For office-bound Londoners, afternoon tea is not a leisurely ritual but a quick break at the desk. Still, when a colleague offers to plug in the electric tea kettle and pour boiling water over the tea bag in one's favorite mug, everyone smiles and the institution lives on. The British drink more tea, per capita, than anyone else in the world, and most employers have no problem with letting their workers take tea breaks.
Fortunately, visitors to London can slow the pace and truly enjoy the tradition of an award-winning afternoon tea in a lovely setting.
When is tea time?
In 1840, Anna, Duchess of Bedford introduced afternoon tea to her upper-class circles while she was in residence at Belvoir (pronounced "Beaver") Castle. The duchess was keen to kill her hunger pangs between breakfast and dinner. Afternoon tea is generally between 3 and 5 p.m. High tea is toward dinner hour and includes hot, savory selections on the menu.
What is served at tea
At a formal afternoon tea, there will likely be a choice of loose-leaf tea served in fine porcelain, with as many as 30 varieties on offer. A proper afternoon tea will not have a teabag in sight. Earl Grey is the most popular. Selected teas come from all over the world: India, China, Sri Lanka, Iran and even home grown on private estates in England.
Sandwiches, scones and more
A menu divided between savory and sweet may include traditional finger sandwiches such as cucumber and mint, Scottish smoked salmon, chicken breast with horseradish cream, glazed ham, cheddar cheese and egg mayonnaise with cress. Warm house-made scones served with Cornish clotted cream, glistening handmade jams, individual confectionery, cakes and biscuits from the trolley will often follow.
Due to traditional tea's popularity, London's finest hotels have expanded afternoon tea service. At the Palm Court at the Ritz Hotel, there are now five seatings from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. And still they recommend four weeks' advance booking. The traditional afternoon tea from silver service is sited in a pretty champagne-colored room, with pink roses and lilies reflected by gilt mirrors beneath elaborate high ceilings. Smart attire and jackets for gentlemen are required. Bring your wallet; menus begin at £42 ($65) per person and escalate from there for champagne with tea. Tea cost for children is half of the adult price.
Within a stone's throw from the Ritz in Piccadilly are Brown's Hotel, The Berkeley, The Connaught, Claridge's, The Dorchester, and The Lanesborough. Fortnum & Mason is a historic, upmarket department store in Piccadilly, famous for its food halls.
Tea taken at The Savoy or Brown's features a pianist, while a harpist entertains at the Ritz. The Langham has the country's first tea sommelier, Fortnum & Mason offers vegetarian, gluten free and diabetic menus.
Tea lovers can buy branded tea accessories at The Savoy as well as watch patisserie chefs and chocolatiers at work. The newly refurbished tea salon at Fortnum & Mason, supplier of tea to the British royal family since 1707, offers more than 150 teas for sale.
by Laurie Jo Miller Farr