I love cakes. In fact I really, really love cakes. I also love not having to choose just one cake so, for me, afternoon tea is God’s own perfect excuse not to bother with lunch. And I have always believed that afternoon tea is one of the few meals that you really can’t mess up: it’s amazing what a ton of jam and clotted cream can do. And so it was that I skipped to The Berkeley Hotel – truly one of London’s loveliest hotels – for their Prêt-à-Portea. This, they tell us, is “a creative twist to the classic elements of the traditional English afternoon tea with cakes and pastries resembling the latest catwalk designs for the style conscious”. I imagined the thrill of the front row as we clapped the arrival of frilly over-the-top meringue creations, sky-high macaron stacks and dark, sexy, chocolate ganache.
The Berkeley has heavyweight dining pedigree with both Marcus Wareing and Pierre Koffmann sprinkling their Michelin stardust in the hotel’s two destination dining rooms, and it was these credentials that had appealed to my host, who was treating five of us to afternoon tea. You have to admire someone who, despite being teetotal, surveys the wine list on arrival and asks for something a “little bit better” than the Laurent Perrier or Ruinart Blanc de Blancs offering that comes with the tea.
The Caramel Room, where tea is served, is a dream of a deco tea salon, clad with burnt toffee leather booths and glowing gold-framed mirrors. We settled in and checked out our fellow guests: a well-heeled bunch, including a high percentage of designer-clad young Japanese girls, with much photo taking – all part of the fun. Sadly it was where the fun ended.
The waitresses approached with pretty Wedgwood crockery and a laboriously long explanation of each sandwich. The poor woman: she was then obliged to turn our attention to the garish monstrosity that was the cake stand. When they had promised creations based on the catwalk, I assumed they meant taking a colour or a texture as inspiration, not that they would try, and spectacularly fail, to make replicas of the actual designs in cake. The design skill was on par with my nine year old niece working in her favourite medium of Play-Doh.
This would not have been so bad, if only they hadn’t chosen to make everything quite so psychedelically, nauseatingly bright. Or if some of it had tasted in the slightest bit good. The main offender for appearance had to be the patisserie take on Dolce and Gabbana’s Night Owl dress, which came in a shot glass and took the form of a lurid blue gloop, topped with a goggly eyed blue owl and some chocolate twigs purporting to represent a whimsical forest fantasy. The original dress is, admittedly, quite childlike but it is also rich and sumptuous on a heavy blue brocade. And it is, of course, a dress. So it can be blue. Food, on the other hand, shouldn’t be. Ever. Partly out of optimism, partly out of politeness towards our host, we all made the right noises and soldiered on. How I wished for that jam and cream.
Here’s a designer renowned for his polemical use of violence and sexual politics, who took his own life, reduced to sponge
Despite their miniature size, most of the cakes were left with a mouthful still on the plate. The entire Christopher Kane peanut cake with Poire William mousse and pink meringue nearly ended up back there. And then there’s the newly introduced Alexander McQueen inspired cakes, which are distasteful on a whole different level: here’s a designer renowned for his polemical use of violence and sexual politics, who took his own life, reduced to sponge.
Horribly, there may be a trend starting: The Kensington Hotel is now offering a Fashion Forward Afternoon Tea too, also with Alexander McQueen cakes. One of the “sweet treats” includes, we are told via a press release, is “moist cherry Genoese in the form of one of Alexander McQueen’s must have studded clutch bags, as well as a red velvet and rose water cake presented in the style of the Butterfly Hat by Philip Treacy as seen at McQueen’s Spring/Summer collection in 2008.” What, no Highland Rape?
The waitress insisted upon giving us some of their cute handbag shaped boxes to take our left over cake home in, but my other half – who has been known to scoff an entire kids selection box in one sitting – turned his nose up at the offering.
We left hungry and bewildered. Perhaps this was the catwalk experience they were aiming for after all. Perhaps the designs are so out there that the general public cannot understand. “Who would ever wear that!?” Etc. A shame. I just wanted to eat some cake. C
The Berkeley, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7RL
020-7 235 6000; the-berkeley.co.uk