Tea, and how to serve it in the UK

My "expertise" in Tea Time was gained during two years in boarding school and one year in graduate school in North Wales, UK, and from my father who was originally from a small village near Blackpool, England.  Tea time was always at 4:00.  If we were dining at 5:00 it was always called "supper".  We had tea brewed in a fancy teapot which sat under a tea cozy.  If you are not familiar with the tea cozy, it is a quilted cover that fits snugly over the tea pot to keep the tea warm.

We usually had a black tea, like Darjeeling.  I also like Irish Breakfast Tea, and English Breakfast Tea.  Orange Pekoe or any other common tea would be fine.   We always used loose tea (not tea bags - my father thought tea bags were an insult to the formality of tea time).  My father was also very insistent that the tea be made properly.  The proper way to make tea is to boil water in a kettle, take the tea pot to the stove (not the kettle to the tea pot) and pour a small amount of boiling water into the pot. Swirl the water around in the tea pot to "warm the pot" and pour that water down the drain.  Put the tea in the teapot. Measure 1 teaspoon of tea for each cup of tea, plus one for the pot.  The loose tea can be put in the bottom of the pot or it can go into a tea ball, a metal ball with tiny holes in it and a hook to hang it on the side of the pot.  Then fill the tea pot with boiling water.  Let it brew under the tea cozy until the tea is a rich dark color.  If you stir the loose tea, let it sit long enough so that most of the leaves settle to the bottom before you pour. If you use a tea ball, the tea leaves will not come out of the pot.  If the tea is loose in the bottom, you can pour it through a small tea strainer held over each cup of tea to catch the leaves.  Alternatively, you can just let the leaves go into each cup.  You can tell your fortune by the tea leaves that float and just avoid drinking the leaves that sink to the bottom of the cup.

To serve the tea:  First put a small amount of milk or cream (my father liked half and half best, but I like milk) in the cup.  The milk should always go in the cup before the tea.  Then delicately hold one finger on the teapot lid to insure that it does not fall off, and pour the tea into the cup.  Ask the person how much sugar they want and add it.  Carefully hand the cup to the person - don't pass it through other hands - there is too great of a chance that the tea will spill into the saucer.  Of course, we used nice delicate cups in saucers, not mugs!  If the tea does spill into the saucer, it is not polite to pour it back into the cup.  Wipe it with a napkin.

We ate cucumber sandwiches made with thin sliced bread.  Cucumber sandwiches are wonderfully light and tasty. Alternatively, we might have had egg salad sandwiches or some other spread, but never peanut butter. We also had thin sliced bread (not toast) and butter with an assortment of jams and preserves (not jelly), honey, marmalade or marmite to choose from.  There would always be strawberry preserves and orange marmalade.

There would also be an assortment of sweets to choose from - maybe 5 or 6 kinds.  Each serving of a sweet was served on a small plate with a paper lace doily.  The sweets were all displayed on a tea cart (two shelves on wheels) so that each person could choose which sweet she wanted without having to get out of her chair.  I have lots of recipes for sweets, but we usually had plain white cake with white butter cream icing, lemon tarts, banana nut bread (sliced very thin), scones, maids of honor (small tarts with almonds).

Contributed by:
Beth Langton
Junior Girl Scouts Troop Leader, Kennebec Girl Scout Council, Maine, USA

The description above is a very traditional way of serving tea in the UK. However, it is also a tradition that has, in the main, been lost. In today's busy world, few Brits actually have time for afternoon tea!

Tea cozies and tea pots are very typical symbols of British culture. I remember my Grandmother knitting her own tea cozies. Today they are readily available in the shops. Both tea cozies and tea pots are also available in various novelty designs - tea pots in particular are often collector's items.

My Mum has also still got her tea cart, although it tends to be more of a collection point for my nephew's toys these days!

Contributed by:
Liz Watts
Junior and Cadette/Senior Leader, Tres Condados Girl Scout Council, California, USA
Ex-Guider and Adviser, North Yorkshire West, England, UK

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This page last updated December 17th, 1999