How to Throw a Victorian Tea Tasting Party

Zoomer - May 2015

Zoomer - May 2015

It began with a woman and a case of the munchies.

According to tea legend, one afternoon back in the mid-1800s, Anna, the Seventh Duchess of Bedford, was in the throes of what she described as a sinking feeling, a gnawing hunger she experienced around four p.m. every day. Knowing that dinner wouldn’t be served until after eight, which was customary at the times, she decided to break the rules and requested that, along with her usual pot of Darjeeling, a wee bit of bread and biscuits be brought to her quarters. So enthralled was she by the resulting energy boost that she invited friends over to share the experience. Anna’s home soon became a place of gatherings where gal pals would indulge in snippets of gossip and scandal, biscuits, cakes and tea. Queen Victoria was titillated with the idea and so before long, at-home afternoon tea parties became a trend. On any given day of the week, the streets of London were filled with ladies dressed in their finest daytime wear, flitting about to each other’s sitting rooms often arriving by horse-and-carriage. Ladies of the upper class, that is.

 “When afternoon tea first became vogue, it was only accessible to the wealthy,” says Karen Hartwick, owner of Tea Leaves in Stratford, Ontario, a tea sommelier and graduate of the Specialty Tea Institute in New York. “The working class couldn’t participate because … well, they were working. Thankfully, times changed and tea parties held at home and in public tearooms, which both men and women attended, became more widely accessible.”

Today, in Canada, casual afternoon teas are offered in restaurants and bistros across the nation but some luxe hotels such as the Fairmont Empress in Victoria, B.C. hold more formal, traditional affairs. Surrounded by elegant draperies and furnishings, and with a live pianist playing softly in the background, there, some 100,000 guests devour half-a-million cups annually.

And yet, says Executive Chef, Morgan Wilson, they don’t come just for a cuppa.

“People come here expecting to unplug. They want to slow down, to stop and relax, and to enjoy the experience.”

With a mind to unwind, recently, on a Friday afternoon in Toronto, I marched past pubs filled with end-of-the-workweek celebrators to attend afternoon tea at the Omni King Edward Hotel, which, when it opened its doors in 1903 was among the most opulent hotels in North America. Originally, it was supposed to be named the Palace Hotel to honour Queen Victoria, but, following her death in 1901, was renamed to pay tribute to King Edward VII who took over as the King of England.

After I chose from a selection of two-dozen tea blends, a waiter set a plate of sandwiches as well as a 3-tier plate stand filled with little goodies on my table.  Just as I was about to dig in, Executive Chef Daniel Schick joined me.

“You start at the bottom plate and work your way up,” he advised referring to the tier. “But we ask that you eat the sandwiches first so they don’t dry out.” Although there is some disagreement in the hospitality industry as to which should devoured first-- the sandwiches or the scones (while they are still warm!)  -- all agree to save the sweets for last. I asked Schick about the other rules of pairing food with tea.

“I don’t want to say the food should be mild or bland but the flavours must not be overpowering and they can’t interfere with the tea. Afternoon tea should be an excursion of different tastes that compliment each other.”

Referencing the menu, I noticed that the although the names of the items were more of a mouthful than the tiny treats themselves – The King’s Beef Wellington Inspiration, for example, or Caramel Mousse with Cognac Poached Pears –- nothing was wildly unfamiliar.

“We’re always looking for ways to update the experience but you have to be careful not to stray too far from what is expected,” Schick explained. “For instance, one time we served these little fish cones and the guests were not pleased. They want tradition.”

With the Victoria Day long weekend almost upon us, now is a lovely time to host a traditional Victorian Afternoon Tea-tasting Party infused with a modern twist. We’ll invite the gentlemen, of course.

Modernity aside, because a big part of the ambience of afternoon tea lay in the requisite apparel of the times, to set the mood consider asking guests to dress up Victorian style.

According to Gemini-Award-winner, Alex Reda, the chief costume designer for the CBC’s hit Victoria-era drama, Murdoch Mysteries, a costume party will turn the occasion into more of an event. “In Victorian times, people knew what they should look like and what they had to wear, and while it’s great that now we can make choices and not be judged, the costumes of the era will take you back to a simpler, more romantic time.”

Garb also helps folks get into character.

 “It’s amazing how a bit player or a lead actor will walk in for a fitting and they’re in shorts and a t-shirt, say, and they’re all slouched. But then, just the process of putting on the costume, beginning with the undergarments, changes the way they stand, the way they breath, the way they hold their head.”

Easy ways to pull off a Victorian look without heading to a costume rental store include: for women, a straw hat with ribbon; lacy blouse; ankle-length skirt; wrist-length gloves; granny boots or for those who wish to go all out – or all in, rather -- a corset, bum pad and stockings. For men, a linen 3-piece striped or light coloured suit, a bowtie or plaid tie, a straw boater hat or motoring cap, and a walking stick.

The actual tasting portion of your party features tea as the star and should be held at the beginning of the party. Hartwick, who hosts public tastings and has lent her expertise into the development of our tea-tasting scorecards, suggests trying five types:  black, white, green, oolong and pu-erh.  You’ll need five large teapots and one teacup per guest so ask friends to raid their china cabinets and bring along a few heirlooms passed down from their grandmothers or moms. After the tasting, invite guests to grab a cup of their favourite and see how it pairs with the assortment of scones, sandwiches and sweets you’ve set out.

Recipe-wise, included are three to get you started: Empress Scones contributed by the Empress, and the King Eddy’s Coronation Chicken Salad Sandwich as well as the pudding (what the Brits sometimes call dessert), Lemon Posset with Muddled Bumbleberries. For additional sandwiches, you don’t have to reinvent the pinwheel -- classics such as egg salad, or cucumber and cream cheese for our go-meatless friends, cut into small rectangles, will do. For additional sweets, whip up a batch of squares and cut them into bite-size pieces. Or, as Chef Schick suggests, “Make one or two baked goods yourself and then go buy the rest. Once you put them together on a plate everyone will think you made them all.”

Music matters so although classical is soothing for the tasting, afterward, step it up a notch with big-band tunes or anything lively. Afternoon tea dances were also a rage, at which, to the sounds of a live orchestra, couples danced the afternoon away. To encourage such behavior, along with beer serve plenty of sparkling wine as well as cocktails infused with tea. No need for your party to be prim and proper -- to Victorians, nothing was more delicious than a scandal.


What you’ll need:

·      5 different types of loose tea leaves – 50 grams each of black, white, green, oolong and pu-erh

·      5 teapots (6- or 8-cup pots serve 12 to 16 tastings)

·      5 saucers on which to display dry and wet tea leaves

·      One teacup per guest + 1 teaspoon per guest

·      A few 3-tier plate stands or serving platters

·      Appetizer plates and napkins

·      Your prettiest milk & sugar set

·      Milk, and sugar cubes for tea

·      Jam and Devonshire cream for scones + spreader knives for serving

·      1 pen plus 5 scorecards (one for each tea) per guest (download PDF from

·      A large bowl or bucket or nearby sink in which to dump any leftover tea between tastings


Set Up and Ambience

·      Use a table or kitchen island for tea tasting, complete with vintage or modern china, anything silver or antique

·      Set out finger food (no need for forks and knives) around the room on end- or coffee-tables; vases of flowers are nice touch

·      Create a playlist of piano or classical music for tasting; ballroom tunes or dancing music for afterward

·      Set out 5 pots of tea with a saucer containing its wet and dry leaves next to each; set a place card listing tea name and a brief description beside each

·      Take guests through the proper steps of a tea-tasting beginning with an analysis of the dry leaf, infusion leaf and the tea liquid “known as tea liquor” (scorecard PDF includes tasting instructions)

·      Ask guest to empty cup thoroughly before adding tea for next tasting

·      Ask guests to compare impressions as they move from one tea to the next, state their favourite and then declare an overall winner

Recipes to Accompany Tea

Empress Scones

From the kitchen of Fairmont Empress Victoria

Makes 35 scones

8 ½ cups flour

1 cup + 2 tsp butter (hard)

1 cup + 2 tsp sugar

4 tbsp baking powder

Pinch of salt

5 ½ eggs*

¾ cup raisins

2 cups whipping cream

Preheat oven to 350 F. Crumb flour, butter, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add eggs* slowly. Add raisins. Add cream and mix to create a smooth dough. Roll out to ½” thickness and cut into desired size and shape. Brush scones with egg yolk and bake for 25-30 minutes.

*The recipe actually uses 6 eggs. Separate the 6th egg and add the white half of the 6th egg into the batter; the yellow half of the 6th egg is used to do the egg wash.

Coronation Chicken Salad

From Omni King Edward Hotel

Makes approximately 5 regular sandwiches yielding 15 finger sandwiches

2 cups of boneless skinless chicken, cooked and diced

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/3 cup Greek yogurt

2 tbsp mango chutney

1 tbsp dried apricots (chopped)

1 tsp curry powder

1 tbsp fresh coriander (chopped)

1 tbsp fresh limejuice

Salt and pepper to taste

A few shakes of Worcestershire sauce


Combine all ingredients. Spread onto your favourite bread, cut off crusts, and cut into small rectangles.

TIP: Keep sandwiches covered in cling wrap to prevent drying until just before serving.

Lemon Posset with Muddled Bumbleberries

From Omni King Edward Hotel

Makes 20 shot-glass servings

3 cups 35% cream

1 cup sugar

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

Put cream and sugar into a pot and bring to the boil then drop down to a simmer for approximately 6 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice. Let cool slightly and pour 2/3 full into shot glasses. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours to set. Muddle (mash) a combination of raspberries, blackberries and strawberries with a bit of lemon juice and sugar and spoon onto set possets.

Tea-Infused Cocktail Recipe

From Stratford mixologist Jessie Larson

Kraken Wakes

2 oz Kraken Rum

4 oz apple cider

3 oz Earl Grey tea chilled

3 dashes Dillon’s pear bitters

Mix and serve over ice.

 The Biffer

2 oz. Pimm’s No.1

5 oz. brewed green tea

2 oz. cucumber lime syrup

Splash of ginger ale and splash of soda

Mix, garnish with fruit and serve over ice.


Notes from a Savvy Sipper

Name of Tea _________________

Dry Leaf: SEE-SNIFF-FEEL: Note appearance. What colour is it? Are leafs whole, twisted or rolled? What is its fragrance? Fruity? Floral? Note texture.




Infused Leaf: SEE-SNIFF-FEEL: How have leaves changed with infusion? Note different colour and texture. Is the aroma stronger or weaker?




Tea Liquor:

SEE: Note the colour of liquid. Is it bright, dull, clear or dark?



SNIFF: Put your nose over the edge of the cup. Keep mouth open and inhale deeply. Is it floral, vegetal, smoky, or malty? Is aroma different that the leaves?



TASTE & SLURP: Roll a small amount liquid over your tongue for several seconds before swallowing. Exhale through your nose as you swallow. Is it bitter, sweet, delicate, intense or astringent? Next, take a small sip and draw in air to make a slurping sound. This opens up more taste sensations. Note additional flavours.





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This articles was published in Zoomer - May 2015 to read the full article please Click here for PDF version