“The Queen crumbles up her scones and puts them on the floor for the corgis!” confides William Hanson, the etiquette expert I’ve joined for afternoon tea. I’ve no intention of sharing my scones, but I find I’m on the same page as Her Majesty when William reveals she says “scone” as in “gone” because how else would one say it?
Unfortunately, this is where my resemblance to royalty ends, as William discovers when I recount a recent visit to The Ritz. Eating afternoon tea with a friend, we were told by the waiter we could have more of anything. Would it have been acceptable to tell the waiter to keep it coming, eat as much as we could in our two hour time slot, then sweep the remains into Tupperware?
“If your stomach can cope with lots of food then absolutely, go at your own pace, but never wolf it down,” says William, adding: “As the guest, if your host doesn’t suggest getting more, you can say, ‘would you like any more sandwiches?’ Hopefully your host will say, ‘no, but would you?’ Then you can say, ‘yes please!’”
And is it alright to put them in my bag? “If they’re there,” counsels William, who advises against stockpiling patisserie with the intention of taking home a week’s worth of elevenses. “I used to be so anti-doggy bags, but over the last year, with all the food waste, I’ve had a Road to Damascus moment. Now I’d say, don’t ask for a doggy bag, but if it’s offered, fine.”
It’s clear my social graces need an MOT, so William gives me a complete guide to afternoon tea etiquette:
In the pink
Never stick out your pinky finger. It might seem like a viable way to persuade people you’re posh, but its association with aristocracy comes from the court of Louis XIV, where bed-hopping gentry displayed a stiff digit if they had syphilis. Instead, pinch the handle of the teacup with your thumb and forefinger, letting your other fingers follow down the length of the handle – never through it. Leave your saucer on the table, unless the table is low, or if you’re standing, in which case hold your saucer at chest height.
Let me break it to you
Don’t use a knife to cut into your scone, instead, break it in half with your hands. Use your knife to put jam and cream onto your plate – never put it directly onto your scone from the serving dish. The jam-or-cream-first conundrum only applies if you’re in Devon or Cornwall – if you’re in London, you can do whatever you like. However, never spread jam on one side, and cream on the other, then stick the two halves together!
Around the clock
If you’re going for tea at 4pm, and you’re not used to cake in the middle of the afternoon, eat a big breakfast, followed by a miniscule low protein salad at 12 o’clock (no soup, because that’s slow release). For dinner, have a snack like eggs on toast. But don’t feel you have to go for afternoon tea at 4pm – you could go at six, or later, and treat it as a dinner replacement.
Work your way up
If you’re serving afternoon tea at home, there’s no need for a tiered cake stand – these are just used by hotels to save space. If you are using one, start from the bottom with the sandwiches, and wait until everyone’s done before moving onto the scones on the middle tier. Once you’re onto the sweet, it’s permissible to start eating the cakes while someone else is still eating a scone – but you can’t go back to sandwiches!
The Milky Way
Pour a bit of tea into an empty cup to see if it needs to sit longer – when you’re happy with the strength, add the milk. Stir back and forth in a six-twelve motion (never in a circle) then give your teaspoon a flick, and place it on your saucer. Never ask anyone to pass you anything. If you’d like the sugar, for example, say to the person sitting nearest to it, “would you like the sugar?” When they reply, “no, would you?” you can say yes, and they’ll pass it to you. If you’re celebrating with Champagne, remember to hold it by the stem, otherwise your hand will warm the glass.
Groupon has partnered with William Hanson to help Brits improve their afternoon tea etiquette.
Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here