Is there anything more refined than a classic British afternoon tea? Picture yourself seated on a veranda overlooking a garden, a charming arrangement of fruit, tiny cakes, finger sandwiches, and other delicacies before you. Steam curls from the spout of a floral china teapot, perfuming the air with its delicate scent.
High Tea vs. Afternoon Tea
It’s a common misconception that the proper, formal tea is actually “high tea.” However, that meal is more like a substantial lunch or early supper. High tea would typically include potatoes, baked beans, and meat pies–all the good, hearty food the working class folks might need after a long day on the job.
There are also variations of the afternoon tea: A cream tea, which features only scones and clotted cream for nibbles; a light tea that adds things like fairy cakes, petit fours, or fruit; and finally a full tea that adds savory treats and finger sandwiches to the mix.
Half the enjoyment of a British afternoon tea is the refined presentation. Use a tablecloth and cloth napkins, if you can. A teapot is a must, obviously, along with a cup and saucer for each guest. The showpiece of the tea is a tower of treats. If you can find a three-tier serving dish, that’s ideal. Otherwise, just use pretty serving pieces and cake stands. Finally, arrange some fresh flowers and candles on the table.
Choosing the Tea
The foundation of your afternoon tea is, naturally, the blend in your teapot. Most afternoon teas feature a black tea such as Earl Gray. However, you can get as creative as you like–just as long as the tea is piping hot. You can provide teabags for each guest, but to really do things right, you should infuse the tea in the pot with a loose-leaf blend.
Lay out a sugar bowl, a pot of cream, and some lemon slices so that your guests can create a perfect cuppa.
Scones and Jam
A traditional English scone is a bit like a biscuit, but denser. You’ll be surprised at how easy it is to whip up scones at home, but if you don’t want to bake from scratch, buttermilk biscuits will do. Serve them with butter, strawberry jam, orange marmalade, and clotted cream.
The traditional savory treats for an afternoon tea are finger sandwiches. These are small rectangles or triangles of very thinly sliced bread (about half the thickness of regular loaf bread) with some kind of savory filling.
Cucumber sandwiches, made with thin slices of cucumber and rich salted butter, are common. Ham and hot mustard is another British favorite. Egg salad or tuna salad also works.
Cakes, Glorious Cakes!
The sweet course in an English afternoon tea is the place to get creative. Battenberg is a traditional cake covered in marzipan that looks picture-perfect. Iced petit fours are also traditional. Mini-cupcakes topped with strawberries and vanilla frosting would also be a good choice.
The idea is to have a few different options for sweets, each of them no more than a bite or two. This is not the time to present a huge slab of cake or a giant cupcake. When in doubt, macarons are both trendy and Pinterest-worthy!