The sophisticated rituals of modern-day tea drinking were introduced by the Ming Dynasty in China and later adopted by the 17th-century English court. From Thomas Twinings’ first dry tea and coffee shops in London to contemporary urban tearooms, tea has an allure that persists today with connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike. Tea parties offer unique group experiences, whether you’re hosting a birthday celebration or a personal send-off. Before hosting your next tea party, there a few essentials you should know.
All teas are not created equal. Authentic teas are processed only from the tea tree Camellia sinensis and fall into four broad categories. Black teas, such as Darjeeling and Assam, are fully oxidized, giving them a strong, earthy flavor. Oolong is partially oxidized, which can give it a rich, toasty flavor or a light, floral taste. Green teas such as Dragon Well and Sencha are lightly oxidized — if at all. White teas such as Ginger Peach and Snowbud are the least processed of all and have a mild flavor. Popular fruit-flavored herbals are not strictly considered teas, since they are made from herbs or dried fruit rather than the leaves of the tea bush.
Opting for high or low tea will determine menu choices. High tea doesn’t mean social elitism and prim manners; it describes tea served on a high dining table rather than on a low coffee table. The menu consists of hearty, hot foods such as shepherd’s pie, potatoes, or even steak, and is served at 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. Low tea, more commonly referred to as afternoon tea, is taken at about 4 p.m. and is served on coffee tables near chairs and sofas. Patrice S. Clayton of the Harlem Tea Room in New York City suggests a menu that includes small, light sandwiches, scones, pastries, and preserves. So high tea is the perfect setting for formal gatherings, and afternoon tea is ideal for casual social affairs. Clayton says oolong and white teas — considered specialty teas — are optional, but you should definitely offer guests a selection of teas from both the black and green varietals as well as an herbal or fruit blend. She recommends Special Teas’ Lung Ching (green tea) as well as Darjeeling (black tea) and Peppermint (herbal tea) by Harney & Sons. Milk, slices of lemon, cubes of sugar, and honey should also be offered.
Maintain proper etiquette and decorum. Tea parties demand your finest china and most elegant flatware. Whether linen, lace, or taffeta, the table covering and napkins must be cloth, and “fresh flowers are a must,” Clayton insists. Floral arrangements enhance the room’s ambience. For parties of two to six around a circular table, small floral arrangements are more suitable as they allow guests to interact more easily. Place settings help guests get acquainted and encourage conversation. Cell phones must remain off.
Plan an elegant end. Favors and a personalized thank you note will successfully cap off a winning tea party. After Clayton’s birthday tea party, she sent guests home with a sachet filled with tea bags and a tea bag holder. She also mailed handwritten, special messages to each guest. Whatever the occasion, the elegant refinement of a tea party offers the ultimate opportunity to relax and share an intimate conversation with family, friends, and acquaintances.
This story originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.