The civilised British custom of pausing in the afternoon to enjoy a cup of tea accompanied by a light meal has aristocratic roots. Anna, Duchess of Bedford, is credited with establishing the tradition during the 1840s, creating this new mealtime to bridge the gap between lunch and dinner. As a fashionable society lady, her innovation caught on and so the custom of taking afternoon tea became widespread.
These days if you’re looking for an elegant afternoon tea, then London’s great hotels are the place to look, with Mayfair very well served in this respect. Here you can enjoy this traditional British meal served with the proper ceremony it is due, with luxurious surroundings as the backdrop. The afternoon tea at Claridges Hotel is justly famous. Indeed, it is so popular that booking several weeks ahead is strongly advised. Built in With its wonderful Art Deco décor, simply walking through the doors at Claridges evokes another era and makes a visit here a very special treat. The afternoon tea here is enjoyed in the magnificent foyer, a setting complete with glittering mirrors and stunning flower arrangements. The smooth-as-silk service, with the tea brought out in courses and waiters deftly topping up the teapot or bringing fresh plates as required, ensuring a pleasantly soothing, thoroughly civilised experience. It’s not just the surroundings which are first-class, the food ranges from dainty sandwiches with fillings including poached salmon or duck egg mayonnaise, through freshly baked scones and pastries. In short, an afternoon feast, accompanied by fine teas. Other Mayfair hotels offering wonderful afternoon teas include The Dorchester on Park Lane, where tea is served in the wonderfully grand setting of The Promenade, The Connaught on Mount Street, where tea as is elegant as its surroundings and the Four Seasons Hotel.
For a contemporary twist on the traditional afternoon tea, visit Sketch, housed in a converted 18th century house on Conduit Street, just off Regent’s Street. Tea is served in the bright pink surroundings of the Gallery, with diners strikingly surrounded by avant-garde art by David Shrigley. The tea itself is as playful and witty as the décor, offering brightly colourful, little pastries and cakes – think exquisite macarons and caviar and quail’s egg sandwiches - presented in specially commissioned, bespoke ceramic tableware.
For an even more ‘of the moment’ experience, though, head to Burlington Arcade. This historic shopping arcade, which opened in 1819, is currently – and imaginatively - hosting an afternoon tea pop-up, 'Laurent-Perrier at the Arcade', in partnership with Cuisson, a bespoke dining company. As befits the surroundings, this is a luxurious affair – featuring both Laurent-Perrier cuvée rosé champagne and Wedgwood. “We’re a very creative company,” says Cuisson founder Paul Hannagan, “and we want to create something new and exciting and different.” Cuisson had catered events for Burlington Arcade and were in talks with them, so when the opportunity came up to use the space in an empty jewellery shop they leapt at it. Why did Cuisson opt to put on an afternoon tea? Hannagan felt that this leisurely dining experience was “fitting” for the “prestigious” shopping arcade, with its venerable history. On a practical note, afternoon tea works well with the opening hours of Burlington Arcade, as it closes at 7pm.
Pop-up food events offer a number of logistical challenges. “It’s guerrilla cookery” laughs Hannagan, who has had enough experience of catering in similar situations to anticipate and resolve potential problems. Working out of their central production kitchen in Tower Hill allows Cuisson to prepare the food in well-equipped surroundings. One of the key aspects for a good afternoon tea, Hannagan feels, is “the freshness of the pastries and the sandwiches”. The elegant pastries Cuisson are serving are the creations of talented pastry chef Hideko Kawa, who worked formerly at The Connaught under the renowned chef Helene Darroze and was Head pastry chef at Heston Blumenthal’s world famous The Fat Duck. Kawa has created an assortment of sophisticated, contemporary creations, including a Victoria sponge cake sandwich with blood orange and pink grapefruit jelly and cheesecake with chocolate ‘soil’ and basil. Hannagan explains that much time and effort went into developing the recipes for the Laurent-Perrier afternoon tea experience. “We spent a lot of time working on sandwiches. Having chefs with a combined experience of 100 years working on sandwiches was pretty surreal!” Any afternoon tea worth its salt should, of course, feature scones, and the Cuisson team, spent “about a week tweaking our recipe again and again”, with the scones baked morning and afternoon in order to ensure freshness. He proudly cites the coronation chicken terrine as an example of how they are offering “re-invented” classics.
The food is served on Wedgwood, with glasses of Laurent-Perrier cuvée rosé to accompany – “a match made in heaven” enthuses Brannagan. Good service is, of course, an important part of an afternoon tea experience. Cuisson’s approach is “about interaction, about a relationship between the guests and the staff and, most important, it’s about the training and experience.” Each sitting lasts about two hours. “It’s not rushed at all,” he explains, “we’ve designed the menu so diners have ample time to sip champagne in this atmospheric space while they watch life in the Arcade go by.”
Cuisson Laurent-Perrier Afternoon Tea Pop Up runs until July, 2015