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From the time tea was first imported into England, sharing tea with a convivial group was an excuse for good food and conversation among both men and women. Catherine, the wife of Charles II, first had formal tea where the guests had to dress as formally as at a state dinner. As social life dictated a later and later dinner hour, various snacks were informally arranged. Afternoon Tea as a social event was introduced in England by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the year 1840. Anticipating dinner after 8 PM each day, the Duchess asked that a tray of tea, bread and butter, and cake be brought to her room during the late afternoon. As this became a habit, she began inviting friends to join her.
This formal pause quickly developed into a fashionable social event and spread to all parts of England and even to the USA where afternoon dances were called "tea dances". During the 1880's, well-to do society women had wardrobes including long gowns, gloves and hats especially for afternoon tea. Service was highly stylized, with very specific rituals for serving the tea, usually in the drawing room between four and five o'clock. The occasion called for pleasant conversation among the prettiest table settings, providing the hostess an opportunity to show off her best china and linens and to serve her most delicate cookies and cakes.
The tea party was and is rather brief, lasting 1 to 1 1/2 hours, providing just enough time for a delicious snack and plenty of conversation. An afternoon tea theme also may be used for a wedding reception, shower or large afternoon party, as long as the starting time is between 2:00 PM and around 4:30. At a large party, coffee or even punch or iced tea may be added to the menu. Evening teas beginning after dinner are also occasionally scheduled.
At the party, everything is placed on the table, allowing the hostess to visit with her guests for the entire time, instead of running back and forth to the kitchen. Napkins and small plates are stacked but cups are placed on their saucers, not stacked. The party is kept relatively small so that everyone can be seated at a table. No guests serve their own tea, instead the hostess serves everyone, adding sugar and lemon or cream as requested. At larger parties, friends of the hostess are asked to serve. It is still considered an honor to be asked to "pour" or serve tea at someone's tea party.
Today, a proper afternoon tea has at least three courses, all finger foods that may be eaten in one or two bites. It starts with a selection of dainty sandwiches called "finger sandwiches", with thinly sliced bread carefully buttered, featuring fillings such as cream cheese and watercress or nuts, cucumber and butter, chicken or tuna salad, cheddar cheese and tomato, stilton and pear, or egg salad, sometimes called egg mayonaisse on English menus. The crusts are trimmed and each sandwich is cut into about four pieces, such as rectangles, triangles and squares. Light and dark breads may be alternated for decorative effect. The second course includes hot buns, crumpets or fresh scones served with clotted cream, butter, or creme fraiche, lemon curd and jam or preserves. For the third course, tea cakes, petit fours fours, thin, not too sweet cookies are included, and chocolate truffles, individual tarts or slices or bites of cake may be served. A larger cake such as a pound cake is often the star of the table, but typical American-style layer cakes are not common. It is customary to allow 6 finger sandwiches, 1 scone, and 4 small sweets per person.
You can also add non-traditional foods. Appropriate hors d'ouvres include mini quiches, pigs-in-the-blanket or any small, non-drippy bites. Peanut butter and jelly finger sandwiches might be added for young children. You could consider any or all of the following finger foods: whole almonds or other whole nuts, dried fruits, small fresh fruits, or fruit kabobs. You might add asparagus spears wrapped with ham or melon pieces wrapped in proscuitto; cheese plates with chutneys and crackers; skewered grilled shrimp, Thai chicken satay skewers (with peanut sauce); tiny Russian blinis (crepes) and caviar; Greek stuffed filo puffs with cheese or spinach; or some of the newly popular Spanish tapas.
Bite-size is important. Each person needs a small spoon for stirring the tea, and a spreader or butter knife for spreading a scone with clotted cream, but knives and forks for eating interfere with the ease and sociability of the event.
Traditionally, black tea grown in India or Ceylon is freshly brewed and poured from a silver or fine china tea pot into delicate bone china cups with saucers. A second pot of hot water is available to dilute the tea for anyone who likes it weaker. When a second cup is requested, the dregs of the cup, lemon peel, etc. are poured into a bowl at the table and the emptied cup is refilled. Allow at least a pint of tea for each person, this is enough for three ordinary tea cups-full.
To brew hot tea, use a teapot, preheating it by rinsing it out with hot water. This keeps the tea hot during steeping. Use one teaspoonful of tea or one teabag per cup (6 ounces) of water and pour the hot water over the tea. If you like tea less strong, don't use less tea, add hot water after the brewing period.
This is an opportunity to try several teas, such as a black, a scented black, a green and an herbal tea or "tisane". Just have a separate teapot for each one. Good, fresh, loose leaf teas have become widely available.
Use the right temperature water. Black tea uses water freshly boiled. Water for green tea should sit 1 minute to allow temperature to reach 165-180 degrees, and white tea 165 degrees. Brew white or green tea 1-3 minutes, black 3-7, herbal teas 12 to 15 minutes. Don't judge the strength of tea by its color. Allow time for the leaves to unfold and release their flavor. Green tea takes less time than black tea to brew, brewing longer than 3 minutess or with too hot water can make green tea bitter.
Here are some links:
Tea Time- Rogov's Ramblings (link repaired) has information about table settings.
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Click Ellen's Kitchen Updates to request updates, suggest new topics or report a broken link, comment, or question. Put "updates" in the subject line if you are requesting updates. PLEASE send questions separately from update requests.