The beginner’s guide to afternoon tea
Hailing from the West Country, I have had more than my fair share of cream teas (always cream first, then jam). However, despite a habit of disregarding traditional mealtimes and a perpetual “treat yourself” mentality, until recently I had yet to experience a proper afternoon tea. Where better to start than Mayfair’s Hotel Cafe Royal, whose traditional afternoon tea was awarded best in the UK in 2017? Here’s what I discovered on my foray into high society…
There’s more to tea than PG Tips
Yes, it’s right there in the name, but I had given little thought to the liquid component of the afternoon tea experience. I frequently enjoy a good mug of builder’s tea and a biscuit, but beyond that, pairing tea with food was new territory. Hotel Café Royal’s tea menu is expansive and informative yet – crucially for a novice such as myself – not overwhelming.
I plumped for a Yunnan black tea with mango oil, on advice that it paired well with sweet and savoury. You’re free to switch up your tea as frequently as you wish, and chilled glasses of red berry and hibiscus tea acted as a refreshing palate-cleanser.
Watching our waiter Christian patiently pour our tea was surprisingly enthralling – ribbons of steam rising from the stream of liquid amber, the silver tea strainer nimbly removed to its own tiny dish. Around the room, champagne bottles were held at great heights and poured with a pleasing flourish, but here the quiet care taken was almost touching. Be prepared to view your regular cuppa in a whole new light.
The sandwiches might steal the show
As a dyed-in-the-wool, unabashed sweet tooth, I was taken aback at just how glorious the sandwiches were. Afternoon tea, at least for me, conjured visions of fluted, filigreed pastries and cakes, aloft on tiers. I tried out Hotel Café Royal’s festive tea, designed in partnership with French perfumer Diptyque, and no doubt its patisserie was impressive, my favourite being a pistachio cake adorned with delicate jasmine cream.
Sweets may be the prettier sisters at the party (I admit I struggled to get a photo of the sarnies that had the same wow-factor) but the attention to detail in the Hotel Café Royal’s savouries makes them liable to become the main attraction. Smoked salmon from London’s H. Forman & Son and well-seasoned eggs ensured the classics didn’t fall flat, and the special, Bronze Norfolk turkey, was a standout. Avoid an afternoon tea rookie error and don’t fill up too soon though – sorely tempting when the lovely team offer to replenish your sandwich stand, with your favourite fillings, as soon as it begins looking bare.
It’s not just about the food
As anyone who frequently eats out will tell you, an otherwise good experience can be blighted by an uninspiring interior or lacklustre service. The Hotel Café Royal’s afternoon tea is taken in the stunning Oscar Wilde bar (all mirrors, gilt swags and velvet banquettes), but its lovely ambience is not just the coincidence of a beautifully appointed room – it’s thanks to the staff’s admirable effort create a special, intimate space. A welcome glass of Laurent-Perrier, that feels only appropriate in this opulent setting, is poured with celebratory aplomb. A pianist plays in the centre of the room, including the occasional elegant ‘Happy birthday’. (Excellent) food and drink aside, it’s enough to make you swoon – and want to set up camp for the rest of the day.
Top tip: make sure you allow yourself plenty of time to soak up the experience. This might have been my first afternoon tea, but I hope it won’t be my last at Hotel Café Royal.