Tea drinking is synonymous with tradition and culture in many nations, like the UK, Japan and China. Yet, for the uninitiated, it can be tricky to navigate the etiquette surrounding tea drinking practices and ceremonies with confidence and finesse.
With that in mind, we take a closer look at the etiquette that surrounds the historical habit of afternoon tea in the UK, and how to navigate the rules dictated by tradition, as well as how tea drinking etiquette compares and contrasts with some other big tea-drinking nations.
Afternoon tea etiquette
In the UK, a traditional afternoon tea should be served mid-afternoon, between 3:30pm and 5pm. Afternoon tea differs to 'high tea', which is traditionally a heartier meal served between 5pm and 7pm.
What to serve with tea
Preferably, you should serve loose-leaf teas like Earl Grey and English breakfast tea, freshly brewed in a teapot, with a tea strainer, fresh milk served in a small jug, sugar in a bowl and a plate for lemon slices.
Afternoon tea should be served with both savoury and sweet bite-size snacks, including sandwiches, scones, pastries and cakes — served in that order.
Finger sandwiches could include various fillings like egg and cress, or cucumber, smoked salmon, and cream cheese. Scones, crumpets and buns offer a suitable middle course, before cakes like mini victoria sponges, lemon drizzle cake and butterfly cake.
Tea at The Ritz
How to set a table
A traditional afternoon tea place setting includes a small cake plate at each setting, with a cup and saucer to the top right of the plate. Napkins should be folded to the left of the plate and the cutlery – a cake fork, tea knife (bread and butter size) and teaspoon - should be lined up on the right with the blade of the knife facing inwards to the plate, and the tines of the fork facing upwards.
How to drink tea
The host or hostess can share the job of pouring the tea with close friends, but he or she should always pour the first cup. The saucer should be raised with the left hand, while the teacup should be held with the right hand. All fingers should be aligned when holding the cup - don't be tempted to raise your pinky finger.
The tea cup should be raised, leaving the saucer on the table, and placed back on the saucer between sips. It's considered rude to look anywhere but into the cup whilst sipping tea, and absolutely no slurping.
What to wear
During the 1880s, tea became a fashionable social event and society ladies would change into long gowns, gloves and hats for the occasion. While fashionable period costume dramas glamourise the pomp and ceremony that surrounds the ritual of the occasion, there are no hard and fast rules of what you need to wear for the experience - except for afternoon tea at the The Ritz in London, which requires gentlemen to wear a jacket and tie (jeans and sportswear are not permitted for either ladies or gentlemen).
Chinese tea etiquette
Tea culture in China dates back thousands of years and differs in preparation, taste and ceremony to any other tea drinking nation.
Chinese tea ceremony, 'cha dao' in Chinese, is not simply the drinking of tea, it is the combination of brewing, smelling, drinking, and the appreciation of tea.
The traditional Chinese tea ceremony is usually held in formal occasions to welcome guests.
Japanese tea ceremony
Tea ceremonies are also an ancient ritual in Japan. Although the tea plant was used as a medicinal plant initially, it later became a cult ingredient. In China, the tea ceremony is not just about enjoying a cup of hot tea, it is more a moment of meditation and introspection directly related to Zen discipline.
In fact, it's traditional that the Japanese tea ritual takes place in a special room called a 'cha shitsu' (tea house), a small, simply furnished and harmonious room. This simple intimacy, together with silence and very soft lighting, create an enchanting atmosphere. First of all, guests at the ceremony are served a light meal (kaiseki), usually of small cakes. Then the teishu, the master of ceremonies, prepares the tea which can be koicha (thick tea) or usucha (light tea) following precise and ritual movements. The first cup will be served to the most important guest. After having tasted the tea with small sips, he will dry the cup with a napkin, hand it to the master who will wash it and recommence the ritual with all the other guests. So the Japanese tea ceremony has rules, not only for the master, but also for the guests who have to perform pre-established movements to respect the ritual to the letter.
When everyone has finished their tea, they will be able to examine the instruments used by the master, admiring their beauty and history. Then they will leave the room.
The tea that is usually consumed is matcha tea, characterised by a jade green color, which is prepared not by infusion, but by suspension. The koicha ceremony can take a long time, which is why it is generally reserved for special occasions.
Oana Coantă, chef and co-owner of Bistro de l'Arte in Brașov, Romania, has dedicated over two centuries to honouring local traditions and ingredients. Find out how, plus what she wants to see from S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy finalists competing in the South East Europe and Mediterranean region, where she will judge.