Like saying “sorry” to dogs, all English people take afternoon tea. I’ve been resisting this for some time because I hate them. There’s too much food. It takes too long. It’s rarely with people I like. And I’m a gobbler. So, afternoon tea is nothing more than a cake obstacle course and a dead cert trigger for my eating disorder.
This twilight zone of carbs and stupidity is typically an expensive, expansive run of ordinary sandwiches cut into small triangles
This twilight zone of carbs and stupidity is typically an expensive, expansive run of ordinary sandwiches cut into small triangles. Next to them are scones (Scots say it correctly) served with that weird yellow cream stuff and strawberry jam. This is followed by patisseries, tarts, tiny cakes and macarons, all washed down with hot brown fluid and the hope you won’t get diabetes.
But afternoon tea isn’t just for tourists or relatives who might have you in their will. They are different everywhere, yet one thing holds true for all: you have to be empty to enjoy it – as empty as a meditative mind, as the hire car’s tank you forget to fill, as the promises of a politician. That empty. But not starving. Your stomach will need to expand because, honestly, high tea is the Everest of everything ephemerally yummy. And that’s the problem. You cannot eat it all.
As discreet as an ongoing affair, the afternoon tea at the 19th Century townhouse 11 Cadogan Gardens is designed by Alexis Gauthier. This might just be the first instance of a renowned chef rolling away the scone. The seasonal Flower Tea uses edible flowers inside and out, for taste & texture, from root to stem. Think Fergus Henderson naked in the flowerbed and you’ve got it – along with jewel-pretty pastries and teas that look straight from an early Tim Burton movie. Note to self: handsome waiter.
A three-month pop-up (1st June-31st August 2016) devoted to afternoon tea appeared at Brewer Street’s Cutter & Squidge, where downstairs was transformed into Europe’s first Hello Kitty tea house. The Hello Kitty Secret Garden was a hilariously high tone project – as kitsch and as high on colour as it was on sugar. When I visited, I found it difficult to overeat, while it gave me the feeling of being a child again – a hyperactive child in need of meds, but a child nevertheless. I came out as high as a kite and was happy for the rest of the evening. Note to self: Cosplay.
Trite but true – every hotel in London has their own afternoon tea – notably The Ritz, Browns, The Connaught, Berkeley and Savoy. My mouth travelled outside London, to Hampton Manor. I thought this was going to be a tedious country affair, but my reins quivered as a young tea sommelier flourished an exotic array of single batch artisan tea from Lailani & Co. His almost maddening precision paid off with solid results: a cup of tea I sort of actually liked. Hampton Manor, newly established by young marrieds Fiona and James Hill, wants afternoon tea to be fun: Salmon & caviar, served in a cone; a shot of rhubarb & custard, similarly served in a cone. Note to self: They say it’s all fun until someone ends up in a cone. This tea made me like cones a lot.
And yet, off in the dark heart of Wales (okay, not so dark, near the Brecon Beacons) there’s a kind of Laura Ashley afternoon tea. At Llangoed Hall the high afternoon tea is inspired by Laura Ashley’s designs – the property was owned by Sir Bernard Ashley, Laura’s widow. Along with a glass of elderflower champagne, floral teas, finger sandwiches, scones and cakes are all laid out on bespoke 24k gold crockery inspired by Laura Ashley’s Roses & Butterflies. Afterwards, guests who can still walk might see Laura Ashley’s first ever garment and a bedroom with her original wallpaper and furniture. The Llangoed Hall’s afternoon tea is a perfect example of high tea so traditional that it has swerved to verve. Note to self: Four fingers is enough. C