Whenever you find afternoon tea in London, eccentricity is not far away
- Published 10.12.17
The British culinary cupboard is hardly renowned for its gourmet contents. The Americans steal the show with breakfast, the French and Japanese seem to have the fine dining base covered, and Indian and Chinese still rule the roost as far as comfort food goes. Without a doubt, what the British seem to excel in is a quirky little institution known as afternoon tea.
If your visit to England is short and restricted to the capital, fear not. London’s famous museums and art galleries house some of the best little tearooms in town (the National Portrait Gallery off Trafalgar Square is one of them), as do all the large department stores (Fifth Floor at Harvey Nichols, or Harvey Nicks to the locals, Knightsbridge has the loveliest modern food arenas). The finest places to take afternoon tea in London are undoubtedly in the city’s best hotels.
We in India drink more tea than anyone else in the world. But for us, it doesn’t smack of the same ritualistic heights practised by the Brits. Seen from a Louis XVI chair at The Ritz in Piccadilly, while the waiters in black tie and tails unravel “the last delicious morsel of Edwardian London”, you feel, briefly, as if time has stood still.
The Savoy, with its Edwardian art deco, used to be the home of the dansant (tea dances). Much more gracious in its airy simplicity is the Orangery in Kensington Palace in Kensington Gardens. This used to be Queen Anne’s summer dining hall and is converted into a restaurant, serving tea in the afternoon. English parks and gardens are a secret hideaway for tea — the simple, old-fashioned cuppa and a jam tart is still a staple in most park tuck shops and if it’s spring, you can sit outdoors surrounded by pink blossoms, bluebells and tulips. Petersham Nurseries in the plush London suburb of Richmond serves an enchanting afternoon tea in the middle of green fields and farm animals.
Whenever you find tea, eccentricity is not far away. The most unique tea experience possible must be in the two houses of the Parliament. Afternoon tea is served in several of the restaurants but the most spectacular place is on the terrace of the House of Commons, overlooking the Thames.
AFTERNOON OR HIGH?
So what exactly is afternoon tea? Much credit has been given to Anna Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, who in the 19th century decided to meet the need, commonly suffered by people of high breeding and low on purpose, for an injection of “fuel” during the afternoon. What most books don’t mention is that it was actually Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II, who actually introduced tea and all the paraphernalia to England in the 17th century.
It became all the rage at court but it was Josiah Wedgwood (an English potter and entrepreneur) who popularised the habit by making the bone china tea service affordable and Thomas Twining who opened London’s first tea shop that had women patrons. This started an epidemic of tea drinking, which culminated in the popularity of the dansants and three-decker cake stands in the early decades of the 20th century.
Tea today is still a different kettle of fish by several hundred calories to just a cup of dull brown unremarkable-looking liquid. Afternoon tea is always served in bone china on a silver tray (with a lace doily on it) and is accompanied by a parade of thinly-cut, crustless finger sandwiches, filled with razor-thin slices of cucumber, egg and cress, smoked salmon, ham or chicken. Only white or brown bread can be used — no multigrain or anything that looks vaguely healthy and certainly nothing with an Italian sounding name (read focaccia, ciabatta…).
The sweet part consists traditionally of English cakes (Victoria sponge, marble cake, Dundee fruit cake, jam tarts), muffins and crumpets; the last two served warm and ideal for absorbing large quantities of butter. Third, the scones, served warm and sliced open, a perfect vehicle for thick, slightly yellowish clotted cream from Devon, Somerset or Cornwall and whole fruit strawberry jam.
Today, many hotels in particular prefer to serve French-style patisserie instead of old-fashioned English cakes. So, don’t be surprised to find madeleines, mille-feuilles and macarons next to your Earl Grey. Cream tea consists of a pot of tea just with scones, cream and jam and no sandwiches or cakes.
High tea is not a dainty affair. It divides day from night and is served around 3pm-5pm, often making dinner unnecessary. Many smart hotels serve high and afternoon tea at the same time. Please remember that any tea — afternoon or high — is generally only served after lunch and until 6pm. Come after that and you’ll have to order drinks and dinner!
OSCAR WILDE’S HANGOUT
Every time I go to London, I visit somewhere at least once for afternoon tea — whether it’s a fancy hotel or a park cafe. On a recent trip to London, I discovered somewhere new and very special, Hotel Cafe Royal on Regent Street, a stone’s throw in each direction from Piccadilly Circus, Soho and Mayfair. What is marvellous about this hotel is that although you have the hustle and bustle of touristy London outside, you neither hear nor see any of that as soon as you swing past the heavy revolving wooden doors.
I remember there being a grand restaurant here many years ago called The Grill Room. It dated back to 1865 and was the place where Oscar Wilde fell in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, Aubrey Beardsley debated with Whistler, and Mick Jagger, the Beatles and Elizabeth Taylor danced the night away.
The Grill Room, gilded and completely restored to its jaw-dropping original Louis XVI-style decor, can be overwhelming in a hotel that is more or less contemporary in design except for some small 19th century accents like the mosaic floor and the lift doors. It was renamed Oscar Wilde Bar in honour of their most famous patron and no sooner did they launch afternoon tea this September, that they won the coveted title of ‘Best Traditional Afternoon Tea’ in the 2017 Afternoon Tea Awards.
So what’s so special about tea here? Well, they definitely go the extra mile. It is not just about a mind-boggling selection of teas from around the world, fine French patisserie and personalised and informed service. The hotel has collaborated with leading French perfumer and artist Diptyque to create an afternoon tea inspired by the iconic brand’s most popular scents!
So you have cakes which smell and taste like rose, vanilla, violet and lemon verbena. Do try the rose Victoria — a Victoria sponge with a raspberry and rose jam and a lychee and rose mousse, topped with silver leaf and crystallised rose; the Lemon Verbena that infuses lemon cream with an orange cremeux on a sable Breton base; and the Violet and Cassis Tart — a sweet pastry tart with a violet cream and blackcurrant jam. The cherry on the cake has to be the apple-infused goat cheese muffin where you squeeze the juice into the savoury morsel. If you really want to splash out, try a glass of champagne (they serve a lovely crisp rose champagne) to go with.
The three-course tea offerings (sandwiches and savouries, cakes and scones) are more than enough to satisfy you as a late lunch or even early dinner but if you really must have another cucumber sandwich with rose pepper cream cheese or brown egg and tarragon mayo sandwich (or even another glass of bubbly), they are more than willing to oblige.
The high tea is £42 per person, £60 with a lovely Diptyque gift (perfumes and candle exquisitely packed) and £65 with champagne. Feel like a queen for an afternoon, do the Diptyque high tea at Hotel Cafe Royal, London.
Karen Anand is a culinary consultant, food writer and entrepreneur. In recent times her name has been synonymous with farmers’ markets. Follow her on www.facebook.com/karenanand