Etiquette Faux Pas

Etiquette Faux Pas
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tea...and Other Misconceptions About Afternoon Tea


After reviewing a copy of Etiquette Faux Pas and Other Misconceptions About Afternoon Tea by Ellen Easton, sources in the British Royal Household confirm the information as correct with the comments: "We would not make any amendments to the text" and "What a good article." - September, 2004

Due to the new popularity of Afternoon Tea many people have jumped on the bandwagon, including hotels, caterers, party planners and protocol & etiquette “experts”. While their enthusiasm is well intended, unfortunately a great deal of misinformation is being perpetuated by these “experts”.

While etiquette and customs do evolve over time, some issues are not negotiable. Just because some customs are practiced does not validate the behavior. Of course the tea police will not be lurking behind your kettles, but if one is going to embrace such a lovely and genteel genre I would like to set the record straight. As a descendant of one of Europe's old line aristocratic families, I feel privileged to be able to share the protocols that have been passed down from century to century with you.

1. Pinkies Up! Originally, all porcelain teacups were made in China, starting around 620 A.D. These small cups had no handles. In order for one not to spill the hot liquid onto oneself, the proper way to hold the vessel was to place ones thumb at the six o'clock position and ones index and middle fingers at the twelve o'clock position, while gently raising ones pinkie up for balance.

In Europe, when the Meissen Porcelain Company, in 1710, introduced the handle to the teacup, the tradition continued. By placing ones fingers to the front and back of the handle with ones pinkie up again allows balance. It is not an affectation, but a graceful way to avoid spills. Never loop your fingers through the handle, nor grasp the vessel bowl with the palm of your hand.

2. Napkins-Placement and Protocol: A truly formal table has only one correct placement for a napkin, to the left side of the place setting. The napkin should be folded with the closed edge to the left and the open edge to the right. There are no exceptions. This rule applies for rectangular, triangular and square shape folds. Note, that less formal affairs may allow a fancy folded napkin to be placed in the center of the place setting.

Contrary to recent “experts” advice, there is never a proper moment for one to place ones napkin on a chair. The proper protocol when excusing oneself from the table, whether during or after a dining experience, is to gently place ones napkin to the left side of your place setting. This rule is not negotiable for the simple reason if ones napkin were soiled it could damage the seat covering, damage that may be either costly to repair or irreplaceable. While the risk for soiling a cloth also exists, the cloth can be laundered with relative ease.

Upon completion of a dining experience, a napkin folded with a crease and placed to the left side of your place setting indicates to your host or hostess that you wish to be invited back.

The expression “to make ends meet” derives from the 1729 French Court. The dress code for men included decorative stiff ruffled collars. When dining, a napkin was tied around the neck to protect their collars, hence the expression.

Twelve inch napkins are used for Afternoon Tea service.

3. How to eat a scone: Again, contrary to recent “experts” advice (now I understand how rumors get started!) it is not only improper to slice a scone, in its entirety, horizontally to be slathered in jam and cream, it is very common behavior. Although some establishments will serve a sliced scone pre-prepared with jam and cream, this is merely a gimmick introduced to save time. It may now be”acceptable” but it will never be correct. A hostess should instruct and insist that the scones, for large functions or buffets, be made smaller into bite size/”standing room” size.

The correct manner in which one eats a scone is the same manner in which one eats a dinner roll. Simply break off a bite size only piece, place it on your plate and then apply, with your bread and butter knife, the jam and cream. A fork is not used to eat a scone. Please, no dipping!

4. Afternoon Tea food placement for a three tier curate stand:

Top Tier= Scones

Middle tier = Savories and Tea sandwiches

Bottom tier=sweets

The protocol of placing the scones on the top tier is due to the fact that during the 1800s when the genre of Afternoon Tea first became popular, and modern kitchen conveniences did not exist, a warming dome was placed over the scones. The dome would only fit on the top tier. The savories and tea sandwiches, followed by the sweets, were placed on the middle and bottom tiers respectively. At the progression of each course, service would be provided to remove each tier.

5. No Smoking. Aside from the health issues, the smoke will be absorbed into the tea and ruin the flavor.

6. Stirring Tea and Spoon Placement: 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. Never wave or hold your tea cup in the air. When not in use, place the tea cup back in the tea saucer. If you are at a buffet tea hold the tea saucer in your lap with your left hand and hold the tea cup in your right hand. When not in use, place the tea cup back in the tea saucer and hold in your lap.

7. Drinking Tea: Do not use your tea to wash down food. Sip,donÂ’t slurp, your tea and swallow before eating.

Milk...before or after? Originally all tea cups in Europe were made from soft paste porcelain. The milk was added first to temper the cups from cracking. Once hard paste porcelain was discovered in Europe, by Bottger, in 1710 , for the Meissen Porcelain factory, it was no longer necessary to temper the cups. Hence, it makes more sense to add milk after the tea has brewed. As we are all aware, the correct brewing of tea cannot be judged by its color, therefore milk after is a wiser choice, but either choice is correct. Note, China did have hard paste porcelain before Europe, however, they did not use milk in their tea, as the blends were white, oolong & green. The reason the West calls porcelain china is because China was the country of origin for hard paste porcelain.

8. Place settings: When in doubt, use the utensils from the outside towards the inside of the place setting.

A petit knife and fork may be used together for use on an open face sandwich, preferably not on a closed sandwich. If savories are properly made, nothing will be dripping or gooey. However, with the fun of non traditional foods now served on Afternoon Tea menus, this is not always the case. A petit knife and fork is proper for use with ones pastries.

Never place used utensils on a cloth or table. When not in use rest the utensil on the right side of the corresponding plate.

Sugar Tongs (3 1/4” to 6 1/2 “ . The longer versions are called sugar cutters or sugar nips): The word tong derives from the European-Indonesian word denk which means “to bite”.

Sugar tongs were first introduced, in Europe, in 1780 to be used with compressed sugar. The compressed sugar was sold in cone shapes resembling the hat of a witch. They were called a hat. This is where the expression” I’ll eat my hat” comes from.

Sugar tongs=always. It is not about "old" -to use tongs verses "young-to use ones fingers." It is about sanitary conditions and respect for those you are serving. It is unhygienic to touch another's food...full stop, plain and simple. What if one had rubbed their nose, run their fingers through their hair, used the facilities and not washed their hands or has a skin condition, need I say more? I wouldn't want this person to be touching my food. Certainly in a public food establishment it would, in fact, be against the law.

When not in use, sugar tongs are placed either beside the sugar bowl or draped over the handle of the sugar bowl.

9. Afternoon Tea or Low Tea vs. High Tea: Please do not refer to your afternoon tea as a high tea. Remember, a high tea is served in the late afternoon or early evening (5 PM to 7 PM) taking the place of dinner. Served at a “high” table with seated place settings. The foods are heartier and consist of salads, one or two hot dishes, pot pies, cold chicken, sliced meats, cakes, fruit tarts, custards and fresh fruits. The tea may be served hot or iced. The addition of any supper dish would be appropriate.

10. Proper Service of Lemon Slice vs. Lemon Wedge: A lemon slice can float in the tea cup. Traditionally, the lemon slice would also contain a clove in the center of the lemon slice. The floating lemon slice continues to enhance the flavor of the tea. If one is serving a wedge of lemon, traditionally the wedge is covered in gauze or tied in a cheesecloth. This is to avoid the seeds and juice from squirting when squeezed. If one does not have a lemon press or squeezer, it is proper to use your fingers to gently squeeze the juice of the wedge into your tea cup and then place the used wedge on either the side of you tea saucer or any service plate provided on the table.

11.Health Benefits-Green vs. Oolong vs. Black Tea: All tea blends are created from the Camellia sinensis plant. The only difference is in the fermenting process, which cause the enzyme changes. While fermented is the customary term used, it is actually oxidation, not fermentation that is occurring.

Green = unfermented; Oolong = partially fermented ; Black = fully fermented.

You will benefit from the health properties regardless of the fermentation process. It is the interaction of the natural flavonoids, fluorides and polyphenols, rich in antioxidants, that determine the free radicals defusing in ones cells. This process stimulates the immune system and inhibits the spread of disease.

Drinking only two cups of tea per day reduces the rate of heart disease & blood pressure, inhibits both bone loss and the production of platelets leading to blood clots and the growth of tumors. The natural fluorides help to prevent tooth decay. Best of all, tea drinking helps to stimulate the decrease in excess body fat!

Rules, rules and more rules...the best etiquette of all is to relax and have a good time without noticing the Faux Pas of others!


More of Ellen's Articles:

Planning a Tea Menu

FAQ About Afternoon Tea

A Spring Tea Menu

Tea and Silver

Tea at the Holidays

Understanding Tea Time Service

The Afternoon Tea Gown

The History of Chocolate

A Summer Rose Tea

Etiquette Faux Pas


Image: courtesy of Old Fashioned Living


About The Author

Ellen Easton, author of TEA TRAVELS(TM), TEA PARTIES and Good $ense For $uccess(TM) published by RED WAGON PRESS, 45 East 89th Street, Suite 20A, NYC, NY 10128-1256: (212) 722-7981, is a consultant and designer of related products, to the hotel, food service, special event and retail industries. She is also available for speaking engagements. Please contact her for more information.

Ellen Easton, the author, does not endorse any outside advertisements that may appear on this site.

No copyrighted materials may be reproduced in any other format, now known or unknown, without prior written permission by Ellen Easton/ RED WAGON PRESS. All copyrights and trademarks remain the sole property of Ellen Easton/ RED WAGON PRESS with all rights reserved. (212) 722-7981


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