Last Saturday on a sunny Spring day I enjoyed a very civilised afternoon taking tea and learning about the history and etiquette of the much loved British tradition of Afternoon Tea. Hosted by afternoon tea expert Miss Sue Flay with William Hanson, etiquette consultant, taking us through the Do’s and Don’t’s, we sipped on tea, nibbled on scones and minded our P’s and Q’s.
I’ve heard lots about Sue & Williams’ workshops – the first afternoon tea workshop last September and the recent ‘Dine Like Downton’ event as part of Eat Cambridge – and the intricacies of etiquette fascinate me.
Etiquette still has its place today, mainly as part of the Royal family, but also in more modern situations where it is part of good manners. Historically it is really interesting to see why you should do certain things, they aren’t just there ‘because’ and William’s knowledge is encyclopaedic.
The afternoon tea was held at the Hotel du Vin, a luxurious hotel with a gorgeous library where we all convened before going through to a dining room to have our high tea – we were told by William that it was a ‘high tea’ because the tea was served at a high dining table rather than a lower coffee table.
First, the food, we were served 3 different kinds of tea – English Breakfast, Chinese Rose Petal and the Royal Blend – 2 parts English Breakfast to 1 part Earl Grey. The latter was my favourite, I like Earl Grey but it can be a little strong, the Royal Blend is very light and refreshing. We nibbled first on finger sandwiches – cucumber, salmon & cream cheese, ham and lastly egg & cress. Our tiers were then brought out, with much oohing, they consisted of tall fruit scones, fluffy vanilla marshmallows, a fortified fruit cake, mini fruit and custard tarts and slightly too fluorescent cupcakes. Of course the scones were also served with luscious clotted cream and the traditional strawberry jam. Everything was delicious, except for those lurid cupcakes!
We were told that tea should be stirred in a 6/12 motion so as to coat the sugar cube (if you are partaking) and help it dissolve and also so you won’t tap the spoon on the edge of the cup too much, causing too much noise. Your teaspoon should then be placed behind the cup, furthest away from you.
We were taught that some people have milk in first, traditionally this was because the lower classes would have clay cups – which would crack if hot tea was poured in first so milk was added to cool the tea before it reached the bottom of the cup. The upper classes would use bone china so therefore hot tea wouldn’t crack their cups.
Napkin etiquette was discussed along with the plethora of sizes required for different meals – smaller for lunches and much larger for a formal dinner. Then onto jam then cream / cream then jam (I’m the latter), how to make conversation at the table (talk to your left hand companion first, then right when the first course is over), pouring tea and how to break into a scone (not with a knife, but breaking it open with your hands – this can only be done with a well risen scone).
William took us through where afternoon tea began, at Woburn Abbey where the lady of the manor craved something in between her meals and so asked her maids to bring her something savoury, something sweet and tea around 3pm to see her through til dinner. You can see Miss Sue Flay talking about this on TV, no less, when she appeared on Escape to the Country.
The whole workshop was extremely interesting and a lot of fun. Etiquette can be seen as stuffy, but with William’s way of approaching the subject with humour it is a lighthearted afternoon with lots of laughs and sharing of anecdotes.
I left feeling like my manners were actually pretty good and I am quite a respectable member of society! But maybe boasting about such things is bad manners too though?
Do keep an eye on Miss Sue Flay’s blog where I’m sure she’ll be announcing more etiquette events for the future. You can find out more about William Hanson and his escapades in trying to make the country, and maybe even the world, a more well mannered place on his website, he also records brilliant videos on his YouTube channel.