Vale de Milho’s proper tea service includes a proper drink
Vale de Milho’s proper tea service includes a proper drink

An improper American at a proper English Tea

The Club for Algarvian Social Activities (CASA) recently held a “proper” tea at Vale de Milho in Carvoeiro. I was a bit nervous about attending. What exactly was a tea? Why was it proper? What was I supposed to wear? What if I was the ugly American who slurped my tea or stuck my napkin in my collar? This called for research.

My first error was in thinking I was attending a “High Tea”. I learned High Tea is served in the evening with a full meal. The CASA event was at 2pm, so it was a “Low Tea” or afternoon tea.  This English tradition has been going on since the 19th century when a Duchess of Something felt slightly peckish between meals.

What does one wear to Low Tea? No trainers. Well, of course, I wouldn’t show up in a diaper.  Oops, that means no tennis shoes in Britspeak. No shorts, no jeans. Hat optional. I was bummed I left my Kentucky Derby hat in storage in the States.

Next, how does one behave at Low Tea? Behaving can be a problem of mine, but this is tea, not alcohol, so I should have it under control. The rules were daunting and led to so many questions.

Proper crustless sandwiches...
Proper crustless sandwiches…

One guest pours for the whole table (Is there an election? Do we draw straws?); No filling the cup to the brim (I’m pretty sure they won’t let the Yank pour, so I should be good here.); No stirring the tea in a circular motion (What? Isn’t that how you stir?). Apparently, one can stir back and forth; When done with this bizarre “stirring”, gently touch the spoon to the inner side of the cup to allow run off to go into the cup, not on the saucer (So, why is there a saucer?); No banging or clinking noises from the spoon (Have you ever been to an American wedding? We bang on the glasses like drummers, so the bride and groom have to kiss, especially when they have food in their mouths.);

And here’s my favorite: If sitting at a high table, you may pick up just the cup. If sitting at a low table, you pick up both the cup and saucer (Ok, it’s Low Tea, does that mean it will be served at low tables?); The spoon should be placed on the saucer parallel to the cup handle, and the cup handle and spoon handle should face in the same direction; Do not lean over to drink your tea, bring the cup to your mouth as you maintain perfect posture; And, shocking, DO NOT stick out your pinky, you pretentious nob.

Ok, do little English girls playing tea party start learning all these rules at age five? Because American little girls play cocktail party (Maybe that was just me.) Oh, wait. Those were just the rules for the tea. There’s a whole list of rules for the rest of the shindig.

When it comes to the food, you are to offer everything to others before serving yourself. The food is supposed to be served on three-tier platters, and it’s correct to eat from the bottom up (This seems a bit much, what if I want the top tier thing first?).

…the improper crusts
…the improper crusts

The proper tea sandwiches (proper meaning no crust) may be eaten with your hands (So, how do you eat the sandwiches with the crust on? Like a dog? What about the perfect posture thing?).

And now the important part – eating the scones. You never cut it with a knife, you break it open with your hands (Does this seem barbaric to anyone else, after all the other rules?); Do not put the jam and cream directly on your scone, place it carefully on your plate. If you hail from Devonshire, you layer the cream and then the jam. Opposite for the Cornish folks (As an American, may I blend them on the plate and then scoop the mixture on the scone? I can hear the gasps.); Do not make a sandwich out of your scone; If cookies are served (wait, isn’t that biscuits for the English?) NEVER dip them in your tea. How distasteful.

And since there weren’t enough rules when it comes to dress code, tea drinking and eating, there are napkin rules. First, should you leave the table, the napkin is to be placed on your chair, carefully folded to hide those unsightly stains. This will be easy, because you should only dab at your mouth gently with the very edge of your napkin. Surely lightning will strike if you WIPE your mouth.

I did find out a fun fact along my research journey. Portugal’s Catherine of Braganza is credited with introducing tea to England after marrying Charles II in 1662 (Apparently Charles wasn’t too hideous, or she might have been credited with bringing tequila shooters over.)

I was prepared as the big day dawned. I was appropriately attired; I practiced the Vulcan salute to keep my pinkies in and I memorized most of the rules. The setting on the outdoor terrace at Vale de Milho was lovely.

The brilliant Teasmade. Circa 1982
The brilliant Teasmade. Circa 1982

I was a little nervous, but then I noticed a few things that put me right at ease. Someone was wearing shorts! No one had a hat on! (Thank goodness I didn’t have the giant Kentucky Derby hat on my head!)

I don’t want to shame anyone, but I saw English people stirring their tea with a circular motion. Shocking! I heard some clanging of spoons from the next table (Quickly suppressed.)

The only rules I learned from my tablemates were that bone china was required, three-tiered plates were a necessity, and the crustless cucumber sandwiches were quite proper.

CASA members are such kind people. No one commented on my stirring, eating from the middle tier first, and leaning over to drink my tea, versus spilling it in my lap. Probably what they were expecting from an American tea crasher.

I did learn about a fascinating piece of equipment called a Teasmade. This amazing machine combined an alarm clock and an automatic tea brewer. My friend Norman and his charming wife Cecilia received one for a wedding present a few decades ago. Norman reported it worked beautifully for 15 years of morning teas.

I asked what they did when it broke down, as my tablemates lamented that Teasmades were no longer manufactured. Norman replied: “I’m Cecilia’s Teasmade.” And now I know the secret to a successful English marriage. FYI, you can score a “vintage” Teasmade on EBay for about 55 pounds. Cheaper than a marriage counselor.

By Glenda Cole
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Glenda Cole is a retired American executive, loving her storybook life in Portugal. If you are interested in attending a fun event with CASA, check out their website at