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A high tea can provide a refreshing, yet sophisticated alternative to the impersonal bustle of coffee shops or a noisy bar. This is an unusual and fun way to get together with your friends, who may also be ready to try something new socially.

Try to think of the high tea as a kind of ritual: it requires certain elements to make it work, and to lift it above the experience of merely having a cup of tea. Here are the essentials of the high tea ritual.

Time and place

Like cocktail hour, the high tea should only be held at a specific time of day. Four pm is ideal, as it is perfectly suspended between lunch and dinner. This also allows some flexibility for the approaching evening: you can either have some time to yourself after your guests leave, or you can decide to go out to dinner and make an evening of it.

There are a couple of choices as to the venue for a high tea. You can either meet your friends at an upmarket city hotel and be waited on by professional staff, or you could choose to host a high tea at your place. The latter is by far the most fun option, because you can fine-tune how
much formality you want to add to the occasion.

What to serve?

It is essential to buy and serve only excellent quality tea. Teabags just will not do. A high quality Broken Orange Pekoe or Earl Grey are perfect. You will need slices of lemon on hand, and plenty of milk. While you're shopping, pick up some cake to serve with the tea. You should purchase
either individual, bite-sized delicacies (preferably iced), or, alternatively, a whole cake, which you can slice and pass around while the tea is being poured. The key idea to remember is that the ritual must be delicate and sophisticated - no large pastries or iced buns.

Essential equipment

If you want to make a real occasion of your high tea, iron a stiff white tablecloth and set out cups and saucers - no mugs. If you own a milk jug, sugar bowl and ornate teapot, now is the time to use them. If not, improvise with small, pretty containers that make acceptable substitutes. If you're serving a whole cake, you'll need a cake slice and an attractive knife. Cake forks, and linen or cotton napkins are also essential: if you don't have forks specifically designed for cake, use your best forks. Lay
the table with as much care as you would use for a formal dinner. Your guests should arrive to find a delightful spread awaiting their pleasure.

Other ways of setting the mood

Your beautifully laid and inviting table will make even more of an impression if the rest of the room fits the sophisticated theme. Make sure the room is clean and tidy, and have some jazz or classical music playing at a discreet volume in the background. A vase or two of flowers and some
small white candles flickering despite the daylight hour will add immeasurably to the atmosphere of decadence and sophistication.

Although a high tea clearly requires some planning and not a little fuss, it can be an enjoyable new addition to your entertaining repertoire.