When I was eight, I would host tea parties with my stuffed animals every weekday after school while watching Arthur.
Although graduating grade three meant I had to outgrow this practice, I fell in love again at fifteen while passing by an afternoon tea house near the mall. I was enthralled by the setting; charming teacups and saucers, dainty stirring spoons, and elaborate three-tiered serving stands. It felt like I’d entered a childhood storybook fantasy. Maybe I hadn’t grown out of it.
Afternoon tea was then reserved for special occasions; like birthdays, farewell lunches and haven’t-seen-you-in-forever lunches. It’s an occasion the pandemic has made unfeasible. The golden-hour cake and pastry photography on my Instagram feed wasn’t satiating my craving in the least, so I did some research to get a grasp on recreating this event at home. Here’s how you can host afternoon tea yourself:
Afternoon tea is an English tradition. It’s not quite a meal, but rather an elevated version of afternoon snacking between 3-5 PM. This originated because Anna Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, felt like the time between lunch and dinner was too long (I feel you!). She asked her servants to bring her tea, sandwiches and pastries to satisfy her hunger (Anna, you actual spirit animal). In 1841, she invited Queen Victoria to join her.
You may envision afternoon tea as a meal reserved for snooty people in luxury hotels and polo matches. But it’s a much more widespread, accessible practice today— and it can be a lot of fun.
Afternoon tea is traditionally eaten on a three-tiered serving stand. I’m personally avoiding the trouble of finding one by serving on three large plates. Each guest has their own teacup, saucer, stirring spoon, plate, fork, knife, and napkin. In addition to that, the table needs a teapot, creamer (to hold milk), and sugar bowl. Some also choose to serve sliced lemon on a small plate to flavour the tea. You can either ask your grandma for these supplies, browse for them online, or come up with alternatives for each item.
The first (bottom) tier of the serving stand features savoury snacks, the most notable of which are finger sandwiches. Yes, those cute tiny sandwiches with the crusts cut off! There are numerous recipes online that can guide you through various sandwich combinations. Here are just a few ideas: turkey and cranberry, egg salad, cucumber, and smoked salmon with cream cheese.
The second (middle) layer consists of small scones with jam and cream. Here, you would break your scone in half, scoop jam and cream onto your plate, and then use your knife to spread the jam and cream onto the inside of the scone.
The third (top) layer consists of cakes and pastries. My favourite course! You’re looking for a variety of sweets here. It’s your chance to bake that new recipe you’ve been eyeing, and/or buy the sweets from your favourite bakery.
There are actually a bunch of rules surrounding afternoon tea (whether to add milk or sugar first, how to stir your tea properly) that can make the event feel complex and daunting. I’m not here to educate you about rules, but I would like to make the disclaimer that this has been a very rudimentary and casual guide to afternoon tea. Always do your own research if you’d like to learn more!
The only rule I would encourage you to remember is to wait for everyone at the table to finish each “course” (savoury, scones, sweets) before moving onto the next one. Just give everyone a fighting chance for each snack. With that in mind, go and enjoy some tea with your loved ones in the comfort of your home.