Perhaps nothing says "garden party" like having afternoon tea outdoors. It's a charming reminder of bygone days and childhood make-believe. Outdoor spaces of all kinds, including balconies, can be successfully adapted to a tea party.
Tea parties span generations and will be enjoyed by your most sophisticated women friends or all the giggling little girls of your acquaintance.
What makes an elegant tea party? Look at these factors.
Plan to hold your tea party when your garden is in its fullest bloom -- perhaps it's lilac time, June roses, or peony season. Be sure to cut some of the blooms for the tea table vases. If you don't have a garden, buy an armful of flowers at a farmers' market or stop by a country ditch and pick bunches of wild daisies and Queen Anne's lace.
Send handwritten notes by snail mail. Your guests will recognize your party as an elegant affair and dress accordingly! Typically, tea is held around 4 p.m. -- perfect for day-blooming flowers. Include an invitation for the little ones to bring along a doll or teddy friend.
The more elegant, the better. Stash the paper table covering and the plastic glasses just for today. Instead, use a crisp linen tablecloth, pressed cloth napkins and your best bone china cups and saucers. If it's a little girls' party, you might want to invest in two or three miniature tea sets.
Try to have adequate seating for everyone. Consider setting your straight-back indoor dining chairs outdoors. They can add an elegant touch, whether left unadorned or covered with flowered chintz.
Encourage all of your guests to wear hats -- big-brimmed, floppy and flowered. If the party is for little girls, collect old hats, scarves and silk flowers at a thrift shop, yard sale or discount store. Make decorating the hats a fun activity at the party. You can also include a box of flowery cast-offs for dressing up. Include "grown-up" shoes and old jewellery -- anything that will make the little ones feel elegant. Tea time is a fun way to introduce young ones to "elegant party" manners.
Other than teaspoons, no cutlery should be required at tea. All sandwiches and sweets should be dainty finger-food. Try sandwiches of watercress, cucumber, or egg with the crusts removed and cut in quarters. Sugar cookies and petit fours are traditional sweets. You can substitute mini-cupcakes or tiny tarts.
One of the first things that I learned in seventh grade home economics class was how to brew a proper pot of hot tea, but that was many years ago. I suspect that tea-making is becoming a lost art.
Tea is actually the common name of one plant: Camillia sinesis. The three basic types of tea -- black, green and oolong -- are distinguished by the amount of oxidization that the tea leaves have undergone. The more than 3,000 varieties of tea in the world are all derived from those three basic types.
Herbal teas -- more properly, tisane or infusion -- are made from a wide variety of flowers, herbs, barks, berries, fruits and spices.
At a minimum, offer your guests a traditional tea and a caffeine-free herbal choice. Have milk (not cream!), sugar and fresh lemon wedges available.
So, dust off your teacups and your manners and sit down with your girlfriends for a proper tea party. It's a lovely summer interlude!