Etiquette expert Lisa Orr explains the art of afternoon tea

Queen Elizabeth just celebrated her 90th birthday with a spot of afternoon tea. How very British. Or is it?


Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 90th birthday on April 21, and—in England at least—the occasion called for serious fanfare. Naturally, one of Her Majesty's many fetes involved a proper British tea service. That got us thinking: while Canadians are no strangers to afternoon tea, the tradition isn't as regarded here as it is across the pond. So what's all the fuss about? We caught up with etiquette expert Lisa Orr for some background on the British custom of afternoon tea, and how the tradition took root here in Canada.

What can you tell us about the history of tea in Canada?

Tea first arrived in Canada in 1716, and was imported by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Because of its British colonial history, tea drinking was popular with wealthy [Canadian] colonists as early as the late 18th century. Canadian tea drinking reached its peak just before World War II; tea fell out of favour after the war, falling to its lowest levels of popularity in the 1990s. Recently, however, tea has seen a substantial resurgence, and Canadians today consume over 10 billion cups annually.

Lisa Orr

Etiquette expert Lisa Orr

What are the differences between afternoon tea, twilight tea and high tea?

Afternoon tea is what people typically envision when they think of "going for tea." It is a sophisticated ritual, seated at low tables and served in the afternoon, and was historically intended to be a light meal to stave off hunger between lunch and dinner, which was served much later in the evening. Twilight tea is a more recent phenomenon, and refers to an afternoon meal that is served in the early evening. High tea, although it sounds quite posh, is actually a reference to the height of the tables where the meal was served, and traditionally consisted of a heavier meal that was eaten by labourers in the late afternoon.

When you're going for tea—or partaking at home—is there specific tea etiquette to follow?

  • When preparing your tea, remember that milk or lemon should be added after the tea is poured.
  • When enjoying your tea, never blow on it to cool it down, and do not clink your cup as you stir.
  • When tea is being served at a restaurant, it would typically be poured by the wait staff. However, if enjoying tea at home, the first cup would be served by the hostess or host.
  • When tackling your scone (pronounced “skon”), do not confuse it for a sandwich. The scone should be torn like bread with your hands, never sliced, and then dressed with clotted cream and jam before taking a bite.
  • A special note: pinkies should never be up, and the cup should be held firmly by its handle.

How does the Royal Family influence the way we view tea here in Canada?

In the 18th century, a member of the royal court—Anna, Duchess of Bedford—is said to have created the ritual. Tea historians suggest that it may have been common practice in polite circles decades before the duchess began serving tea, however there’s no doubt in my mind that the royal influence increased its popularity. One of my favourite modern royal influences on tea is the royal tea, which is essentially a traditional afternoon tea served with cocktails (usually a glass of champagne to begin, and a small glass of port or sherry to conclude).

Are there specific types of food that should be eaten at tea parties? How have tea parties changed in recent years?

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The traditional afternoon tea menu consists of savouries (such as small sandwiches), then scones (presented with clotted cream and jams), followed by sweets (such as petit fours or delicate pastries). All of these are typically presented at the same time on a multi-tiered serving platter that separates each of the courses. Then, of course, there is the tea: ideally loose leaf, which is presented with steeping instructions based on the type of tea.

The modern afternoon tea menu in many cases has embraced our foodie culture, and although it follows the same themes, can be much more exotic. For example, I’ve been to a tea where instead of tea sandwiches, the savouries were replaced with samosas and sushi. Also, the varieties of tea available have expanded, thanks to the incredible access we now have to the global marketplace.

In terms of the parties, the real difference is that we have so much less leisure time, it’s rare for people to have the time to regularly host other people for tea. It’s become much more of a fine dining experience rather than a special gathering that was hosted at home.

Tea time in Toronto

Afternoon tea still seems like a luxurious day out, and here in Toronto, the Fairmont Royal York does it best. Still, some hotels and tea rooms have updated their menus to indulge those with more adventurous tastes.

At the Shangri-La Hotel, they've taken standard tea sandwiches and sweets and given them a modern update (like the lobster sandwich with chives with curried mayonnaise, or the Asian-inspired roll cakes).

Then there's Kitten and the Bear, a cozy shop with tea and scones. Their specialty? The fresh, fruit-forward preserves made in-house by Sophie Kaftal and Bobby Zielinski.

What are the biggest differences between tea services here in Canada and around the world?

Canada’s afternoon tea tradition is still quite similar to the rituals that originated in the UK. However, many countries have very different and beautiful rituals to celebrate tea. For example, in a traditional Gong Fu ceremony [in China], the focus is exclusively on the tea. It is consumed in small cups without handles, which are held between the thumb and index finger with the elbow held close to the body. The emphasis is on the ritual and traditions around the pouring and drinking of the tea: there are no [additions] such as lemon or milk, and no food items are served during the ceremony.

Where can people go to experience the authentic tea experience?

There are many delightful tea rooms across Canada where you can enjoy a traditional afternoon tea. Some even go so far as to provide their guests with special tea hats and fascinators to give them the full experience, though I have to admit, I prefer to bring my own. Some of the most well known [in Toronto] include The Windsor Arms and The Fairmont Royal York Library Bar.