For the Japanese, taking tea is a deliberate ritual, with method and rhythm that have led some to examine the elements of hospitality in the contextualized practice of the Eucharist in that culture.
For the British, "tea time" is something else: a kind of supper before supper, it may involve both sweets and savories alongside a pot of Darjeeling or Assam. Though any Brit may offer tea at all times of day, "high tea" or "cream tea" usually means some of food - small portions, but rich textures and flavors.
I have "celebrated" tea by setting out a tea for family and friends upon graduation of seminary. Here are some ways to create a unique, colorful, rich tea time for yourself, friends and family.
1. The Tea: invest in the tea itself. Although you can offer a hospitable cup steeped from a bag of "Constant Comment," to celebrate a tea in the most gracious sense is best done by discovering the joys of loose tea. If you've never used loose tea, don't panic! Not only is it simple, it is worth it - like the difference between Wonderbread and a rustic, crusty loaf fresh from a French brick oven. Loose tea is available at gourmet food stores, tearooms, and online. My favorite comes from Upton Tea. In the pages of Upton's catalogue, you will find varieties of tea and forms and styles of tea you never knew existed. Don't get overwhelmed, though: Upton (and other providers) offer samplers.
To steep loose tea, you will need a strainer on a chain or with squeeze handles. This is not a dunk-and-done bag situation: different kinds of tea should steep for different times. An Assam or Irish Breakfast - both rich and robust - will steep longer than the more delicate, shadowy Darjeeling. All these require boiling water, but some teas, such as herbal or white, should actually be steeped just before hitting the boiling point. Loose tea often arrives in a tin, from which you can scoop out the loose leaves into your strainer. Pour the boiling water over the strainer and let steep for the recommended time on the tin: 2,3, or even 5 minutes. Remove the strainer, dump the used leaves in the trash, and add sugar.
Here's something you need to try: milk. I never thought I'd like milk in tea. Well, I wouldn't like milk in a few quick dunks of a Lipton bag. However, a splash of milk in a rich, loose tea cup is splendid and compliments the flavors. Milk should only be poured in black teas: don't try milk in your herbal tea! The best non-sugar sweetener I've found is Splenda: it won't tease out the flavors of the tea as well as sugar, but in the winter months, if you're drinking multiple cups, it can cut out a lot of calories.
These, of course, address individual cups of tea: a pot of tea can be steeped by adding loose tea to a pot-sized "dunker" strainer, available for purchase usually at the same places that offer loose tea. In this way, you can offer a pot of Assam, a pot of Darjeeling, and so on. A communal pot is a fun way to add to the grace of the setting. Don't fear about the pot growing cold, though - you can make or purchase a tea cosy, which is like a mitten or scarf for your pot that will insulate it and keep the tea hot inside for a surprisingly long duration. This individual pot pictured at left has the tea in it and is poured through the cup-topping strainer.
Depending on the guests, it's a good idea to have caffeine-free teas available. This is most easily done by offering some herbal tea, often available in bags. Keep some honey on hand for sweetening, and let a bag of herbal tea steep for at least five minutes.
2. The Setting: It's surprisingly easy to craft a beautiful tea setting in just a few minutes. Here are a few ways I like to set the table.
Use a cup, jar, or small vase to hold posies of flowers from your yard (or the store). It feels less formal to set dessert cups of pansies and thyme on the table, end tables, and stove than it does to have one pre-packaged bunch of flowers from the store in the center of the table in a vase. Having mugs or cups of cosmos or daisies also allows you to see all around the table uninhibited by a floral arrangement that blocks your view of guests, food, or tea. In amongst your flowers, add sprigs of herbs - rosemary, thyme, and sage are beautiful and aromatic. You can even pinch off the grey, fuzzy leaves of Dusty Miller to add a backdrop to bachelor's buttons or dahlias.
Use a tablecloth. This doesn't have to be conventional: right now my table cloth is a brightly squared quilt top I bought at a rummage. It doesn't have to be lace to look inviting ( men like teas just as much as women sometimes!) Provide either unique, decorated paper napkins, or cloth napkins - neither has to match the tablecloth, but they should blend in with the colors you're using.
Have cups other than mugs available. Whether you invest in Royal Doulton (and that is an investment!!) or pick up a cracked teacup at Goodwill, your china doesn't have to perfect to be lovely to hold and to use. Estate sales, antique stores, or even Target can provide you with a mixed and matched set to present for company. If you like everything to match, that's fine: just remember your purpose. If you want a formal setting, match cloth and napkins, teacups and pot. If you want a less formal atmosphere, give guests their own design of teacup and don't fret over things matching. Instead, allow it to blossom into a diverse, beautiful setting. Just try to avoid using "Tom's Plumbing Services" mugs for these occasions.
For your sake, make sure you have a tray or two. This allows you to clear the table without your friends having to bus their own litter, and it keeps them from having to see the inside of your garbage can: just clear the table with a tray, then later after everyone is gone you can clear the tray and wash the dishes.
I've found that background music can encourage guests to speak without becoming tense at prolonged silence. I don't suggest hiring a Chamber Orchestra to play highbrow Mozart; but a cd player in an adjoining room playing jazz, or Celtic instrumentals, or piano solos can soften moods and relax brows. Don't play something heavily definitive of one genre, lest your guests dislike the music and wish to escape. But the suggested music above is not too generic but not jarring, either. Also beware! If you have a multi-disc player, make sure all the discs are something appropriate for your tea. You don't want a disc to end, only to hear Radiohead or Pink Floyd or Pedro the Lion.
I also like to think of "accessorizing" the items on the table. You can layer doilies or vintage linens over the center of your tablecloth; you can tie ribbons around a tiered stand that holds sweets and savories; you can place sprigs of herbs around the base of a sugarbowl. This attention to detail, in the end, communicates care for your guests and appreciation of beauty.
Keep your camera onhand to take pictures of your table before guests arrive, then with guests around it. Photos of the event are a nice reminder of the beauty, a good resource for ideas later, and a potential gift to friends.
It should go without saying that the setting - whether dining room, living room, patio, or porch - should be tidy and clean. To ensure this, a lot of the cooking and baking needs to be done ahead of time. Also, this will allow you to give one of the best gifts of all: a relaxed host or hostess. A frenzied hostess is not a sign of all the hard work you've done: it's a sign that you didn't prepare well. A lacksidaisical hostess is not a sign of a carefree attitude: it's a sign of an uncaring attitude. So treat your friends, relations, or guests to a relaxed you - because in the end, the people around the table will give and receive as much as the table itself gives refreshment.
3. The Food: One book I've seen suggests that the backbone of a tea menu is a two-pronged offering: sweets, and savories. (You could simplify even further to suggest sweet and salty, but savories aren't necessarily salty, and a lot of salty food isn't really savory.)
This is important! Unless you are an old hand at cooking and baking, try all recipes before you make them for the event. Try them a week or two ahead so that you can have a general menu in your mind (and therefore a general grocery list). It will cause a lot of unnecessary stress if you wait until the day, or even the day before, to try a recipe. It's difficult to estimate the time it will take in preparation; sometimes you miss an ingredient needed and have to make an unexpected trip to the store; and sometimes the recipe just isn't what you're looking for. Whatever you make the day before or morning of can be kept in the fridge or stored in Tupperware until time to heat it up or place it on a pretty serving plate.
Both sweets and savories can reflect the season in which you're serving, though they don't need to. Examples of sweets for the seasons:
Spring: Martha Stewart's ruby red grapefruit cookies, lemon squares, sugar cookies, lemon tarts, or chocolate macaroons (please avoid chocolate chip cookies at tea - keep them for all the other days of the year!)
Summer: Martha's lime meltaway cookies, miniature peanut butter pies, blueberry squares, sugar cookies with raspberry jam filling
Fall: pumpkin bread with cream cheese, miniature mince pies, molasses creams, rustic apple tartlets
Winter: honey bread, snickerdoodles, Hershey's chocolate cake, pear bread, tiramisu
You can see from all these that sweets include cookies, tartlets, miniature pies, cake, and breads. An all-season delight, petit fours can be made or purchased at a bakery.
Examples of savories for the seasons:
Spring: miniature spinach and tomato quiches
Summer: cream cheese with smoked salmon crackers (top with chives)
Fall: miniature sausage quiches, gourmet cheese plate
Winter: cups of homemade mushroom soup, cheese breadsticks
Now, you can see which ones I make more often. These are, of course, only suggestions, and may fit your tea table at many different times. This is also a very limited list of ideas. I highly suggest this book as a starting place for informed inspiration. Remember, when preparing, that you may also envision a cultural theme: Irish tea cakes with Irish Breakfast tea, or Southern tea cakes with a mint iced tea.
What, you ask? You have the culinary skill of a boll weevil? Well, let me give this counsel: A) try a cooking class to see if you would enjoy cooking as a hobby. B) if you buy the bounty for your tea table, you must - must - spend a pretty penny on the best. No Chef Boyardee for tea time. And trust me, if you buy it, it inevitably will cost a pretty penny - handcrafted miniature quiches don't come cheap, you know.
But, you ask, you have no skills or money? Then stick to the very simple, but arrange it in an elegant way: it doesn't take mad skills to arrange a piece of salmon on a cracker. If you're desperate (and I mean morning sickness-kids are ill-car broke down-pet has rabies desperate), you could buy a log of sugar cookie dough. But I warn you: you better present them well, or I will hunt you down and shoot you with a Tea Time Traitor Taser. Yes, they exist. Probably on eBay.
In all of this, remember, this is your tea time, for your friends. It can be as beginner or as personal, as rudimentary or as unique as you like. You could have guests all bring their favorite teas so everyone can try one cup of each. You could have a girlfriend sleepover night beginning with a tea. It's often fun to mix people you know well with a couple people you don't know well. However you host, this is what I've observed: tea time often brings the best out of people.
The best way to treat yourself and form the seeds of hosting a great tea is to visit a teahouse yourself. Whether you buy a cup of tea and a scone, or spring for the all-out all you can drink tea sampling with sweets and savories, your soul will be restored.