The Art of the Tea Party

Most American’s lives are rushing by too quickly to stop and take formal tea breaks. But I think we could really learn something from the English, who originally perfected the art of high tea. I’m not referring to their dinner or supper, which is often called “tea.” I’m talking about the elaborate practice of high tea, which takes place at 4 pm and usually involves unique sandwiches, rich bite-sized desserts and, of course, pots of tea. Supposedly the practice of high tea began with England’s Duchess of Bedford, who got into the habit of having tea and treats in her sitting room at 4 o’clock each day. After a while, she started inviting her friends and a tradition was established.

Nowadays, high teas usually take place in actual tea rooms or high-end hotels and on cruises, where extravagance is the norm. But there’s no reason to restrict the practice to those locations, because it can just as easily be practiced at home. Why would anyone want to go to all that trouble, you say? There are several reasons. First and most important, most of us deserve far more leisure, relaxation and pampering than we usually get. Since life travels at the speed of sound for most people, having a reason to stop and relax at a scheduled time is a wonderful way to pamper yourself. The second reason is related to the first, in that stopping to relax can have great health benefits. Stress is the source of a huge number of health problems in our industrialized society, so ritualized relaxation and pampering can only be a good thing. Think of the tradition of taking siestas in the afternoon in Latin America and you’ll get the idea.

For those who don’t have a clue how to host a high tea, here’s what you’ll need:

  • Naturally, you should have a beautiful tea pot (or more than one, depending on how many people you’ll be inviting).
  • You should also have a tea cup, saucer and tea plate (equivalent in size to a salad plate) for each guest, plus a few spares. These can either match the tea pot or form an interesting eclectic mix. If you don’t have what you need already, charity thrift or consignment stores are wonderful places to find a wide variety of options.
  • If possible, use actual silver pastry or dessert forks. It’s not mandatory but it does provide a lovely sense of occasion.
  • If you’ll be inviting people other than your inner circle, you’ll need tea party invitations. These can be of any style that suits you, but try to key the design to the type of people you’ll be inviting. The more formal or important your guests, the more formal the invitation should be.
  • Provide a variety of finger (translation: small) sandwiches on platters. To make finger sandwiches, any type of sandwich can be cut into quarters diagonally. You can use just about any type, but cucumber sandwiches are traditional. Personally, I would stay away from peanut butter and jelly, because that just isn’t the right tone for high tea.
  • Bite-sized desserts should be served alongside the sandwiches. (No one will be worried about finishing their meal before eating treats, because high tea doesn’t qualify as a meal.) You can purchase or make petit fours, which are about one-inch square multi-layered cakes of any type and with any kind of frosting. They are often pastel-colored, though, with delicate icing decorations. Small fancy cookies also qualify.

Even though the tradition of high tea is rather formal, your version of it doesn’t have to be. After all, we’re trying to use the occasion to relax. So casual clothing is acceptable. Also, although it seems in contrast to normal etiquette, it’s quite common to eat high tea treats with your fingers.  If a piece of dry cake is too large to eat in one bite, it’s perfectly acceptable to break it into smaller pieces with your hands. Any larger, softer cakes should be cut apart and eaten with a dessert or pastry fork.

As you can see, hosting high tea isn’t that hard; it’s more of a mindset. You’ll probably find that if you get into the habit of treating yourself at least once a week to a high tea, you’ll become addicted!