I love tea parties. I love going to them; I love hosting them. As a guest, the food is always delicious and bite-sized; as a hostess, all the preparation is done before the guests arrive, and there is no (or minimal) table clearing between “courses.” So, I really get to sit and enjoy the food and the company. I keep the number of guests fairly small – usually about four or five. That number seems to fit well around my coffee table in my living room. If my party is bigger, then I serve at the dining room table.
I do have a set formula for what I serve at my tea parties. I always start with three or four kinds of finger sandwiches; sometimes I use different “containers” for the sandwich fillings (for instance, I’ll stuff a cherry tomato with a sandwich filling instead of using bread). Next, come the scones; I always use a cream scone recipe (because it is so easy to make at the last minute) but I vary it with “additions” (like grated lemon peel, or chopped dried apricots), and I always accompany the scones with some form of whipped cream, jams, lemon curd, and fruit. Finally, I serve the dessert; I like to offer one kind of cake or pie, and some kind of cookie. If I’m really craving sweets, I’ll serve cake and pie and cookies. And, of course, I offer tea – both black and herbal.
If you want to be very proper and British, there are a few traditions with which one should never mess regarding tea parties. High Tea is always served late in the afternoon, and requires something savory and substantial; something from the sea is often included. Strawberry jam is always the preferred jam of choice, never raspberry jam – no matter how much more preferred! Sugar cubes are a must, if only so you can ask, “One lump, or two?” They are also a great excuse to polish up your sugar tongs (or a great reason to buy a pair). Tea-at-home can be prepared with tea bags or loose tea; my London friend tells me that tea bags are perfectly acceptable in perfectly respectable English homes. Of course, loose tea lets you use your silver tea strainer. Always serve tea with milk, never with cream; ask your guests, “Black, or white?” And, of course, madeleines are a proverbial French (ahem, Proustian) touch. One last thing, I always try to have a pretty arrangement of flowers on my table. Garden flowers are usually what I work with; they always seem to showoff well. In the winter, a fire in the fireplace is a cozy touch. And, as I like to think of tea as a “celebration of the senses,” I also try to play some music in the background; movie soundtracks are my favorite genre for teatime.
Depending on my mood or the celebration, I can change my Classic Tea to, say, a Tropical Tea, or a Gluten-Free Tea. I’ve even devised a California Coast Tea for my friend who was visiting from London; I wanted to make her feel at home by offering tea, but I also wanted to showcase our regional foods that would make it a little more unique than the traditional Tea that she could easily get back home. The options are endless!