"Tea is the original comfort food," says Elizabeth Knight, a Certified Tea Master and founder of Tea with Friends. It is also the second most popular beverage in the world, according to Takeshi Watanabe who teaches the Culture of Tea at Connecticut College.
It is no wonder that during the holidays, when our days are at their busiest, taking the time to savor a proper tea is just the remedy we need to catch our breath. For some, the afternoon ritual of taking a moment, an adult "time-out," to pause from our frenetic schedules over a cup of brewed tea—maybe with a chocolate on the side—is something we actually need.
During the holidays, for young children a trip to the big city with their mothers and/or grandmothers for a proper English Tea creates memories that last a lifetime. However, you don’t have to live near a big city, like New York, where afternoon tea is served at many hotels, to take a proper English tea. Emeric Harney, General Manager of the new Harney & Sons store in New York City, shared with us all the necessary tips and steps to follow to create a simple tea party in your own home.
Choosing Your Tea
When hosting a tea party, the most important question is often what kinds of teas to serve. With over 3,500 varieties of Camellia sinensis, the plant from which tea is made, there are a lot of teas on the market, and new varieties are always being produced, too:
White – the youngest, least processed tea, with the most caffeine; known for anti-viral and anti-aging properties.
Green - Un-oxidized tea; comes from China and Japan, and can be flavored.
Oolong – partially oxidized tea; can be flavored.
Black – Most “common” teas, including Ceylons, Assams, and Darjeelings, fall into this category. A fully oxidized tea, if often comes in a variety of flavors.
Jasmine and Floral – Ancient Chinese tradition uses flowers to create aromatic teas.
Tisane – The proper term for what is commonly known as “herbal” tea, these caffeine-free “teas” are made from bark, flowers, and seeds.
For a tea party, Emeric recommends brewing four different varieties: an herbal tea; a plain black tea, like Ceylon; a flavored black tea; and a flavored white tea. This way there is an offering for each taste and caffeine preference. If you’re unsure of what kinds to choose, Harney & Sons offers tea tastings at both of their tearooms, where they will feature a different flight of teas per week, to educate your palate. As well, both their online shop and tearooms sell their teas by the ounce, so you can explore new teas at home.
Tea Party Essentials
You can’t host a tea party without a couple of essential items—and some more optional accessories.
Teapot and teacups – A teapot isn’t essential if you’re using teabags and sachets. It is, however, if you choose to use loose tea, which Emeric prefers. With loose teas, you use often use a filter or a strainer; allowing the tea to float around enables it to freely expand, extracting as much flavor as possible without too many tannins. As for teacups, if you’re brewing with bags and sachets, make sure to pick a mug with the proper volume needed to brew the amount of tea in the bag; otherwise, it comes down to personal preference.
Sugar – Though not essential, often people enjoy a little sugar cube or honey with their tea; Harney & Sons likes using brown Demerara sugar cubes.
Milk – Connoisseurs of tea shun the addition of milk, as it hides the subtle complexity of most exotic teas. You might as well buy the generic, inexpensive teas, if you like to add milk, as there is little or no difference in taste. As well, the addition of dairy is thought to counteract any beneficial antioxidant properties.
Tea Party Treats
Homemade scone – You can whip some up from scratch, or cheat a bit; At the shop, Emeric likes using a vanilla scone flavored with some dried fruits, or chocolate chips. For something savory, you can also add herbs, chopped bacon, or cheese. His favorite trick for making perfect scones? Cut out small little rounds of dough, then roll them in white sparkling sugar; the crunchy exterior is a perfect contrast to the soft and moist inside.
French Preserves – Any flavor will do, but a chunky fruit jam is a perfect accompaniment for scones.
Double Devon or Clotted Cream – A special treat, used in lieu of butter, traditionally served with scones. Made from the cream that rises to the top of unpasteurized whole milk, double Devon cream is a bit lighter than clotted cream, but both are equally delicious.
Tea Sandwiches – What could be more delightful than tiny, crust-less sandwiches with a variety of fillings? Tea sandwiches are an optional addition to your tea, depending on your appetite and number of guests.
Optional Accessories For Your Party
Lacquer Tray – to carry your teapot and teacups from the kitchen to where you will take your tea; if you’re taking the tea near a wooden table, a lacquer tray will also protect your table from any dribbles or spills.
Tea Towel – any pretty dish towel will work. Helps protect the hot teapot from the tray surface, and also is handy in case you need to wipe up a spill.