How to Tea

What to expect at your first tea, and how to not make a ninny of yourself.


Well hello Dear Reader! How delightful of you to care about the finer points of tea etiquette. There’s so much to cover, but I know what you really need is a ‘rough guide’ that you can scan on your phone in the car. Just put the phone away at the tea table, mkay?

Coral Tree Tea House, San Diego

What to expect at a respectable tea room

Choosing your tea experience

When you make your reservation, you’ll likely be presented with several tea options, with heaven-knows how many obscure names (which change with every tea establishment here in San Diego). Basically, the least expensive has the least number of nibbles, and the most expensive might include sparkling wine, port or sherry.

Traditionally though, it works like this: You’re probably not having High Tea.

High tea was a working class meal served at the end of the workday, around 5pm. It was a heavy meal – meat pies, pickled salmon, crumpets and casseroles. Weirdly, it’s this moniker Americans have picked up to describe what is really…

Afternoon tea: A light meal of scones, clotted cream, lemon curd or jam, and tea sandwiches, intended as a mid-afternoon pick-me-up for fashionable late-night diners.

But even with afternoon tea, there are menu variants.

  • Cream tea – includes tea, scones and clotted cream (and probably jam)
  • Light tea – includes tea, scones & cream, and other sweets
  • Full tea – includes tea, scones, finger sandwiches and other pick-up-able savories, and sweets pastries.

In San Diego, you’ll see all manner of terms applied to afternoon tea. But, to our city’s credit, the only place to completely misname their tea experience is Hyatt’s High Tea at the Park (it’s a full Afternoon Tea, unless there’s a meat pie hiding under the napkin). The Westgate, however, actually does offer a High Tea with a remarkably robust 3-course menu.

Knowing what to expect

Dress nicely, like a lady or a gentleman. Nothing so short it shows off your bum, and nothing so tight that you won’t enjoy your meal. San Diego is distressingly casual, so I urge you to buck the trend and be as elegant as you like. Make the world rise to YOUR standards, that’s what I say! Hats are always, always appropriate.

There will be multiple courses. Sometimes, they will be brought to you one course at a time. If you’re a light eater, PACE YOURSELF! I don’t suffer from that affliction, but others might.

Queen’s Tea at Coral Tree Tea House, San Diego

Most of the time, however, all three courses – sandwiches & savories, scones & cream, and sweets – will be brought in a 3-tiered server. All you need do is work from the bottom up, and don’t hog the clotted cream.

Your choice of tea will be served in a teapot, and you may serve yourself.

In shabby establishments, they will leave *you* to monitor how long to steep the tea before pouring. Shocking. Set a timer for 4 minutes (a good time for most black teas, herbal can go longer), and feel free to scowl the whole time.

Order of operations

The only thing I remember of maths is this: Order of operations. Because it applies so beautifully to life, and to tea.

Pour the tea first, then add cream and sugar to taste. Not the other way around, it’s considered low class (because if you put the cream and sugar in before the tea, you don’t really need a dainty spoon to stir it, and using as much silverware as possible is a mark of gentility, since presumably, you won’t be doing the cleanup).

Order of operations regarding scones: Scone, then cream, then jam. This is the subject of much debate, but if it’s good enough for the owner of The Goring hotel in London, cream first is good enough for me. Incidentally “Scone” is pronounced “ScON” – like an on-switch. But if you go that far, people will look at you funny, so don’t bother.

Technically, the daintiest way to eat a scone is to break off bite sized pieces, cream and jam them, and then eat them with your fingers. But, when sharing finite amounts of cream and jam with the table, this becomes impracticable. So cut your scone in half, slather away, and let the next person do the same. Making other people wait is never polite.

Scones & Clotted Cream, Coral Tree Tea House, San Diego

The Pinkie Issue

The hard and fast rule is: Don’t put your pinkie up. It looks ridiculous.

However, the pinkie issue has a number of fascinating stories and theories as to how was ever dreamt of in the first place. My personal favorite involves syphilis.

The story goes that the court of Louis XIV were largely syphilitic, and among other symptoms such as losing your nose and other, lower, appendages, syphilis damages the joints of your fingers. To the point where you cannot bend your pinkie. So, when the fashionable people were seen to take their tea with pinkies up, the lower orders followed suit.

This story is probably false, but I find it amusing.

Any questions? I’d be delighted to answer your queries.

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