As English as cricket whites, village greens and warm beer, afternoon tea holds a special place in the history and psyche of the Brits. Happily, everyone can sample this quirky ritual in UK luxury hotels and smart cafes.
How it came about
Traditionally served after half past three when ‘everything stops for tea’ (as the song goes), it was a pause in the day for the gentry to revive themselves with dainty treats, which will keep them going until dinner.
The Duchess of Bedford supposedly invented the idea in the 1840s. Afternoon tea became a social lubricant for gossip, flirting and scandal. Soon anyone who was anyone was nibbling on epicurean sandwiches and inhaling crisp little nothings of pastries.
Luxury hotels the world over have adopted this ritual, adding tiers of different cakes and other more lavish treats, as well as their own local flavours. Though if you really want to sample the best afternoon tea, you would still need to come to England to find it.
It took the fussy English upper crust to understand the particular importance of thinly-sliced cucumber on carefully buttered, crustless bread, or the strangely appropriate pairing of egg and cress.
It is typically English, of course, that afternoon tea is also a social minefield. The pronunciation of scone (either skonn or skoane), betrays your social standing. There’s also the argument over the order in which to spread your clotted cream and jam.
Then there is the storm in the teacup over whether to serve the milk first or last in your tea. Purists claim adding milk last scalds the milk and spoils the flavour. Others are fine to just drink their tea and skip the milk altogether.
A proper afternoon tea should, however, most definitely serve tea in a pot with loose leaves. A strong Assam (with milk) or a delicate Darjeeling (without) are classic choices, but Earl Grey or green teas work well too.
Where to get your afternoon tea fix
Visitors to London are especially spoilt for choice when it comes to afternoon tea. In the heart of Mayfair, the Millennium Hotel London Mayfair offers indulgent savoury and sweet treats of finger sandwiches, scones, clotted cream and preserves. You can even build afternoon tea into your hotel reservation, as it offers this service as one of its promotional hotel packages..
If you like celebrity spotting or the London establishment’s power brokers, head to The Wolseley on Piccadilly. Here, a frock-coated, Homburg hat-wearing doorman will usher you into its grand interior for a hearty afternoon tea, which is also great value.
While traditions are important, the English can appreciate a clever reinvention too. You’ll find an Eastern twist to the afternoon tea served at the Millennium Hotel London Knightsbridge, with a menu that includes fried and steamed dim sum, such as crispy scallop rolls, duck spring rolls, steamed minced pork dumplings, minced chicken and lettuce wraps and sweet Chinese desserts.
Alternatively, if you’re in need of a refreshment before the theatre in Covent Garden or while shopping in the West End, head for the BB Bakery in Covent Garden. This modern boutique bakery, staffed by French pastry chefs, serves sandwiches, cakes, mini cupcakes, freshly made scones with clotted cream and loose tea from Bartjeman and Barton.
Millennium Hotel London Mayfair