the teapot by leaving it near a hot burner. Don’t put the tea pot directly on the burner though and use oven mitts to handle it.

5. Add the tea leaves to the tea pot.
Never use a tea ball though. Instead, use a strainer held under the spout as you pour.

6. Pour boiling water over the tea leaves.
Then give the tea leaves a good stir before putting the lid on the teapot.

7. Let the tea steep for the proper amount of time, depending on the type of tea you’re preparing.
The UK Tea Council has a handy chart for all the different varieties’ optimal brewing time.

Serving the tea, no mugs allowed
Tea must be served from a teapot into teacups. As Gorman said, “Choose good crockery. If you’re having an elegant afternoon party, you wouldn’t use a mug.” Hanson advised that the host should always pour the tea for their guests.

When pouring, always go in order of rank, serving the most senior lady to the youngest lady and then doing the same for the gentlemen.

The menu
You begin with sandwiches. “You should have finger sandwiches. Never great big door wedges for sandwiches,” says Hanson. “They should be finger sandwiches, with the crusts cut-off.”

Traditional flavours include cucumber, smoked salmon and an English favourite, cheese and chive. “And you only put a very little bit of butter, whatever the sandwich is. You don’t lather the butter on. Dainty, they really should be dainty.”

Next on the menu, the sweets, featuring a British gem: the scone. Add jam followed by clotted cream, always in that order, to each side of your scone. Never eat your scone like sandwich, always eat the halves separately.

Ready to throw your own tea party? 

View our gallery of tea party recipes here.