Since moving to England at the age of two-years-old, Elle Lau fell in love with the British culture of sipping tea and nibbling on pillow-y scones served on fine bone China with a dish of clotted cream. The founder of Blooms Tea, who shuttles between London and Hong Kong, is known for selling European porcelain and antiques, and bridging the gap between East and West through art and design.
Here, we chat with her to find out more about the finer details of afternoon tea.
What's the difference between afternoon tea and high tea? Afternoon tea is typically served in the mid-afternoon and was traditionally served on low tables. It involves things like manners, lace, and dainty foods. Historically, afternoon tea was considered to be a ladies' social occasion, and is still more often enjoyed by women than men to this day.
Traditionally, high tea was a working-class meal served on a 'high' table at the end of the workday, shortly after 5:00 p.m. High tea is a more substantial meal that includes more hearty, savory foods such as meaty pies, fishes like pickled salmon, baked vegetables and cheesy casseroles.
What does one usually eat during afternoon tea?
An afternoon tea menu is light and focuses on scones, finger sandwiches. Marmalade, lemon curds and jams. A three-tier tea stand is usually used to display the foods from savory upwards to cakes and sweets.
In the earliest years of the tea stand's history, the top tier was reserved for scones, which were kept warm by a silver warming dome.
The middle plate held sweets like petits fours, marzipan and cakes, and the bottom tier was the serving station for simple and crustless sandwiches. Cake stands were also introduced during the late Victorian era to showcase their perfectly-formed Victorian sponge cakes!
Favorite teas include black teas like Earl Grey and Assam, as well as herbal teas like chamomile and mint.
How do I throw the perfect afternoon tea party?
For a good tea set you need to have balanced flavors; juxtapose heavier foods like meat with lighter seafood dishes. Classic afternoon tea finger sandwiches include egg salad, cucumber, smoked salmon and roast beef.
Scones can be either plain, sweet or savory. Sweet fruit scones need to be very subtle to accommodate cream and jam. Ideally, your sweets menu will include a variety of flavors, such as seasonal fruit (or, in the cooler months, preserves), cream, vanilla and/or chocolate.
How would you pair the food with tea?
Black tea has a full and robust flavor, therefore the foods that go best with it should ideally be the same as you don’t want one flavor to dominate the other. Teas such as Ceylon and Darjeeling, which have smooth and citrusy notes, perfectly enhance sweet desserts like cheesecake. Green tea has a subtle vegetative flavor to it, making it the perfect companion to more mild foods like seafood or chicken.
Is there a table etiquette to observe during afternoon tea rituals?
Over the years there seems to have been many quirks of etiquette while drinking tea. Once sitting, your purse must be placed on your lap or behind you, against the back of the chair and out of view. Unfold your napkin and, if you leave to powder your nose, place your napkin on the chair.
There is one designated tea pourer on the table and they will serve each guest throughout the afternoon, serving the highest-ranking person or most senior member first.
Is there a right way to have your cup of tea?
Always tea first, then milk if needed. Stir from 6 o'clock to 12 o'clock back and forth, not in a circular motion. Once you finish stirring, place the tea spoon at the front of the saucer. The spoon should always be placed on the saucer at all times. Eat from the bottom of the tea stand upwards—you can use your fingers. When eating sandwiches, start from the lightest fillings first such as salmon or cheeses, then move onto heavier meats. For the scones, you should pick it up and twist it with your hands to break it into smaller pieces. Think of it like bread in a restaurant—you never cut it with a knife. Applying clotted cream then jam is the Devon way to do it, and applying jam followed by clotted cream is the Cornish way of eating scones. Both are correct.
Tell us something interesting you know about the history of afternoon tea.
Tea was first drank in China during the Han dynasty. During the 1660s Queen Catherine bought tea to England. She loved drinking it in her bedroom parlor.
Afternoon tea was introduced in England by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the year 1840. The Duchess would become hungry around four o’clock in the afternoon. The evening meal in her household was served fashionably late at eight o’clock, thus leaving a long period of time between lunch and dinner. The Duchess asked for a tray of sandwiches, cakes and tea to be brought to her room during the late afternoon. This became a habit of hers and she began inviting friends to join her.
This pause for tea became a fashionable social event. During the 1880s, upper-class and society women would change into long gowns, gloves and hats for their afternoon tea which was usually served in the drawing room between four and five o’clock.
This article was written by Meryl Koh for the MICHELIN Guide Singapore website. View the original article here.