By Amy Cates
An elegant centerpiece weighted with scones, cakes, and light sandwiches, the tiered tea tray is an expected presence at teatime. But its practical design and graceful appearance have allowed it to play other roles at an array of events and gatherings, anytime of day, anytime of year. At bridal showers, weddings, luncheons, and dinner parties, it has served as hors d’oeuvre platter, dessert server, and cupcake tree.
In the 19th century, the pairing of tea with a light snack to quiet the hunger between an early lunch and a late-night dinner became known as “afternoon tea.” As the practice grew, so did the demand for elegant tea wares and serving pieces. The tiered tea tray came about as a convenient way to display delicate mini courses with an economical use of space. Situated at or near the center of the table and surrounded by teapots, cups, bowls, and spreads, the practical device allowed easy access to the food.
Shaped like a pyramid and typically stacked with three plates, or tiers, the tray was an ideal way to accommodate scones, savories, and sweets simultaneously, giving guests an order in which the courses should be eaten. In the earliest years of the tea tray’s history, the top tier was reserved for scones, which were kept warm by a silver warming dome. The second, or middle, plate held sweets like petits fours, marzipan, and cakes. The bottom tier was the serving station for simple and crustless sandwiches. In general, guests served themselves from the bottom tier first and worked their way to the top.
The silver dome has all but disappeared from modern tea wares, allowing scones to migrate to a lower tier and hostesses to vary the order. During afternoon tea, the accepted rule of thumb generally remains that the food is served from the bottom tier up. This emphasis on course order makes etiquette easy, as well as provides the aesthetic benefit of a full top tier throughout tea.
The tea tray is still hard at work today. However, imagination and taste trump tradition, permitting hosts to layer the savories, sweets, and scones—or any fare, for that matter—in a customized arrangement best suited to the event. Scones can be accompanied by, or replaced with, muffins or miniature bagels. The savories tier can present simple sandwiches, quiches, egg rolls, or empanadas. And the sweets can include brownies, cookies, and dipped fresh strawberries.
Certainly the tea tray’s versatility doesn’t end with course order and the foods it holds. Tea trays can be a pedestal arrangement of dinner plate, salad plate, and bread-and-butter plate or like-sized plates easily slid into position in a wrought-iron serving rack. Whether pyramid shaped or stacked diagonally, made of fine china, ceramic, or silver, the tea tray is able to give food height, making it a practical assistant at teatime, at a dinner party, or on a crowded buffet table. Form certainly meets function here but with a graceful nod to 19th-century tradition.