For the British, tea is more than just an infusion. It is also a ritual, perhaps less mystical than the one held in Japan, but no less relevant to social life. What is known as “afternoon tea” was not practiced as such until the 19th century.
It is said that one evening of 1830, Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, asked for a cup of tea and a light snack to be brought to her quarters. At that time in England, the main meal of the day was served at noon, and nothing else was eaten until dinner at 8 or 9 o’clock. The Duchess enjoyed the experience so much that she decided to repeat it every afternoon, inviting her friends to have tea with her.
Over the years, this innocent and informal snack became a tradition practiced by the aristocracy and bourgeoisie who offered sumptuous and elegant tea parties between 3 and 5 in the evening, accompanying the beverage with light snacks, pastries and cold sandwiches, a glass of port, sherry and even champagne. Among the guests, there was, usually, a poet, musician or a fashionable actor who provided witty entertainment.
An authentic afternoon tea is a tradition well worth exploring, one that can be enjoyed today in London’s most luxurious hotels with different and original offers aimed to please the most demanding palates.
15 Beeston Place, Belgravia, London
This afternoon tea is an experience in itself. It is served daily in the oasis that is the hotel’s private garden. According to experts it is “tea time” just as imagined by the Duchess of Bedford. The tea at The Goring comes from the Himalayas and is worthy of the usual royal clientele (Queen Elizabeth has been here on more than one occasion).
Although there are several options, the most interesting is the Coronation Afternoon Tea, created specifically for the 60th anniversary of the arrival of Queen Elizabeth II to the throne of Great Britain. It includes an Earl Grey Tea Macaroon topped by a chocolate circle, inspired by the Imperial State Crown, a Strawberry Tart as a nod to the festivals held in the gardens of Buckingham Palace, and of course the delicious and always popular Coronation Chicken Sandwiches.
THE MANDEVILLE HOTEL
8-12 Mandeville Place, Marylebone, London
Located in the modern district of Marylebone, the Reform Social & Grill of the Hotel Mandeville offers an afternoon tea in grand style close to the classic Marylebone High Street shops. Chef Serge Neil uses the finest ingredients from the British Isles to bring us a true gastronomic festival.
John Ross smoked salmon from Scotland, goat ricotta cheese from Thornby Moor in Cumbria and the best ham from Marylebone local butchers join other successful ingredients to create a vintage afternoon tea that celebrates the best of Britain. The menu also includes classic sandwiches with a modern twist: the smoked salmon sandwiches are served in beet bread and the cheese ones in basil bread, as well as pastries, retro cakes and of course, the classic scones with cream and jam.
Wilton Place, Knightsbridge, London
In one of London´s most luxurious hotels, located in the heart of residential Knightsbridge, from where you can walk to Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Hyde Park; you can enjoy a trully artistic event. You will need to book early because the “fashionistas” anxiously wait for the opportunity to try the Afternoon tea, Prêt-à-portea, inspired by the latest fashion with a menu full of color and elegance, which changes every 6 months to keep up with the seasonal fashion trends.
The Berkeley’s new Prêt-à-portea Spring/Summer collection adds a creative twist to the classic elements of traditional English tea, including cakes and pastries that mimic the latest couture presented by designers and labels such as Alexander McQueen, Prada, Manolo Blahnik, Oscar de la Renta and Dolce & Gabbana. Trust me when I say that you won’t know if you should eat what you see, of keep it as a souvenir.
THE SANDERSON HOTEL
50 Berners Street, W1t 3ng, London
This charming and luxurious 5-star hotel offers a traditional British afternoon tea in the same way Lewis Carroll played with logic in Alice in Wonderland. The Mad Hatter tea is an event filled with adventures and whimsical culinary follies. Eat Me Queen of Hearts includes a mousse with strawberries and cream, Drink Me is a bottle of tantalizing appearance that contains a wonderful magic potion of apple pie, lemon cream and English toffee.
The guests will smile like the Cheshire cat when they try the blueberry lollipops and hazelnut praline ice cream. They will appreciate even more a sponge cake layered with chocolate and coffee, and even more so the rabbit’s chocolate clock, which melts in the mouth.
There is also a colorful assortment of tiny sandwiches, including ham and English mustard on yellow saffron bread, and smoked salmon with cream cheese on a green spinach bread. Lewis Carroll himself would have enjoyed such a culinary delirium! ■