How to host an elegant tea party with scones, tea cocktails, and finger sandwiches

"Tea service is all about taking a break in your busy life to sit down and have tea."

Afternoon tea at the Taj Boston.
Afternoon tea at the Taj Boston. –Taj Boston

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Katia Del Rio, assistant director of food and beverage for Taj Boston, helps preside over the popular afternoon tea service offered at the luxury hotel overlooking Boston’s Public Garden. During weekend tea services, up to 150 guests dress up to nibble on finger foods, enjoy live music in the hotel’s elegant French and Adams rooms, and, of course, sip tea.

“Tea service is all about taking a break in your busy life to sit down and have tea,” Del Rio said. “It’s not only [about] an actual cup of tea, but it’s [about] everything that surrounds it. It’s a very fashionable event, I would say.”

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Maybe you’re looking to channel your inner Lady Mary Crawley and host an elegant afternoon tea service at your home. Or perhaps you’re looking for an excuse to bake two dozen blueberry scones, or to purchase that adorable teacup and saucer set you spotted online.

Whatever the very good reason, Del Rio offered the following tips for throwing your own tea time.

1. Skip the dining room

If you think a formal dining room is the best place to host a tea, think again, Del Rio said.

“The thing is, then you would be expected to eat with a fork and a knife if you were sitting at a [dining room] table,” she said.

Tea service foods are bite-size and don’t require silverware, Del Rio said, so she suggested hosting a tea service in the living room with the tea and nibbles placed on a lower-to-the-floor coffee table that’s easier to access. Clear the table of everything except what’s needed for the tea service, then arrange the food on a pretty plate. Each person should get a small plate for finger foods they nab from the platter at the center of the table — food should never be passed around, but should instead remain on the platter, she said.

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And don’t fret if you don’t have fine china.

“Sometimes you can find, at Marshall’s, some nice tea sets,” Del Rio said.

2. Choose your background music

Taj Boston hires a guitarist to entertain guests at its afternoon tea service. If you’re not on a big hotel budget, play some recorded classical music instead.

“They can find it on Spotify or have a CD of classical music,” Del Rio said. “Or, if it’s a younger crowd, they can do  something soft like Adele or Ed Sheeran.”

The afternoon tea service at Taj Boston. —Taj Boston

3. Fancy up your drinks

You’re obviously planning to serve tea, but consider kicking things off with a cool cold drink, Del Rio said.

“You start off typically either with a glass of champagne, sparkling rosé, or to make it a little more fun, we have tea cocktails, which is a trendy thing,” she said. (Check out a recipe for a white strawberry martini, made with white strawberry tea and vodka, below.)

When it comes to hot tea, Taj Boston serves more than 25 varieties, Del Rio said.

“If someone were to do it at home, they could go to any tea store and just pick out three or four that they find interesting for whoever they are hosting,” she said. “Always keep in mind that herbals are non-caffeinated. So if you have anyone who is trying to keep their caffeine levels low, you would suggest anything that’s herbal.”

Two examples of herbal teas that would be great to offer guests are citrus chamomile and bourbon vanilla rooibos, Del Rio said. Also remember that a white tea won’t be as strong as a black tea. White strawberry tea is popular at Taj Boston, and it’s usually a safe bet to offer lady blue Earl Grey tea, which Del Rio called “one of the classics.”

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“It’s a black tea with lavendar, bergamot, sweet orange peel, and vanilla bean,” she said.

4. Savor setting up the savories

Here’s where you get to become fully fancy: Think about what savories, or finger sandwiches and canapés, you’d like to serveDel Rio saidTaj Boston serves six different savories, and they rotate seasonally. However, two recipes never change.

“There are some items, such as the egg salad and the English cucumber, that are musts in tea,” she said. “So, if you are doing it at home, those are the two you must have.”

The egg salad is served on white toast, and the English cucumber is served with cheese and cherry tomato (recipe below).

The Taj Boston is also currently offering a crab cocktail vol au vent, a goat cheese-roasted tomato and garlic spinach tart, a smoked salmon pinwheel with pumpernickel bread and dill cream cheese topped off with a little caviar, and a roasted pepper hummus with shrimp tzatziki kalamata olive on a crispy pita.

The finger foods offered at Taj Boston’s afternoon tea. —Taj Boston

5. Serve up the scones

After the finger sandwiches, you’ll serve scones — a must at any proper afternoon tea, according to Del Rio.

“The center of the afternoon tea is the scones,” she said.

Taj Boston provides two different flavors of scones, which change seasonally. Currently, the hotel is serving lemon scones as well as coconut and ginger scones, both with Devonshire cream and lemon curd.

“They are freshly baked, so they’ve got to be a little bit warm when you serve them,” Del Rio said.

6. Sweeten things up

Sweets are served last, Del Rio said. That’s right — scones don’t count as dessert.

Taj Boston dishes out six different types of miniature sweets. Currently, guests are served a chocolate-covered strawberry, salted caramel brownie, black forest cupcake, champagne praline, almond cookie, and lemon macaroon.

At your tea service, you do you.

“The idea is for people to be relaxed, so it’s not all about ‘Let’s eat and go,'” Del Rio said. “Enjoy.”

•••

White strawberry martini
courtesy of Taj Boston

Ingredients:
2.5 ounces of Ravo vodka (or whatever vodka you’d like)
1.5 ounces of white strawberry tea (iced)
1 ounce of simple syrup
Top with prosecco

To assemble:
Shake the vodka, white strawberry tea, and simple syrup. Pour into a chilled martini glass. Top with prosecco. Garnish with a strawberry on the rim.

Makes one drink.

•••

English cucumber sandwich
courtesy of Taj Boston

Ingredients:
1 slice of white bread (use a rustic white bread or premium white bread, so that it’s not too soft)
1 English cucumber
1 tablespoon of cream cheese
1 cherry tomato, cut in quarters
A couple of sprigs of dill

To assemble:
Slice the cucumber into paper-thin slices. Mix the cream cheese with the dill. Spread the cream cheese onto the slice of white bread. Cut all of the edges off of the bread. Cut the bread slice into squares or triangles. Slice a cherry tomato into quarters for garnish.

Makes four finger sandwiches.

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