A guide to afternoon tea
There's more debate about the etiquette of teatime than one might imagine. Should you put milk or sugar in your cup? Purists will tell you no, but some of us swear by a squeeze of lemon in our chamomile. What time should tea be taken? Diehards say the official time is four o'clock in the afternoon, not 3:00 or 1:00 to 4:00. And high tea is not an elegant affair, but more of a pre-dinner, so named because it was served at a high table, the dining table, rather than a low one, like "afternoon tea," which is often served as late as 5:00 p.m.
The history of this midday event is storied and steep (the Chinese have been drinking and serving it for close to 5,000 years; the British started the "tea house" in the 1800s), but the point of a tea, no matter what you call it or when you indulge in it, is the same as any gathering -- to connect with friends and have a good time. And fall's the perfect time to plan one of your own.
Teatime is about dressing everything up and being more detailed and luxurious than you otherwise would be, so set the scene accordingly. Layer the table with a cloth and runner, use doilies or coasters, and when it comes to the centre of attraction, the tea set itself, go all out. The "brown Betty," as the teapot is sometimes called, should go on a tray, along with the creamer and sugar bowl.
For a modern look, try the White Collection from Rosanna. The teapot (US$20), creamer and sugar set (US$20) and a set of four slightly mismatched but feminine and beautiful cups and saucers (US$30) are classic, not dated. Tea 4 One ($12, in pink or white) from Indigo is a good choice for when you want to add a book and some me-time to the teatime agenda. (We all know you don't absolutely need to have guests to have a good time -- you're reason enough to make things special.)
Even if you've invited a crowd of people over, tea is a "small" event, everything in miniature. One theory has it that this hearkens to the days when tea was very expensive; such a luxury was doled out in small quantities. Prices may have stabilized, but keep to tradition and save the thermos-sized latte mugs for your office commute. At teatime, cups and saucers are dainty. Even true teaspoons are smaller than what we're generally used to. The English Tea Store has a sweet boxed set of six silver-plated ones that would also make a good hostess gift for when you're invited to someone else's tea. Dinner plates can stay in the cupboard; for tea, serve food on tiny, delicate dessert plates. And some sort of food is definitely on the agenda.
The edibles you serve alongside your steaming cuppas depend largely on what time your shindig is happening. If it's soon after lunch, a midafternoon affair, stick to simple and sweet offerings. Traditionally, tea is served with scones and clotted cream or jam, but you can add small pastries and teacakes as well.
If you're sitting down later in the day, opt for more savoury fare. Small sandwiches -- not necessarily cucumber with the crusts cut off, but that's a timeless choice -- that can be eaten in one bite are the way to go. Other tasty one-handed choices include smoked salmon and cream cheese, sliced salami with herbed mayo or mustard, or pieces of pear and stilton.
How to brew the perfect pot of tea
You can toss the cup of water and tea bag into the microwave when you're on your own and in a rush, but for a tea, there's a right and a wrong way to do things. Here's the right way:
1 Rinse the teapot in hot water, then let it stand with the water in it.
2 Pour cold water into your kettle and bring it to a boil.
3 If you're using loose tea, measure 1 teaspoon of loose tea for each cup; if you're using bags, get one bag per cup of water.
4 Shortly before the kettle boils, empty the teapot and put the tea in it.
5 Pour the boiling water into the pot.
6 Let the tea steep for between 2 and 5 minutes, then remove the bags or leaves.