Most historians concur that it was Queen Catherine, the wife of Charles II who introduced tea as a social and family habit to the English in 1662 when she insisted that a formal tea be served every afternoon at three in the afternoon. It was Catherine's habit to invite several of the ladies of her court to such teas at which a variety of cakes and biscuits were served by servants. The women who attended were expected to dress as formally as if they were attending a state dinner. When tea first made its way to the middle and upper classes it was considered a beverage appropriate to serve as the culmination of an evening's entertainment. After dinner and whatever entertainment followed the meal, a tea tray was brought into the living room and all present would enjoy a cup of tea before departing for home or retiring to bed.
It was probably the Duchess of Bedford who established the afternoon tea hour as an English institution. In addition to moving the tea hour ahead to five in the afternoon, she also instituted the custom of serving sandwiches, petits-fours and canapes as accompaniments to the tea. The English have a great love for tradition and the five o'clock tea functions today in precise accordance with the rules established by the Duchess. "At informal teas, the hostess should pour and serve. If the tea is formal, however, the hostess should select two friends, each of whom will sit at opposite ends of the table and pour. The women selected should feel honored by this privilege".
Tea parties are no longer the exclusive privilege of women nor must they be held only at five p.m. Whether at two in the after- noon or at eight in the evening, there are few pleasures more satisfying or more civilized than meetings with friends at which tea and a variety of light foods and cakes are served. Although the dress code at tea parties varies widely, depending more on the social mores and status of one's hosts than on pragmatic factors, there are certain guidelines that can make any tea party a success.
If serving buffet style, the teapot or serving vessel should be placed close to the edge of the serving table so that pouring the tea can be done with a minimum of fuss. Next to the service area should be containers with sugar, milk and lemon wedges and along- side these, spoons should be set. Plates for sandwiches and cakes should be stacked, and a napkin should be placed on each plate. Cups should not be stacked, but each should be placed on its own saucer within easy reach of the edge of the table. At more formal teas, the host or hostess may pour. If there are a great many guests, it is still appropriate to ask good friends or honored visitors to aid in the pouring process.
The food served at teas should be easy to eat and require neither forks nor knives. Tea sandwiches, canapes and foods that may be picked up and eaten with toothpicks are ideal for tea parties as are cookies, petits fours and miniature pastries such as eclairs lairs and cream puffs. Instead of serving food on large platters, it is wise to use small or medium serving plates because they are easier to keep filled and looking neat. One thing to keep in mind, even though the Duchess of Bedford might not have approved, is that it is wise to have a pot of coffee available.
There can be many joys to hosting a tea hour. One may choose to decorate one's table in any style ranging from rustic to formal; guests may be asked to attend in casual, semi-formal or formal attire; and the variety of teas and foods that one offers give nearly unlimited opportunities for creativity.
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