There’s a right and a wrong way to do afternoon English tea, and Hotel Granduca is doing it the wrong way, or so my English companion says. First, there’s the table—a regular dining table, not a tea table, which is lower. (What Americans mistakenly call “high tea” is actually “low tea.” “High tea” refers to something else.) Then there’s the mysterious absence of scones, which should occupy the middle tier of the three-tier stand, between the finger sandwiches and the sweets. There are no spoons for the Devonshire clotted cream and Tiptree English jam, so we’re forced to use our knives to serve both cream and jam, prompting my guide, Cherita Metzger, to apologize for “this unsightliness.”
Elegant Manners International
Metzger, who grew up in the Hampstead neighborhood of North London, is on a Sisyphean mission to rid Houston of unsightliness. Earlier this year, Metzger left her investment banking job to devote herself full-time to the company she founded in 2008, Elegant Manners International. The company offers courses entitled “International Business Etiquette & Protocol,” “Art of Cultured Elegance,” “Teen Etiquette,” and Metzger’s most requested class: “Art and Etiquette of English Afternoon Tea.” When Elegant Manners moves into its new east downtown office this month, Metzger will conduct the English tea class there, in a controlled environment. Until then, she uses hotels like the St. Regis, the Four Seasons, and Hotel Granduca, which is where she’s agreed to teach me to be a proper English tea drinker.
We begin by ordering a pot of good, old-fashioned Earl Grey. English tea should always be made from loose-leaf tea, never teabags, and served from a pot. Teacups should be filled no more than three-quarters full to leave room for milk or water. Sugar, honey, milk, or a lemon slice should be added after the tea has been poured, never before. Stir your tea with a gentle back-and-forth motion, then place your spoon on the saucer, behind your teacup. When you sip your tea, you should look into the teacup, not over the rim at your companion. No matter what, Metzger tells me, never, ever stick your pinky out while sipping tea. “No need for that,” she says with characteristic English understatement.
Metzger’s interest in etiquette traces back to her grandmother, who was born in colonial Sierra Leone and worked for many years aboard Royal Navy ships, where her duties included setting the table for officers—a duty that, in those days, required the use of a ruler. Metzger’s grandmother married an English accountant working in the Sierra Leone government, moved to England, and raised Metzger’s mother to observe all the rules she had picked up at sea. Metzger was thus raised by two generations of etiquette-obsessed women. “My grandmother’s point was that we should know the correct form,” Metzger says. “So if we chose not to use it, we did so from a position of knowledge, not ignorance.”
Back at Hotel Granduca, I’m thoroughly enjoying the Earl Grey, although I catch myself looking at Metzger while sipping it. Then, after the scones are finally served, I spill black currant jam on the white tablecloth. Metzger graciously excuses me, noting the difficulty of serving jam with a knife. As she nimbly spreads cream on her cranberry scone, she tells me that the idea for the class came from her difficulty attracting guests to afternoon tea at her home. “It’s meant to be an informal, social affair,” Metzger says. I tell her that “informal” is not the first word that comes to mind in association with any meal requiring starched napkins. “Okay, relatively informal,” she concedes. “The idea is just to have people around, and just have a nice time. In a dainty, genteel way, of course.”