For some families, Mother’s Day means a pilgrimage to local teahouses with doily-bedecked tables, flowered teapots and tiny treats from a triple-tiered platter. You may not be ready to celebrate Mother’s Day at a teahouse this year, but you can create a memorable teatime at home.
Certified tea etiquette consultant Cyrilla Gleason, who’s conducted seminars all over the West Coast from California to Canada, dispels the notion that a meaningful teatime is about getting it “right.”
“What makes teatime special is the friendship and the family and conversation. It’s not so much the food but the fellowship you have around the teapot,” Gleason said.
The Vancouver resident and former schoolteacher conducts short tea etiquette programs ranging from 30 to 90 minutes, as well as a comprehensive eight- to 10-hour workshop.
Participants learn, among many other things, the distinctions between a cream tea (tea and scones with cream and jam), a sweet or light tea (scones with desserts) and an afternoon tea (scones, finger sandwiches and desserts). A high tea is eaten in the evening around the dining room table and includes suppertime dishes with meat, vegetables, breads and cheeses. Low tea is a less formal affair served at low tables in the parlor or sitting room.
Your homemade Mother’s Day tea might not conform to any of these categories, and that’s just fine. Gleason said you can create a memorable teatime even if all you have is a few mugs and a stainless steel pan. Bring cold water to a boil and pour it over tea bags or loose-leaf tea, 1 teaspoon per cup of water. If you don’t have a teapot, serve it in a pitcher. If you don’t have teacups, serve tea in glasses, which is the norm in many countries, Gleason pointed out. The food doesn’t necessarily need to be fancy, either.
“Just use whatever you have,” Gleason said. “If you don’t have cucumbers but you have peanut butter, have peanut butter sandwiches for teatime. It doesn’t really matter. Graham crackers and tea, cookies and tea, cheese and pickle sandwiches and tea.”
Gleason did suggest that guests will feel cherished if you use the best, prettiest things you have, even if that’s a mishmash.
“Use a tablecloth or use some napkins. It doesn’t matter if your dishes match or not,” Gleason said. “The most important thing for me is to not have dishes that are chipped or cracked. Don’t use those for teatime. It’s nice to use nice china for teatime because it makes you feel special.”
Gleason described a proper tea setting as a clock: “Forks on the left, knives and spoons on the right. Knife blade always faces the plate. Goblets at one o’clock and teacups at 2 o’clock. If you have a spoon to stir the tea, it goes behind the cup on the saucer.”
While you’re sipping tea, should you remember to hold your pinky out? Gleason’s answer is a resounding “No!”
“That’s a French affectation, because aristocratic Frenchmen in the 1600s only ate with three fingers, whereas common people ate with four fingers and their thumbs,” Gleason said. “I say in my class, ‘It was a hoity-toity thing.’ Even in the pictures of the royal family drinking tea, their pinkies are never out.”
Gleason also shed light on the age-old debate about whether to put milk in the teacup first and then add tea, or tea first, then milk. She noted that in times past, the homes of common people weren’t well heated, so if boiling tea was poured into a cold and delicate teacup, it might crack. Room-temperature milk was added first to temper the china and it became a sort of tradition, though nowadays it doesn’t make any difference.
“It tastes good both ways,” Gleason said.
To get you started, here’s a recipe for authentic English scones, which aren’t like the dense triangles sold in coffee shops and but more akin to a soft, flaky American biscuit.
Put 2 cups flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, 4 teaspoons baking powder, ½ teaspoon salt and 3 tablespoons cold butter into a bowl and mix it with your hands, slowly incorporating the butter into the dry ingredients. Slowly add 2/3 cup milk and continue to mix with your hands until dough is smooth.
Turn out onto floured surface and knead two or three times, evenly coating with flour. Pat into a 1-inch-thick circle and use a biscuit cutter or round cookie cutter to cut (don’t twist, as this will affect fluffiness). Place onto a greased and floured baking sheet. Brush with an egg mixed with 1 tablespoon milk. Bake at 425 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes. Scones are best eaten warm, slathered with jam and clotted cream or Devonshire cream (available in most grocery stores).
Here’s Gleason’s tried-and-true recipe for cucumber sandwiches:
Peel an English cucumber in an alternating pattern, with stripes of skin left. Slice thinly and “wilt” the cucumbers by soaking them for 20 minutes in 2 cups of water mixed with ¼ cup white vinegar and 1 tablespoon of salt. Drain the cucumbers and pat dry. Cut crusts off slices of slightly dry white bread. Spread half the bread with softened cream cheese or butter sprinkled with dill. Layer cucumbers on the cream cheese or butter, then top with remaining bread. Cut into triangles or squares.
No matter how you slice it, a lovely teatime is mostly a matter of attitude — setting aside time to enjoy life’s little pleasures and taking comfort in the company of those you love.
“Don’t be stressed out. Just have fun. There’s nothing to be stressed out about having tea,” Gleason said. “Even if something isn’t done on time, just take a deep breath and talk for a while.”