Fold your pinky in!” I’m holding a porcelain teacup in my hand, pinky jutting outward, about to tilt the china to my lips and savor a first sip of smoky Lapsang Souchong tea, when I’m startled by this chide. I’ve just settled in for an afternoon tea service at London’s ultra-fashionable ME London (336-337 The Strand, London. Tel: +44-808-234-1953. www.melia.com) when a staff member, a copy of Joan Cazal’s hefty Tea Time: London’s Best Afternoon Teas tucked under her arm, interjects a bit of etiquette that many of us have gotten and continue to get wrong.
“The pinky should not be out,” she explains, smiling yet firm. “That’s a misconception. It’s silly looking and even a bit rude.”
“Really?” I ask, nervously trying to prevent my pinky from springing outward, as nature and instinct seem to want it to do. It was a struggle, believe me. Across the room, I see a trio of sassy queens, one with pinky out, and I’m jealous.
She’s right, though, as much as my heart and mind wanted to deny it. Further research netted even more firmly worded statements on this matter. Website AfternoonTea.co.uk, for example, in its etiquette dos and don’ts directs: “Pinkies Out? Absolutely not. The common misconception is that outstretching one’s little finger aids the balance of the cup when taking a sip of tea; this is almost certainly not the case and is not only pointless but slightly silly. We wouldn’t recommend grasping the cup in the palm of your hand, but there is no need to stick a pinkie out. It has rapidly become one of Afternoon Teas’ most common faux pas.”
According to another website, An Afternoon to Remember, holding one’s pinky out has its roots in Ancient Rome, when “a cultured person ate with three fingers, a commoner with five. Thus, the birth of the raised pinkie as a sign of elitism.” Miss Manners, in a 2012 column, traced the erect pinkie to 1800’s England. Tea, which originated in China, began shipping to privileged classes in the UK. The British would drink this delicacy in thin Chinese teacups, which lacked handles and got quite hot when full of tea, so as few fingers as possible were used to hold it. “Hence the escaping little finger, and sometimes the ring and middle fingers as well,” she explained. “This habit became a symbol of wealth, when few people could afford tea, let alone imported cups. It quickly progressed, along a path you will recognize, to becoming a symbol of pretentiousness.”
Nonetheless, a couple of days later while savoring an incredible tea service at The Goring (15 Beeston Pl. London. Tel: +44-20-7396 9000. www.thegoring.com) in London’s posh Belgravia district, where Kate Middleton famously stayed the night before she married Prince William, I jutted my pinky out with a vengeance for a Facebook photo. My friend nodded in approval. Hey, one queen’s tradition may not be another queen’s, and the server didn’t seem to mind either way. Pinkies out, queens!
Afternoon tea, replete with multi-tiered trays of savory sandwiches, scones, pastries, and sweets, is truly one of my favorite meals of the day. The tradition dates back to the 1800s, according to the United Kingdom Tea Council (www.tea.co.uk).
What’s the difference between Afternoon Tea and High Tea? The latter was regarded as a heftier, substantial meal for working and farmer classes, while afternoon tea entailed a light snack for upper classes to tide themselves over before dinner. Cream tea, meanwhile, connotes tea served only with scones, clotted cream, and jam. Tea dances, incidentally, sprung from afternoon tea rituals around a century later.
Today, afternoon/high tea is a popular indulgence—often at a luxury price point—particularly among women and gays. A modern trend is the addition of cocktails and booze to the equation, which attracts a younger set and kiki-loving queers. While tea tray staples still include egg salad and cucumber finger sandwiches, the varieties and twists these days can be super-creative and original. For example: the Shangri-La Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia includes lemongrass marinated chicken lollies, beef and enoki teriyaki rolls on dark rye bread with cornichons, and a pecan-maple tartlette.
English-style tea service is truly a global pastime, particularly in destinations formerly or presently home to UK colonies, hotel brands, or expats. That said, the UK counties of Devon and Cornwall are considered high tea’s birthplace and meccas. The issue of which one can definitively lay claim as official birthplace, however, can get messy and heated (and ditto for whether one applies jam or cream to the scone first), so let’s split the difference. Here are over a dozen wonderful afternoon teas, plus recipes from a handful of select spots (see sidebar), worth traveling for.
First stop: London. You can’t bat an eye around this city without seeing a venue that hosts afternoon tea. Hotels, cafés, restaurants, bakeries, and, of course, teashops and parlors. Most are served between 2-5 P.M.
Mayfair’s posh The Ritz (150 Picadilly, London. Tel: +44-20-7493-8181. www.theritzlondon.com), one of London’s grand dame properties and most iconic tea spots, boasts five daily seatings: every two hours between 11:30 A.M.-7:30 P.M., at $79 per person. Advance reservations are strongly suggested and can be made online. The dress code is strictly smart casual, and jeans and sneakers are forbidden.
Another grand dame, The Goring, snagged the UK Tea Guild’s 2013 “Top London Afternoon Tea” award, and it’s a well-deserved honor (see www.afternoontea.co.uk for a full rundown of top-rated venues). Served from 3-4 P.M. daily ($71pp), service includes a fabulous ever-changing menu of sandwiches, and pastries, and a fantastic, global selection of teas.
The finger sandwiches, particularly egg salad and watercress, are among the most delectable I’ve sampled, while sweets include a strawberry macaroon so large it could be a mother ship from the planet Ladurée. Bonus: if you fancy any item in particular, the staff will be happy to bring you another! I ended up requesting four more egg-salad sandwiches.
Goring’s tea menu, curated by dedicated “tearistas,” is substantial, ranging from organic Maojian (a grassy, velvety green tea) and Goring’s signature Afternoon Blend (Assam and second flush Darjeeling) to fruity and floral infusions, with excellent background and flavor descriptions for each. During warmer months, you can savor tea al fresco in Goring’s garden, or request a seat in the bright, mustard yellow-tinted lounge that overlooks it.
London city views accompany tea at Paramount (Centre Point, 101-103 New Oxford St., London. Tel: +44-20-7420-2900. www.paramount.uk.net) that costs $48 per head from 2:30-4:30 P.M.. The crowd is younger, hipper, and more casual, and I spotted at least two tables’ worth of LGBT people during my visit. While the building’s entrance is a nightmare to find due to construction on the Tube (through 2015 or so) once arrived on the 32nd floor it’s a fabulous, contemporary spot with views all around: request an east-facing window for views of The Shard and Gherkin. There’s an element of theater to the presentation here, with teas served in glass teapots so you can witness varieties like whole chamomile flowers and Fujian Jasmine Pearls unfold, bloom and fill the space as they soak and steep. Prefer coffee? Order a Monmouth organic espresso beverage.