The Do’s and Don’ts of High Tea

The do’s and don’ts of high tea

Is there a more civilised meal than high tea? Not quite lunch, not quite dinner, just a tailor-made excuse to gather a few of your chosen ladies and gentlemen for tasty bite-sized morsels and juicy small talk.

The invention of afternoon tea is credited to the Duchess of Bedford Anna Maria Russell, who started hosting soirees for society ladies in the 1840s. At a time when dinner wasn’t served ’til late, the Duchess came up with this most decorous method of fending off hunger pangs.

We have those hungry aristocrats to thank for the modern tradition of high tea. And although times have changed, some basic rules of afternoon tea etiquette have survived.

If you’d like to the Duchess proud next time you take high tea, remember these do’s and dont’s.

Do: use your fingers


When perfecting the art of witty banter between sips of tea, wielding a fork and knife will only complicate proceedings. It’s why dainty finger food is a fixture of high tea. The name ‘high tea’ is actually a bit of a misnomer – the society version was known simply as afternoon tea or ‘low tea’ (because it was served at low tables). The food was therefore designed to be eaten without a solid perch. In fact, John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, allegedly invented high tea staple the sandwich precisely to eliminate the need for cutlery (legend goes that John, an enthusiastic gambler, needed a snack he could grasp in one hand with cards in the other). A similar principle applies when balancing a bone china teacup, so no need to feel coy about using your fingers.

Do: try a little of everything

One of the benefits of bite-sized foods is that you can sample more of them. High tea is a leisurely affair and grazing is encouraged – after all, it would be rude not to. A common afternoon tea spread includes sandwiches, scones, cakes and petite fours (pint-sized sweet and savoury baked goods). In a menu perfected after his years at London institutions The Dorchester and The Savoy, Treasury Brisbane Executive Chef Steven Jones’ high tea spread includes delicate macaroons, picture-perfect tarts, savoury pastries, scones and ribbon sandwiches (crusts removed, of course). Traditionally, afternoon tea progresses in a strict order ­– savouries and sandwiches first, then scones and finally sweets. But we won’t tell if you mix it up.

Don’t: stress about how you prepare your scone

Scone with jam and cream
Scone with jam and cream

Do you put jam on top of your cream or place a dollop of cream atop your jam? If anyone tries to tell you one or the other is correct, don’t listen. Add cream first and then jam (the Devon way) or jam first then cream (the Cornish way) – both are acceptable and come down entirely to preference. If it makes any difference for you, the Queen apparently does hers the Cornish way.

Do: go in for seconds

Writing in The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness in 1860, Florence Hartley had harsh words for anyone pillaging the table. “Never pile up the food on your plate,” she scolds. “It looks as if you feared it would all be gone before you could be helped again.” While social graces have thankfully evolved since Florence’s day (her advice that ladies never finish everything on their plate is an offence against good cake, if you ask us), it remains true that stealing all your preferred morsels on your first serving is a faux pas. Nowhere in the high tea rulebook is it written that you can’t have seconds (or thirds). Start with a few favourites and go back once everyone else has had their pick.

Don’t: lift the pinkie

At a formal high tea there won’t be a mug in sight, so avoid looking like one by holding your teacup right. Pinch your thumb and index finger near the top of the handle and use your middle finger to support the bottom of the handle. And, believe it or not, there’s no need to hold that pinkie to attention – the gesture can be seen as an affectation of class. If wearing lipstick, keep the handle of your teacup at 3 O’clock (for right handers) or 9 O’clock (for lefties), thereby confining your lippie marks in one spot. When partaking in a mimosa or sparkling, try not to grasp the glass by the bowl either – holding the stem stops your body heat warming the wine (and limits grubby finger marks, too).

Do: make an event out of it

High tea is above all else a social affair and a perfect reason to get a little coiffed. While even the finest English establishments have relaxed dress codes to ‘smart casual’, it’s still generally not proper to rock up in torn jeans and/or thongs. Although it’s less about pomp and ceremony these days, high tea remains an elegant way to catch up with friends and feel a little fancy. Served in the genteel surrounds of The Lab, the high tea at the Treasury Brisbane is an ideal setting for special occasions, so why not make an event out of it?

Don’t: follow all the rules

While it’s nice to play at royalty from time to time, the tearooms of the queen are far, far away. High tea is meant to be an indulgence, so don’t let the rules ruin your fun if you slip up. Eat, drink and be merry, and let that pinkie rise if you want to.