Next to an actual tea pot, cup and saucer, there is nothing more identifiable with a proper tea than a three-tiered stand of savories, scones and desserts. Most people think that this stand the epitome of a proper tea experience.
The answer is “yes” …and “no.”
Like a hat and gloves on a woman, the three-tiered stand is an optional part of the tea culture ritual. Like any ritual, there was a reason why it was used. Originally, tea tables were not large, rectangular dinner tables, but small circular tables. The diminutive tables were meant to just serve as an informal “get-together” in between more formal meals. Granted, “informal” didn’t mean schlepping over in one’s camisole and yoga pants; it meant you dressed for visiting another woman’s home and shared a lovely hour or so of tea/tisane, gentle snacks and covert conversations. Marriages, employment, pertinent information and the day’s events were shared during tea.
The three-tiered stand held the delicious snacks, but were not meant to take over the table. The tiered tray was practical and provided room for the cups, saucers, condiments and tea pot.
The levels of the tiered trays have their own significance. First, the number of tiers determines the type of tea service. Cream (or creme) Tea is the lightest of the tea services. It’s simply tea with scones. The cream in Cream Tea represents the Devonshire or Clotted Cream that accompanies the scones. Depending on which part of the U.K. you lived, determined the type of scone or bread. In Cornwall, a slightly sweet bread replaced the scone. Cream Teas could include a one– or two-tiered stand to hold the scones, butter, clotted cream and jam.
Afternoon (or Low) Tea expanded to include scones (or other slightly sweet bread), savories tea sandwiches and dessert/fruit.
Royal Tea added champagne or sherry, and possibly a rather involved salad. Royal Tea involves a three-tiered stand and standard larger plate for the addition of a salad.
High Tea was closer to an American supper or dinner, meaning meat and sides. There is never a tiered plate for the more complicated High Tea.
The three-tiered stand in Afternoon Tea is supposed to show the order in which the meal is eaten, for example, sandwiches/savories first, the scones second and dessert last.
I’ve seen all combinations of the three-tiered stand and after this post, you may never look at one the same way again.
The proper order of the three-tiered stand is: Bottom Layer – Sandwiches/savories, Middle Layer – Scones/sweet breads and cream, and Top Layer – Desserts and/or Fruit.
I’ve seen stands in the reverse order (ex., sandwiches/savories on top) and a three-tiered stand crammed with desserts.
(For the record, times have changed, and a tiered-stand is not mandatory for a tea; however, if it is used, please organize it properly.)
For those who follow American Royal Tea, you know that I am not a fan of taking tea as performance art.
If one is at a tea, you don’t have to stress yourself about the minutiae of the tea service, but please have a general idea of what is acceptable tea behavior.
With that said, sandwiches/savories should always go on the bottom. Regardless of how dainty a tea sandwich may be, it will inevitably drip, ooze or drop. If it is on the bottom, you have a lesser chance of it dripping onto your chocolate covered strawberries, or shrimp salad from dripping onto your scone!
Never overstuff a tiered tray. In the United States we like to see that we’re getting more. It’s not necessary at tea, and it’s definitely not proper etiquette.
Tea service is meant to serve as a “snack,” a simple light meal between meals. It’s not meant to be lunch or the only meal of the day.
If you’re planning your own tea service or tea event, please consider the convenience of the tiered stand, but by no means feel tied to it. You can also serve your tea snacks on individual trays.
And by the way, it’s not necessary to wear a hat and gloves at tea. Enjoy!