Best known is the rite of afternoon tea. This domestic and social ritual is carried out by the lady of the house. Young girls are initiated starting in adolescence, so that they may in turn become perfect ladies. The afternoon tea may be served daily as well as on special occasions. It is served in the boudoir or the living room, accompanied by dry pastries, biscuits, scones, seasonal fruits, nuts, or cucumber sandwiches.
The lady of the house prepares the tea and hands a cup to the first guest. The daughters of the house, or if there are none, some of the young women guests help to serve. If there are not enough women, the men must be pressed into service.
The napkin slid under the cup is not intended for finger wiping, but to catch any drops that may fall; for this reason sticky pastries are not served. The habit of pouring tea into the saucer and drinking it was long practised, but since the beginning of the century this custom has been looked down upon. Also, the spoon must be removed from the cup before drinking.
The hostess must refill her guests' cups as often as they wish. She does not count how many cups they have consumed and so would not ask, for example "Would you like a second cup?" The guest on the other hand, must wait to be served. In the United States, since it was considered impolite to ask guests whether they wanted another cup of tea, it became the custom to refill guests' cups automatically until they signalled that they had drunk their fill by inverting their cups on their saucers and balancing the spoon on top. The story is told of a foreign visitor who was not aware of this custom and so consumed twelve cups of tea before deciding to hide his cup in his pocket!
1- Use good tea. High quality blends produce better tea.
2- Use freshly-drawn, freshly-boiled water. Water easily goes "stable" if allowed to stand, and water that has been boiled before should never be used again for tea-making. Again, water has not come to boil causes tea to be flat and insipid.
3- Warm the pot. If water is poured into a cold pot, it will go off the boil and the tea will be not so good.
4- Use the "short pour". To get full benefit, the water should reach the tea leaves as near boiling as possible. If kettles are being used, the rule is: take the teapot to the kettle, and not the kettle to the teapot. If, as is more likely, a boiler is being used, then make sure the teapots are brought right up to boiling water outlet.
5- Tea should be brewed not stewed. The time to be allow for infusion should be between four and 6 minutes, depending upon the size of the pot and the nature of the water. The larger the pot, the longer the time for infusion; soft water infuses tea more readily than hard.
©1996: Centre d'histoire de Montréal
Picture source: Musée McCord d'histoire canadienne, archive Notman