Tea Party Planning: How To Make English Tea

Afternoon tea is not just providing food and beverage, it is also about creating an experience.

When making the decision to host an English tea, keep in mind that a "tea," as it's generally referred to, is a very formal, elegant affair. You should pull out your best linens, your best china, and your good silver. The decision to host an English tea, mind you, is the decision to create an atmosphere of gentility.

Tea comes with its own colorful history. Although England is most often associated with the idea of a steaming cup of tea, Asia is actually responsible for the idea of steeping dried leaves in boiling water. Tea was once a motivator for scouring the globe, as countries rushed to send out explorers to bring back tea and exotic spices from far off lands. Tea even made its mark in the annals of American history - anyone for a Boston Tea Party?

You may be flexible when planning an afternoon tea. Of course, a "High Tea" is usually set at 4 p.m., and sometimes may even be substituted for dinner simply because more food is served. A simple English afternoon tea is usually a more casual, less filling affair than its formal counterpart.

When setting up for your tea, pay attention to the details. Try some classical music - anything by Mozart or Beethoven is a good choice. Relaxing and amiable, classical music allows for background sound without stifling conversation. Fresh flowers can liven up any table, and doilies set over the tablecloth will add a Victorian air.

An English tea is no paltry affair - England itself consumes over 20 million cups of tea every day. In America, tea has gone mainstream, companies such as Tazo and Celestial Seasonings have made tea the "new coffee," so to say. With less acids and oils than a cup of Joe, and just as much, sometimes even more caffeine, tea is quickly becoming the newest "hot" drink.

Now, your teapot is most definitely the centerpiece of your tea table. Any ceramic teapot will do, the option is yours. There are numerous tea shops and specialty stores that sell a wide variety of teapots in all shapes, colors, and manner of design. Along with your teapot you will need enough teacups, saucers, teaspoons, small dessert plates, forks, spoons and knives for all your guests. Napkins, serving plates and bowls and serving utensils are also very important. And don't forget your sugar bowl, creamer, and a plate displaying lemon wedges. Some people may take honey with their tea; if so, serve in a small jam jar with a small serving spoon.

The most important part of your afternoon tea, of course, is the beverage itself. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of different types of tea, from your basic "Earl Grey" to flavored, fruity teas with spice extracts. If you don't think that your guests will agree to one type of tea, or you simply want to offer a greater variety, consider supplying your table with a number of different flavored teas. That way, your guests can pick and choose.

When preparing your tea, be aware that tea itself comes in two forms - loose tea, which is basically shredded, dried tea leaves, or packaged tea, which comes in its own teabag. If you decide to offer your guests loose tea, you will also need to supply everyone with a tea infuser. Available in specialty shops and at Starbucks, tea infusers are hollow, perforated balls that hang in your cup. The loose tea is pinched into the ball, which opens on a hinge, and then the ball is hung into the hot water, allowing the tea to steep.

Otherwise, teabags may be used individually. Simply provide a teapot full of hot water so that guests may steep their own tea in their cups. How hot to make the water? Bring it to a boil. One thing to note is that if your water does not taste good, then your tea will suffer as a result. If you are not a fan of your water supply, try using bottled or filtered water instead. A simple rule for measuring tea is about 1 tsp. of loose tea for every 6-8 oz. of water. Otherwise, teabags are pre-measured.

For steeping times, be aware that different teas require different amounts of exposure to the water. Green teas require 1-3 minutes, white tea 4-8 minutes, oolong tea 1-8 minutes, black tea 3-5 minutes and herbal teas about 5-8 minutes. Of course, this timing is again, up to the individual, for the longer a teabag steeps, the stronger the tea will taste.

When serving tea, be aware that not everyone, and certainly not the English, take their tea the same way. Some prefer a milky cup, while others adhere strictly to lemon and heaping teaspoons of sugar. Be sure to serve your tea with the usual variety of counterparts; fresh lemon slices arranged on a plate, a sugar bowl of white, granular sugar, or even cubed sugar, and a small pitcher of milk. Of course, if your guests have certain tastes or dietary preferences, it ever hurts to follow their specifications. Sugar substitute, honey, skim milk or even a dairy-free beverage work just as well.

You should also be prepared to serve food with your tea. Small, sweet finger foods such as pastries and cookies are the best choice; anything that can be set out on a pretty platter and eaten with ones fingers work well. Small tea sandwiches are another idea - try some thin white bread, with the crusts removed, spread with a ham or chicken spread or some simple butter and cucumber. Watercress, a spicy herb, is another popular choice. But for a tea party with pizzazz, try something sweet for the palate. Custards, scones, crumpets, shortbread, fruit tarts, truffles, trifles, lemon curd, chocolate tarts, cream puffs, puddings and specialty breads will all be well-received.

When all your requirements are taken care of you may pay attention to the minute details of your table. Try setting out unique place cards; for example, instead of your guests' names try an adjective such as "gracious" or "glitzy" and let them choose who they want to be. Encourage your guests to wear hats, for hats are an integral part of afternoon tea. Light some candles, but keep the electric lights on, for this is still an event held in the afternoon. And most of all, enjoy yourselves! Afternoon tea has been practiced for centuries by everyone from farmers to kings.

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