Afternoon Tea- History, Etiquette and Health Benefits

Posted April 30th, 2011 in Healthy Eating, Healthy Tips, Posts, Serving with Style

Afternoon tea is a lovely way to entertain friends or family, celebrate a birthday, or just relax.  I think this Japanese Proverb says it best: “Strange how a teapot can represent at the same time the comforts of solitude and the pleasures of company.”

One of the reasons I love afternoon tea is that I am enthralled with all things vintage.  I live in a vintage house furnished over the years, with items collected from antique auctions, garage sales and craigslist. I also have been blessed with a great assortment of china, linens, silver and cut glass from all the wonderful women in my ancestry. I have a china lunch set from my Aunt Mary Margaret and a set of Haviland China tea cups from HER Aunt Loretta both of Mississippi. My grandmother Alice had a lovely collection of cut glass which was divided amongst the granddaughters and I was lucky enough to get the cream and sugar set. When I use it I feel connected to a very genteel past.  I have my mother’s silver which I lovingly hand wash and dry just like she taught me and linen napkins and tablecloths hand made by my Yia Yia brought from Greece as part of her trousseau.

When my daughters were little we had afternoon tea parties occasionally (not with the family china though!)  Once they had a joint birthday party where all the little girls dressed up and the one boy that was always included came in a suit and served as the rent-a-date for all the girls. That photo of Justin and EVERYONE still hangs in my hallway, a cherished memory of kids that I love that are all grown up into fantastic adults.

So I decided to host a tea last weekend in honor of all the women I love and all the women and girls they love.  This is the first in a three part series all about tea and the traditions surrounding it.  Mother’s day is coming up next weekend and this week I will be sharing all my tips from the tea itself, to the serving pieces and invitations to the finale-THE FOOD!

Afternoon tea also known as low tea, is a light meal typically eaten between 3pm and 5pm. The custom of drinking tea originated in England when Catherine of Braganca   married Charles II in 1661 and brought the practice of drinking tea in the afternoon with her from Portugal Various places that belonged to the former British Empire also have such a meal.

Traditionally, loose tea is brewed in a  teapot and served in teacups with milk and sugar. This is accompanied by  sandwiches, scones, cakes and pastry. In hotels and tea shops the food is often served on a tiered stand.

I had my first  Afternoon Tea in the Empress Hotel in Victoria BC with my mom when I was 10.  I carried on the tradition by taking my daughters there when they were about 7 and 9. We went to Victoria on the ferry as part of a trip to visit my cousin Lee in Seattle.  Because Lee and I like to pack a lot into a trip we changed into our “tea clothes” in the bathroom at the hotel, VERY CLASSY! The experience was magical complete with chamber music.

Afternoon tea may have been started by the French. According to the monthly newsletter called Tea Muse in the writings of Madame de Sévigné (1626 to 1696), one of history’s greatest letter writers on life in 17th Century France:

It’s a little known fact, but after its introduction to Europe in the 17th century tea was tremendously popular in France. It first arrived in Paris in 1636 (22 years before it appeared in England!) and quickly became popular among the aristocracy.

But although the Europeans and the British may have made the practice of afternoon tea into an art form, the custom of drinking tea, first for medicinal, and then for purely pleasurable reasons, was already widespread throughout China. In the early 9th century, Chinese author Lu Yu wrote the Ch’a Ching, a treatise on tea focussing on its cultivation and preparation. Lu Yu’s life had been heavily influenced by Buddhism, particularly the school which would become known in Japan as Zen, and his ideas would have a strong influence in the development of the Japanese tea ceremony.

Cultures all over the world celebrate the custom of drinking tea. It has a calming (despite the caffeine) effect.  Most spas and yoga studios offer tea to encourage guests to slow down and sip.

Tea Etiquette

In order for one not to spill the hot liquid onto oneself, the proper way to hold the vessel of a cup with no handle is to place one’s thumb at the six o’clock position and one’s index and middle fingers at the twelve o’clock position, while gently raising one’s pinkie up for balance.

Do not stir your tea, with your tea spoon, in sweeping circular motions. Place your tea spoon at the six o’clock position and softly fold the liquid towards the twelve o’clock position two or three times. Never leave your tea spoon in your tea cup. When not in use, place your tea spoon on the right side of the tea saucer. Milk is served with tea, not cream. Cream is too heavy and masks the taste of the tea. When serving lemon with tea, lemon slices are preferable, not wedges. Be sure never to add lemon with milk since the lemon’s citric acid will cause the proteins in the milk to curdle.

WOW there are a lot of rules!! My favorite combination is Red Rooibos Chai tea with some almond milk and honey.  This is a lovely nighttime beverage as it has no caffeine.

HOW TO MAKE PERFECT AFTERNOON TEA

  1. Start with fresh, cold water. Better water quality makes better tasting tea.
  2. Bring water to a rolling boil for black and herbal tea (or a near boil for white and green teas) and immediately pour over your tea bag.
  3. Place a tea bag in your favorite cup or mug.
  4. Steep for 2-4 minutes (let chai teas steep for 4-6 minutes).
  5. Remove the tea bag, relax and enjoy.

Loose Leaf Brewing

  1. Place the loose tea in an infuser
  2. Place the infuser in your teapot
  3. Add water as above
  4. Steep for 4-6 minutes.

I used some lovely green tea with apricot I bought in a famous tea shop in Vancouver BC called  Murchie’s. It smells wonderful.

Here  is a great chart to help you brew tea perfectly every time.

Tea Water
Temperature
Brewing
Time
Black Tea 190°F to 200°F 3 to 4 minutes
Green Tea 150°F to 170°F 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 minutes
Oolong Tea 180°F to 200°F 5 to 6 minutes
Red Tea 190°F to 210°F 3 to 4 minutes
White Tea 170°F 5 to 7 minutes
Herbal Tea 180°F to 200°F 5 to 15 minutes

Health Benefits

Many studies have been done or are currently being done on the health benefits of tea.  The leaves are loaded with flavonoids and other polyphenols that work as antioxidants, possibly lowering the risk of some diseases. Some associations have been found that indicate some cancer prevention properties, memory assistance, bone and joint health and perhaps cardiovascular benefit.

Adapted from various Wikipedia entries

I’m a Little Teapot

(This reminds me of Kaitlin, she probably is teaching this to her students right now.)

I’m a little teapot short and stout
Here is my handle
Here is my spout

When I get all steamed up
Here I shout:
Just tip me over and pour me out!

This post is one in a series of three posts about afternoon tea. Stay tuned for upcoming posts later this week.

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2 Comments

  1. Dear Erin,
    It is such a joy visiting your blog for the first time. I am a friend of your parents and I am the lady who translated your Greek grandmother’s diary some years back. I am happy to see that you are as beautiful as I imagine your grandmother to have been. I love your section on English afternoon tea party. I am fanatic about tea parties. Thanks for all the good work.
    Barbara Spyrou

    • Dear Barbara, Thank you so much for your kind words. My daughters and I cherish our copy of my grandmother’s story and are grateful to you for making it possible. I often feel like I am “channeling” my grandmother when I cook and bake especially when I get to use her giant rolling pin! Erin aka The Queen

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