The moment I started drinking tea, my mother immediately began calling me “the British child.” I am of the opinion that, if you’re going to attach cultural stereotypes to things, you might as well do it correctly.
The first thing to know about British tea is that, if you’re drinking tea with biscuits in the afternoon, regardless of how fancy it is, it is not called high tea. High tea was a meal which originated in the working class, when labor laws didn’t exist, and lunch breaks were therefore a luxury which most people did not have access to. It was tea served with more substantial snacks, such as cheeses and pies, eaten after the working day. The name high tea came from the fact that it was generally eaten at a proper table, rather than at lower settees.
What you’re thinking of is afternoon tea. Afternoon tea is a much fancier social affair which began in the 1830’s. A good British afternoon tea should be served between 3 and 4 in the afternoon, and should involve finger sandwiches and pastries, served on a tiered cake tray. The tea should always be loose, rather than bagged. This is partially because loose tea is of a higher quality, and partially because bagged tea is actually a relatively recent invention.
Afternoon tea should always involve a full tea service. At minimum, this involves a tea pot, cups, and saucers. However, a dish and tongs for sugar cubes, and a creamer, to hold milk or cream, are all a nice addition. A tea caddy, which hold the leaves before they are brewed, is also good to have if you’re brewing a particularly nice tea. Your tea pot should actually be short and stout, as it allows the leaves to expand more fully in the water. While a full tea service was at one time the most prized possession of a household, you can now find them quite cheaply at second-hand stores. This is because they are still understood to be too valuable to throw away, but very few people care enough about them to actually own one.
Afternoon tea traditionally involves particularly careful manners. Therefore, every detail of what is or is not respectable over tea has been fiercely debated. Perhaps the most serious debate in the tradition of British afternoon tea is if one should pour the tea, or the milk into the cup first. According to Vogue, one should pour the milk in after the tea, in order to properly gage how much milk you need. However, I disagree with this practice. This is because, first and foremost, if you are drinking a good black tea, you should not have to use milk in it. Milk is used to mask the taste of a stale or low-quality tea. Furthermore, the only reason to use milk or cream at an afternoon tea service is to protect particularly delicate porcelain. Tea, if you are unfamiliar, is hot. Adding milk first to the cup allowed the tea to cool off, and disperse its heat through a liquid, before that heat came into contact with the cup. Cream at a good afternoon tea service is there to prevent the porcelain from cracking. I do have to wonder how many tea cups were destroyed by this vogue article.
It is also important to note, that if you’re drinking anything other than black tea, you should not be putting any sort of milk or cream in it.
One tradition which is particular to British afternoon tea, and British afternoon tea only, is the use of a strainer. The older traditional teapots did not have built in removable infuser baskets. The loose teas were allowed to steep freely in the teapot. The strainer exists to catch small particles of tea leaves on their way from the pot to the cup. The strainer is meant to be held over the cup, and the tea should be poured through it. Sugar was used to reduce to reduce the astringency or bitterness that came from letting the tea steep too long.
As a final note to Americans drinking British afternoon tea, according to NPR, the pinkie thing has long since gone out of style.