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How to have an English afternoon tea party

Here’s how to host your own English afternoon tea party, complete with a selection of delicious tea party food.

A tea cup filled with tea during an English afternoon tea party

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My first experience with what I am going to call high tea (more on that in a minute) was at a local café. They started a regular high tea service which quickly became a fave of mine and was used to mark many occasions such a birthdays, work resignations and upcoming nuptials.

With a former teaching colleague, I even developed the Lady Campion School of Etiquette which involved taking a group of 13 and 14 year olds, spending a day teaching them the ways of ladies, and then celebrating with high tea. It was a delightful experience and one for the highlight reel.

My love of high tea extended into the home with a collection of assorted fine china tea cups, saucer and plate sets.

Despite all this, I never took the obvious next step, which was to host my own high tea.

And this is a shame, because high tea is perfect for so many occasions.

Or is it?

What is an English afternoon tea? Isn’t that a high tea?

A tea set including a stack of goodies and snacks during an English afternoon tea party

Imagine when I started researching for this article, only to discover that what I had thought was high tea was in fact not.

Those leisurely indulgences of scones, crustless sandwiches and the like, served on a three tiered tea stand, accompanied by pots of hot tea were NOT it seemed, high tea. They were examples of English afternoon tea (I blame that café although they are certainly not alone).

For although the terms “English afternoon tea” and “high tea” are often used interchangeably, they refer to two different types of tea service with distinct origins and traditions.

English afternoon tea, also known as “low tea,” is a light meal typically served in the late afternoon or early evening.

It originated in the 19th century among the English upper classes as a way to stave off hunger between lunch and dinner. English afternoon tea typically included a selection of finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam, and a variety of pastries and cakes. It was usually served with a pot of hot tea.

And just to blow your mind a little, this is traditionally called low tea. I know. It’s like the opposite of high tea. Why? you ask – because it was traditionally served at a low tea table.

High tea, on the other hand, originated among the working classes in the 19th century as a more substantial evening meal. It was typically served when work finished around 5 pm and included heartier dishes such as meat pies and fish. High tea is so named because it was traditionally served at a high dining table! The mystery revealed.

So to go back to my earlier point, it’s not so much that high tea is perfect for many occasions but that English afternoon tea is.

What occasions work well for an English afternoon tea party?

A girl posing for the camera while drinking tea

An English afternoon tea party was traditionally for ladies and therefore it makes the perfect way to celebrate a slightly formal, female-centered occasion. I think of it as being a very feminine vibe. This lends itself well to

  • bridal showers
  • baby showers
  • significant birthdays (my lovely sister in law had a high tea for her 50th)
  • mother-daughter dates

Organizing an afternoon tea: essential equipment

A pretty tea set in pink and white: organizing an afternoon tea

Some key items are needed to effectively host and English afternoon tea party. These include:

  1. Teapot: A teapot is essential for serving tea to your guests. Choose a teapot that is sized to hold a good amount of tea for all your guests OR have several teapots for various flavors of tea. I also find it lovely when each guest has their own teapot although this will of course depend on how many people you are catering for
  2. Teacups, saucers and plates: You will need a matching set of teacups, saucers, and plates for each guest (though all the sets don’t need to match with each other – in fact it looks more charming when they don’t). We used to call this a trio though I have no idea if it is its official name. Go for vintage if at all possible
  3. Cream and sugar set: Again, vintage is best here
  4. Teaspoons: You will need teaspoons for stirring sugar and cream into the tea
  5. Tiered cake stand: A three tiered cake stand is an absolute must. If you can’t source a vintage one, this is a very pretty alternative
  6. Clotted cream and jam dishes: Small dishes for clotted cream and jam can be placed on the tier with the scones
  7. Napkins: Plain white cloth napkins are essential for delicately dabbing one’s mouth between courses and of course ensuring nothing falls into one’s lap. These napkins have a ladylike aesthetic. You can have a lot of fun learning how to fold these as well – this was another lesson from the Lady Campion School of Etiquette!
  8. Tablecloth and decorations: A plain white tablecloth and some simple floral decorations help add to the formality of the occasion
Royal Albert three-tier cake stand

This three tier cake stand features designs from three different decades - 1960 (Golden Rose), 1980 (Rose Blush) and 1990 (Bouquet)

Cloth dinner napkins with lace

This set contains 12 oversized napkins, made of 12% linen and 88% pure cotton, are hemmed with decorative lace and measure 20 inches x 20 inches.

03/06/2024 06:18 am GMT

What kind of food is served at an English afternoon tea party?

An afternoon tea served with scones and sandwiches

Traditionally your English afternoon tea party will include:

  • crustless sandwiches
  • bite sized savories such as mini quiches
  • scones
  • sweet treats such as tarts and slices of cake

Here’s a selection of tea party food recipes that covers all of the above.

Tea party food ideas

Savory English afternoon tea ideas

Just because its savory doesn't mean we're going for large, hulking servings - it's still super important to keep food bite sized.

For this reason, finger sandwiches are the most common savory aspect of our English afternoon tea.

Afternoon tea scones

Scones are another must-have for your English afternoon tea.

While traditional is best (think plain scone with jam or lemon curd and clotted cream), you can mix it up a little with some fruity scone recipes.

Petits fours

The final "course" of your English afternoon tea are these sweet treats.

Perfect teas for an afternoon tea party

It wouldn’t be much of a tea party without the tea would it?

Try to cater to different tastes when making your tea choice. Think about traditional black teas, fruit teas and caffeine free teas.

Recommended teas include:

  • Earl Grey: A well-known black tea infused with bergamot oil, giving it a unique citrus flavor and aroma.
  • Fruit teas. Citrus flavors such as blood orange are very popular.
  • Rooibus teas. These caffeine-free teas that originated in South Africa are my new fave. You CAN add milk to rooibus teas though I recommend you experiment with and without – I find the flavors more intense without it.

Peppermint tea is also a nice accompaniment to your tea party food unless you are like me and come out in hives when you drink it.

How to serve afternoon tea

A tea party outdoors: how to serve afternoon tea

This is also where the beauty of the English afternoon tea party shines through – everything comes out at the same time. Once you have set up, you can sit back and relax.

Serve your afternoon tea by first setting the table. Put down your white linen tablecloths and your teacup, saucer and plate sets.

Arrange your food on to the tiered stand. The savories and sandwiches should go on the bottom tier, the scones on the middle tier and the sweet treats on the top tier. The recommended minimum quantity of food per guest is four tea sandwiches, one scone and two sweets.

It’s ideal if the scones are still warm from the oven.

Place the stand in the center of the table.

Brew your tea at the required temperature.

How do you eat afternoon tea?

An afternoon tea party with tea set and food on the table: how do you eat afternoon tea

When it comes to afternoon tea, it’s a case of bottoms up!

Start with the bottom tier with your sandwiches and savories.

Then move up to the scones.

Finish with your sweet treats.

And remember, everything is bite sized for a reason – this is finger food so no cutlery is required to eat it.

Summing up

There’s nothing quite as quintessentially English as a proper afternoon tea. Whether you’re wanting to celebrate a special occasion or simply searching for a mother-daughter date, an English afternoon tea is a delightful way to indulge in some classic tea party food and enjoy quality time with loved ones.

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