Nothing is quite as well-matched and symbolic of Britain during the 1800s than the tradition of high tea. Around the hour of 4 p.m., upper and middle class citizens would gather around the dining table with tea, crumpets, and a wide variety of delicious snacks to socialize, eat, drink, and relax. Today, people all over the world carry out this tradition on a more casual basis, but grabbing a quick cuppa just isn't the same as enjoying a classy British high tea. Celebrate your passion for Victorian teatimes and step things up a notch with these three traditional high tea party tips.
Get the Right Set and Setting
High tea is no time for automatic coffeemakers or teabags in cups--that's simply not how one does things! Setting the table is important if you truly want to go with tradition. Start by laying out a white linen tablecloth, and select one full tea service. Give yourself brownie points if your tea service is made from bone china with hand-painted flowers--this was an extremely common style in Victorian Britain.
Before you start, fill the milk, sugar and cream dishes and place them on your tea service tray. Then, arrange a place setting for each guest. Place the tray at either end of the table.
Make Finger Foods
For as graceful and as refined as high society British ladies were, they still loved finger food. Little bite-sized sandwiches and cakes were easy to eat, even when laced into a corset and eating with your hands. During a traditional high tea, fine ladies and gentlemen indulged in three individual "courses." Each was placed on its own tier of a three-tiered tray--savory on the bottom, scones in the middle, and sweets on top.
Cucumber sandwiches are easy and quick to make, and provide an excellent base--butter several slices of white bread, layer with slices of cucumber, add salt and pepper, and then close the sandwich. Cut off the crusts and then slice the sandwiches into finger-sized lengths. Place these on the lowest tier of your tray.
For the second layer, purchase fresh scones at your local bakery. Slice these in half and add a generous dollop of jam and cream to the cut side. For added visual interest, choose a variety of jam colors and flavors.
The third layer serves to hold sweets, and this is where things get a bit interesting. Petis fours, miniature cakes, and tiny pastries were the mainstay of this tier during traditional high tea. Layer these in a visually pleasing arrangement, adding edible flowers as garnish.
Brew a Proper Pot of Tea
This is quite possibly the most important tip for anyone undertaking their own high tea. There's no tea bags allowed here--use a high-quality loose black afternoon tea. In the kitchen, fill an electric kettle with water and bring it just to a boil. Then, turn off the electric kettle. Measure out one teaspoon of loose tea for every eight ounces of water you plan to add to your serving kettle, and place them within it. Then, pour the water from the electric kettle into the serving kettle.
Cap the pot and allow it to steep for five minutes. Serve immediately.
Hosting the perfect high tea isn't difficult, but it does require a bit of research into British traditions. Selecting the right blend of leaves for your guests is one of the most important steps you can take--after all, the tea truly is the focus! If you aren't sure what to serve at your next party, contact your local tea shoppe for advice on blends.
If you want to experience high tea for yourself, some cafés offer a somewhat traditional experience, such as Clumzy Clover Teas & Treasures. It may help you find ideas for your party, and the staff might be able to give suggestions on what's best to serve.