Not Everyone’s Cup of Tea

Is it scone as in stone or scone as in gone?
Jam then cream, or cream then jam?
Do you put your milk in first or last?

The Duchess of Cambridge, seen here looking so elegant sipping her Tea, made me wonder about the old fashioned etiquette of tea drinking. What are the modern customs and etiquette around Tea? What better place to start my search than a visit to the quintessential UK Tea company of Twinings, where I learnt more about the right ways of having Afternoon tea than anticipated.

Afternoon tea can be a special occasion or a regular simple event enjoyed from the grandest tearooms and hotels to a more relaxed garden setting and in all manner of diversely different venues across the globe. Whether elaborate or simple, afternoon tea will most likely include hot tea served with milk or lemon and scones, jam and cream. They are traditionally known as either; Devonshire tea, Cornish tea, cream tea or Royal tea. A Royal Tea is an afternoon tea served with Champagne and is a more lavish tea that includes savoury finger sandwiches and cakes with scones, jam, and cream.

The Tea Table is set with a teapot, a milk jug, an extra teapot of hot water, a tea strainer, a sugar bowl, individual plates, serviettes, knives, cake forks and teaspoons. Depending on the venue, afternoon tea remains today, a time of etiquette, a time to dress up and be on our best behaviour, although far more relaxed than our forbears. But no need anymore, the experts say, to raise a pinkie finger when sipping Tea.

In the Roman era, the origins of a raised pinkie began, where cultured society would eat with just three fingers and commoners with their whole hand. Also, the teacups from China in the early days of Tea had no handles, so that one would drink Tea with fingers spread around the cup with the pinkie finger raised for balance. Many more customs are considered good manners when we think about attending or hosting an Afternoon Tea.

“Afternoon tea needn’t stand on ceremony. Anything that becomes more important than sweet fellowship, whether lace or linen or the china itself, is pretense. How much more we enjoy life when the pretenses are discarded!” 

Paul Kortepeter


It is custom for the Tea party host to pour the tea into each cup around the table. Of course, no need to line the cups up. The teapot should stay on the table with the spout facing the person who poured it. Always use a tea strainer and place it back on the Tea set tray or table. When asked to pass the cup, keep the cup and saucer as a complete set. Don’t pass just the cup! 

If the guests are seated, the way to drink tea is to raise the teacup and leave the saucer on the table. Of course, there should be no slurping, and the cup returned to the saucer between sips. When standing, the protocol is to hold the saucer in one hand and the cup in the other. I did not know about this custom, so I must have made this mistake many times; it is seen as bad manners to look anywhere else but inside the cup whilst drinking tea. I like doing this (only at home), but it is considered crass to dunk even the most delicate of biscuits in the tea and to use the tea, so to speak – to wash down the food!

Using a three-tiered cake stand is best to serve afternoon tea starting at the top with Scones. Second-tier for dainty sandwiches or savouries and the bottom tier for sweet pastries or petit fours? It is considered rude not to eat the food in order of; savoury items, sandwiches, scones, and sweets. 

Never dip a scone in the jam or cream, nor do you cut them with a knife. Place on your plate and tear off bite-sized pieces as you would a bread roll. Jam and cream go on the side of your plate and from there to your scone. I admit I usually don’t do this. Then the age-old question; jam and then the cream, or cream then jam? Remember, the cake fork is not for the scones.

The hot debate about when to add the milk is another age-old debate that appears to be hard to reconcile. It is a matter of personal taste but usually in a large Tea party, the Tea is poured first before the milk.

Back in the early days, milk was added to delicate,soft porcelain first to prevent the cups from cracking,but once tougher porcelain began being made it is unnecessary.


I love this one and had no idea about the secret meaning of the placement of serviette or napkin. At a formal event, a serviette is set to the left of the plate with the folded edge on the left and the open edge to the right. It is considered rude to leave the serviette or napkin on the chair, so when you need to leave the table, the serviette should be placed back to the left of the plate. Contrary to this, I also read that one should leave the serviette on the chair, which is still in debate.

If the sugar in tea is your thing, then it is important not to stir tea in a circular motion. The correct manner is to place the spoon at a 12 o’clock angle in the cup and softly fold the liquid back and forth 2-3 times to the 6 o’clock position but never leave the teaspoon in the cup. When a teaspoon is not in use it sits on the saucer to the right of the cup.

‘How can you even taste your tea if you put that much sugar in it?’

George Orwell

Australians call a lavish afternoon Tea “High Tea” but High Tea was traditionally a meal for the servants in the UK, taken whilst the gentry were enjoying Afternoon Tea. It was the working-class main meal of the day and included meat, vegetables or hearty food like pies.

The afternoon Tea Dress Code is usually Smart Casual. Or a fantastic excuse to dress up. The absolute no’s are wearing sportswear, sports shoes or sneakers, and of course rubber thongs, yoga pants or very casual, beachy clothes.

Afternoon Tea Sandwiches are dainty and made with the crusts removed. These should be eaten in small bites rather than a whole finger sandwich at once. Think elegant, dainty and refined. It goes without saying not to lick your fingers!

How to behave over Afternoon Tea is pretty simple and it is worth remembering that common sense goes a long way. It is meant to be a fun and enjoyable time to relax, wear nice clothes, talk and laugh with friends over gorgeous food and piping hot tea and hopefully champagne too. Our rules today are far more relaxed than in Edwardian England, so unless you lick your fingers, put your feet on the table, and slurp the tea, you should be alright in any venue for Tea, High Tea, Royal Tea or for whatever you choose to call it.

Content Di Baker 2020 Revised August 2021

Top quote on scones by The English Manner

Title Image by Unsplash

Images if not my own are courtesy of Wiki Media, Unsplash, Wedgwood and Twinings and Facebook group ‘ The World of Tea and Coffee’

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