Text by Bruce Richardson • Photograph by John O’Hagan
I still remember my first encounter with a tea sandwich. I wasn’t sitting in the tearoom at Harrods or the Palm Court at The Ritz—those adventures would come later. The setting was a chilly church hall in Paisley, Scotland.
I was a member of a male chorus in the spring of 1979 when we made our first European concert tour, beginning in Scotland. Fresh off an overnight flight and with only a few hours before our first performance, we were treated to a late afternoon tea prepared by our hosts. Pots of strong black tea were poured to awaken us from our jet lag as trays of savories and sweets were piled high on the buffet table. Sitting down to this generous repast, I mentioned to my wife, Shelley, that I had never tasted such wonderful sliced beef on homemade bread.
“What is this tasty beef with an unusual grain?” I asked one of the servers.
“Oh, dearie,” she replied. “It’s tongue.”
Shelley quickly passed her sandwich onto my plate.
Forty years and more than a hundred tearoom visits later, I can say there are few tea sandwiches that I have not encountered and learned to enjoy. From potted Morecambe Bay shrimps on toast in England’s Lake District to raw tuna in Tokyo, flavors from the local cuisine are often featured in the tea meal. As a service to fellow gentlemen beginning their tea journeys, I offer the following suggestions when eating tea sandwiches.
Dorothea Johnson, my co-author of Tea & Etiquette, suggests that you never want to appear hungry at a formal tea! Take that advice as rule #1.
Rule #2: Avoid an embarrassing tea faux pas. Cucumber, chicken salad, egg and cress, and smoked salmon are the top four sandwich varieties found on most menus. They may be presented open-faced, closed, or rolled. The bread should be very fresh and preferably crust-less. These are called finger sandwiches because they are meant to be eaten in not more than three bites. If the sandwich holds its shape while being transferred from the plate to your mouth, no utensil is needed. But if there is any fear that the filling might land in your lap, a knife and fork should be used to slice the sandwich into bite-sized pieces.
The tea meal is often presented on a three-tiered stand, which allows diners to enjoy small helpings. This petite size gives you an opportunity to taste a variety of sandwiches, all equal in proportion. A well-balanced tea meal will balance savories with sweets.
Where do you start? Begin at the bottom tier and work your way up. That’s rule #3: You can’t eat dessert until you finish your savories.
I’ll finish with rule #4: Be a cordial dining companion. Eat at a comparable pace with other guests, engage in refined conversation and, if you can’t identify one of the sandwich fillings, simply hold your tongue.
Contributing editor Bruce Richardson is the publisher of such books as Tea & Etiquette and Children’s Tea & Etiquette, available at elmwoodinn.com.
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