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Afternoon Tea 2: What will you serve, and how to serve it?

Author: Norische

Filed in: how-to, ritual, etiquette, service, protocol

Now that the basics have been covered lets move on to the invitation, menu and serving of a proper Afternoon tea.


Invitations should be sent 10 to 14 days in advance, this should ensure that your guests will have plenty of time to make arrangements and plan for such an event. The invitations should include the type of event, of course, the date and time of the social, and of course a request for RSVP as well. Personally I find it convenient to also include a brief idea of the mood… such as formal wear, evening wear, or casual wear expected, as well as a general overview of the menu… for example

Step Through The Looking Glass


You are hereby formally invited to an Afternoon Tea.

On April 14, 2005

Promptly at 4:00pm

House Norische will be serving a formal English Tea.

Dress the part and enjoy the moment to the fullest.


Cucumber Sandwiches

Mushroom Turnovers


Preserves, and Cream

Tarts and Cakes

And of course


RSVP at your earliest convenience.

If you are uncertain of exactly what will be served a simple comment such as “Traditional Afternoon Tea in all it wondrous glory” will be enough to give your guests a general idea of the menu plan… after all there are some “traditional” items that are always found at a true British Tea.

What To Serve?

While an afternoon tea can be as simple as cakes or cookies, traditionally it consists of three courses.

You begin any tea by actually serving the tea; this can be as elaborate or as simple as the host wishes. Once all the guests have their tea the first course may be served.

The first course consists of mini Sandwiches or savory foods such as Cheese Filled Mushrooms, or Lemon Chicken, even something exotic such as Basil and Parmesan Stuffed Brie or Smoked Salmon with Dill. While the food sounds quite elaborate the portions of this course are generally quite small, it is all in the presentation.

The second course is the “bread” course. This course normally consists of breads that are not too sweet; traditionally scones or tea bread is the guest of honor for this course. However bite sized muffins are an acceptable substitute. Of course one must not forget the preserves, strawberry is traditional, but the exotic can add spice to this course as well. This is the course in which clotted cream is normally served, sometimes you can find small jars of “Devonshire” cream at the more exclusive specialty markets, however unsweetened whipped cream is an American version of this sinful delight.

The third and final course is the desert course. Traditionally this course would have an inviting array of scrumptious delights wicked enough to tantalize even the Pope’s pallet. A few imported chocolates, some bite sized cakes or a torte, perhaps some fresh berries dipped in chocolate and drenched in heavy cream… and for those with a more delicate nature a variety of fresh fruit cut into bite sized pieces and a bowl of creamy yogurt just for the dipping.

When it comes to the menu choices the possibilities are endless. From the traditional to the exotic… anything is possible with a little planning and just a touch of imagination. The one thing to remember is keep the choices bite sized and the portions small, this is not an actual meal… just a fabulous break in a otherwise bleary day.


A great deal of the panache of an Afternoon Tea has to do with the atmosphere of the event and the appearance of those present. This is a great opportunity to haul out and dust off that adorable French maid’s outfit or that “oh so proper” butler ensemble that has been hiding in the closet behind the Zorro cape and the Nun outfit.

Decorations can be quite simple; a few antique dollies that you found at the local thrift store. A menagerie of elegant pieces of fabric, draped over a rather dreary table and candle opera for an elegant touch. A simple lace table cloth and a basket of fresh flowers for a simple spring effect, or perhaps a bare table with an arrangement of bottles in a variety of colors and sizes as a centerpiece. The possibilities are quite limitless and there are no specific requirements… so use your imagination and explore the possibilities. Another helpful hint… it is quite acceptable to have a collage of tea and matching saucers, not everyone has a complete serving set as well as the matching dishes to go with it. Hence a little variety is satisfactory, the only rule is that each cup must have a saucer, and that each individual must have a teaspoon, other than that… to each his or her own.

One suggestion that I wish to make is to have all the food prepared and on display, this will allow an ease of service and will keep things smooth and comfortable. If the individual serving is running too and fro getting one thing or another from the kitchen it will interrupt the flow of the evening. It is best to take away all possible distractions, and minimize the activity. I suggest a side table with the dishes for each course pre-arranged and set aside. If refrigeration is needed, the slave can have the dishes prepared and waiting in the refrigerator, then remove the dishes shortly prior to the guests arrival or at the time of the serving. If one is forced to leave the room to retrieve the prepared dishes, make a grand show of it… have the slave enter the room with the dishes arranged on a silver-serving tray or using a pushcart, this will add an air of luxury to an otherwise awkward moment.

Music is another area one may wish to consider, there are a wide variety of appropriate choices to choose from; soft jazz, classical, instrumentals, big band, or alternative are just a few to think about when you make your choices. When it comes to music keep it light and quiet… do not have the music too loud or else it may end up being an unintentional distraction.

Serving Etiquette

The slave should remember to use proper manners at all times, and while manners should be a given there is a completely different set of rules for serving.

The host/hostess should be seated at the head of the table.

At a formal tea there are two different orders in which it is acceptable to serve 1) the guest of honor is served first, followed by the female guests, males guest, and then the host or hostess, or 2) the guest to the right of the host or hostess is served first and service proceeds around the table to the right, the host or hostess is served last.

It is an almost universal practice to serve from the right of the guest. There are only three times that one is to approach from the left, 1) when presenting a tray of foods to select from, 2) when placing a dish of food on the table, and 3) when removing a dish of food that was presented on the left.

At the end of each course the dishes are to be removed and fresh linens provided if applicable.

Once a guest has been seated, he or she should never be required to ask for a refill of their beverage, a general rule of thumb is when the drink is within one inch of the bottom of the container the slave should offer a refill. The slave should be very observant, if a guest drinks his or her beverage quickly then the slave should anticipate this and offer to refill the drink more often.

At no time, whether serving or clearing away the table, should the slave reach across the front of the guest… nor is it appropriate for the slave to ask the guest to hand him or her anything… if the item desired is at an odd angle then the slave should move to a more advantageous position and not interfere or disrupt the social.

If a guest accidentally spills something the slave should immediately attend to the guest, without making a scene or too much of a fuss. Too much of a fuss may embarrass the guest unnecessarily, a polite smile and gentle assistance is quite adequate. A quick hint… it is always wise to have something set discreetly out of the way to clean up emergency spills just in case, if not… a tiny spill can become a major event while the slave runs and grabs a towel from the kitchen and comes back.

Cups should always be served with an appropriate saucer, and a teaspoon should be tucked under the handle of the cup. The spoon should be placed bowl side down.

When presenting the cup of tea, the handle must point to the right, even if the guest being served is left-handed.


If the slave has quite a bit of experience it is acceptable for the slave to have the table preset with the complete service prior to the guests being seated, however if not I recommend that the serving places be bare with the exception of the utensils.

Service should only begin after all guests have arrived and are seated.

Once the guests are seated the slave should wait for the host or hostess to initiate the beginning of the tea. A simple hand gesture or a word or phrase that has been prearranged as a “trigger” should be used to initiate serving. The host/hostess may wish to have a polite conversation with his or her guests prior to beginning the tea, and if the slave begins serving too early he or she may unintentionally interrupt the flow of the moment.

The tea should be served first. Some directives of etiquette suggest that the host/hostess should be given a small cup or bowl of prepared tea first; this is to guarantee that tea is properly made and prepared for his or her guests. I find this small ceremonial gesture to be quite elegant. After the host or hostess has approved the tea then the guests should be served in the appropriate manner.

The tea should be poured on a side bar or side table and properly presented to each guest. Cup and saucer should be presented together and a teaspoon should be placed under the handle of the teacup, bowl side down. The teacup should be handed to the guest with the handle facing to the right, even if the guest is left-handed. Hint: pour the tea to approximately one inch from the lip of the cup, this will allow the guest to add milk, sugar or lemon without worrying about overflowing the cup… it also helps prevent from accidentally overfilling the cup and encouraging an accident.

Once all guests have their cups, the slave should then offer sugar (cubed is preferred), lemon (slices, not wedges) and milk. Hint: do not give a guest both lemon and milk, the lemon will cause the milk to curdle.

The proper way for a slave to present the sugar is to hold the container in the left hand and the spoon or tongs in the right hand. Approach the guest from the right and bend slightly at the waist, lift the spoon or tongs with the sugar as if to offer the sugar.

The proper way for the slave to present the milk is to hold the container in the right hand, and have a napkin in the left hand (to prevent drips, or accidental spills). The slave should grasp the handle of the container with the right hand and place the napkin around the bottom of the container or perhaps rest the container on the napkin in his or her left hand. Again the slave should bend slightly at the waist and offer the condiment to each guest. Normally a guest will wish approximately two table spoons worth of milk… the slave should poor a small amount of milk into the cup and wait to see if the guest motions or requests more, it is always possible to give a little more but it is rather difficult to take back some once too much has been given. A slave should indeed take note of how much the guest has accepted so that they will not have to ask again.

The proper way to present the lemon slices is for the slave to have a small bowl of prepared lemon slices and the appropriate serving utensil… never use your fingers or allow your hand to touch the food in any manner. The slave should present the lemon slices in the same manner as the sugar, simply lift a slice slightly from the container and bow slightly offering the condiment to the guest… again remember never offer a guest lemon if they have accepted milk… the lemon will curdle the milk and can make the guest quite sick.

If done properly the slave need not say anything, the guest will either accept or refuse. There are a variety of ways that the guest will make their desires known, if they wish the condiment they may present their cup, or perhaps nod, or say “Thank you”, or “just a little”. If they wish to refuse the condiment they may place their hand where it is covering their cup, or lift their hand as if to say stop or no, perhaps a shake of the head, or “No thank you.” A slave should watch for body language as well as what the guest is saying… this will help the slave know what to do and when. If the guest refuses the condiment the slave should simply nod, or state “Thank you Ma’am or Sir” and move on to the next guest.

After the slave has served the condiments he or she should step aside and wait to see if he or she is needed. After everyone has finished their first cup of tea and has been served a second cup, it is now time to begin serving the food.

There are two proper ways to serve the food; the first way is to have the plates pre-made and ready to serve, the second way is to have an arrangement of delectable delights that the guests may choose from and allow each guest to choose that which they find to be the most palatable.

Personally I find that both methods are indeed appropriate. On the first course I normally prefer to present the guest with a pre-arranged plate of finger sandwiches or the chosen delicacies for this course. The slave should have each plate prepared in the same manner, each morsel of food should be placed in the precise location on each plate… symmetry is very important, it adds to the perfection of the entire event. When handling the plate the slave must make absolute certainty that his or her hands do not touch the food or the lip of the plate. When picking up the plates it is proper to use a napkin or linen to grasp the plate, or for an extra show of British high society the slave may wish the slave to wear white gloves while serving. The slave must approach the guest from the right and wait until the appropriate time to place the plate in front of the guest. I say the appropriate time because if the guest were speaking to the host or another guest it would be rude to interrupt, even to serve. When the all guests are finished with this course the slave should retrieve each plate and see if anyone needs a fresh drink.

On the second course, since there normally is not that large of selection for this course, I find a simple plate with one or two of the chosen tea breads or biscuits to be satisfactory. One suggestion is to place a scone or two on the plate, slightly off center… then place the head of an appropriate flower next to the scones for color and beauty. Any flower will work but I suggest mums, carnations, daisies, an open rose, or perhaps even a day lily. Another artistic suggestion is to add one or two fresh raspberries and a blueberry or two to the arrangement. This turns a rather boring course into a beautifully artistic expression of the gentile nature of a true afternoon tea. The slave should again serve from the right and again wait until the appropriate time. After all have been served the slave should place or serve the condiments for this course, which normally include preserves, clotted cream and whipped butter, honey is also appropriate. These may be served either individually or together. It is appropriate to either simply place the condiments on the table in attractive serving dishes or to present the condiments to the guests on a tray so that he or she may choose those items they wish to use. If the slave will be serving the condiments he or she should start with the guest to the right of the host and move to the right around the table. When approaching the guest the slave should bow at the waist to allow the tray to be low enough that the guest may see the selection. All utensils should be pointing toward the guests for ease of access. If the condiments are placed on the table for the guest to use as they please they should be removed when the course is complete. Again the slave should see if any of the guests need more tea before the next course is served.

On the third course, I find that simply providing each guest with a clean plate and utensils, and presenting them with the selection of devilish delights is the best way to serve this course. A simple arrangement of the chosen treats placed strategically in the center of the table or an array of smaller plates with a assortment of choices placed in a variety of places across the table may be done, both methods are acceptable. This course may take a while since this is course signals the ending of the tea, so during this time the slave can make him or herself useful and clear away the previous food and dishes, and straighten up the room, but the slave should remember to be quiet and discrete, even thought the social is coming to a close soon a disruption of the mood may taint the entire event. The slave should keep track of the guest’s tea and see if any wish to refresh their drink, at this point some guests may not wish to have more tea, but it is still appropriate to ask. When the guests have finished their plates the slave should remove the dishes and tidy up a bit, but the slave should not yet leave the area for more than a moment or two. Until the tea is officially over then the guest may be in need of the services of the slave, and hence he or she should remain handy.

There you have it, how to serve a proper Afternoon Tea. Please keep an eye out for Afternoon Tea III: Recipes: Traditional to Exotic.

As with everything this is my opinion, take what you will and leave the rest. If you wish to contact me, my email address is If you wish to see more of my work you may find a complete listing of all my writings at…. in the files section.

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