The 19th Century English Tradition That's Still Alive and Well

December 28, 2018

They say in England that they won the Second World War because of the cup of tea. Even today, whenever there is a crisis—from the family pet passing away to affairs of national security—someone usually pipes up and says, “I think I’ll put the kettle on.” “Crisis tea” is served very strong in a heavy mug with milk and a spoonful of sugar.

Of course there is another more refined tea that the English also do rather well. The delightful, delicious tradition of afternoon tea takes place sometime between midday and early evening, and usually consists of several tiers of finger sandwiches, petite pastries and scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam. Tea leaves are brewed in a bone china teapot and strained into equally delicate teacups.

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With endless leisure time, fine crockery and meaningless tittle-tattle, it may be no surprise that the privileged classes invented afternoon tea. In the mid-19th century, Anna Maria Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, found herself becoming moody during the long afternoons between meals. To stave off hunger pangs she created a late-afternoon refreshment. At first, the duchess allegedly secreted herself away in her bedroom with a tray of tea and cakes but in time invited friends to join her. Eventually, afternoon tea became a London fashion. Now it is a national institution.

Sanderson London

The Mad Hatter’s tea party in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland inspires the most fun and frivolous afternoon tea of all. Menus hide in vintage books. Paper crowns top teapots. Want sugar with your tea? Open a musical box to find a pirouetting ballerina as well as sugar cubes.

Guests here are encouraged to first try teas by smell: sniff five little glass decanters of loose-leaf tea, all named after characters in the book, before choosing. Blends include Cheshire Cat and White Rabbit. The signature Alice Blend is a black tea with blackcurrant, vanilla, caramel, citrus, bergamot, blue cornflowers and blue mallow flowers. Detailed descriptions of each tea are on a set of playing cards.

Dainty savories include a smoked salmon, quail egg and caviar Scotch egg; a ham and smoked applewood croque monsieur; a Cornish crab and herb éclair; and a cucumber and cream cheese finger sandwich on fresh lime bread. Sweets include a chocolate log shaped like a blue caterpillar; coffee macaroons modeled on the white rabbit’s pocket watch; marshmallows resembling toadstools; a red velvet ladybird cake; and a potion of passion fruit and coconut panna cotta in a bottle tagged “Drink Me.” Tall grass growing in a teacup disguises carrot-shaped meringues. It all becomes “curiouser and curiouser.”

The setting is alfresco in the heart of Fitzrovia, served in the hotel’s inner courtyard even in winter, when they pitch a marquee and fire up the stoves. Overall, it’s a tumble-down-the-rabbit-hole treat.

The Berkeley

Here the fickle, fashion-forward Prêt-à-Portea changes every six months, inspired by the new season’s collections at London Fashion Week. The cover of the menu reads “WORK IT” in fluorescent-pink capital letters, and you almost feel like strutting around the Caramel Room with its Art Deco mirrored walls and bold graphic styling.

The pastry chefs create fabulous little cakes: Dolce & Gabbana’s pink rose dress from their “Viva La Mama” collection becomes a lychee and almond mousse upon pink pâte sablée with rose detailing; Valentino’s Rockstud striped bag is made of Victoria sponge with cranberry compote; Alice Temperley’s flutura skirt becomes a gianduja chocolate supreme on sablé Breton glazed with chocolate miroir and a bright blue chocolate flower; Moschino’s quirky nu-rave dress is a cream and orange financier and coconut savarin; and there is Fendi’s double-breasted chocolate biscuit coat with red icing. The waiter brings photographs of the runway shows to explain the interpretation from catwalk to cake stand. Sweet, loose-leaf tea pairings include jasmine silver needle, and blackcurrant and hibiscus. The savory treats ooze originality, too, and, when it’s time for those, some guests request an equally savory tea flavor such as Monkey Picked Iron Buddha or Phoenix Honey Orchid.

Tea is served in the cozy Caramel Room immediately opposite The Blue Bar, one of London’s coolest addresses for cocktails. Stay long enough, finish your last cup of tea, then walk across the lobby and order your first glass of Champagne.

Shangri-La Hotel at the Shard

This is the one to top, in more ways than one. Up on the 35th floor of The Shard, one of Europe’s tallest buildings, the contemporary TĪNG Lounge serves afternoon tea overlooking some of London’s most beloved landmarks: St Paul’s Cathedral, The Monument to the Great Fire of London, the River Thames and Tower Bridge.

It is a clever team whose tea can match the peerless panorama. An Asian-inspired menu replaces finger sandwiches with plump prawn dumplings; steamed gyoza; Scottish salmon with wasabi and ginger; and a Cornish crab brioche with a curry zing. Don’t fret—there are still some classics, but a double cheesecake is steeped in citric yuzu juice, and instead of strawberry jam with the scones, it is tropical mango jam.

Traditionalists may prefer the English afternoon tea, which also has some inventive creative touches like raspberry, lychee and rose macaroons, and a peanut, salted caramel and chocolate tart. There are black, green, oolong, white and fruit teas, as well as the light aromatic Signature Afternoon Blend. Book a table for shortly before sunset so you can see the view in daylight and then watch the city’s lights turn on as darkness descends.

The Lanesborough

The talk of the town, this grand dame has recently reopened after an 18-month renovation by late interiors maestro Alberto Pinto. Located between Knightsbridge’s seductive stores, Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park, afternoon tea is served at the Lanesborough’s restaurant, Céleste. A tea sommelier is on hand. The classic Regency-style room comes with ceiling roses, English crystal chandeliers, fresco paintings and layers of gold leaf.

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Upon being seated, three tiers of delicacies swiftly arrive, including finger sandwiches that are simple but spot-on: egg mayonnaise and cress; smoked salmon and cream cheese; and ham and cheddar. With a light touch, pastry chef Nicolas Rouzaud makes a madeleine with fresh ginger; a hazelnut truffle with praline crémeux and Jivara mousse; and an éclair with almond cream Chantilly, strawberry and fig. There are plain and fruit scones served with jam or lemon curd, and the rich, clotted Devonshire cream is accented with gold leaf. Bespoke tea blends include a Darjeeling first flush and a rare unprocessed white tea, although many opt for the Lanesborough Afternoon Tea, a blend of black and green leaves.

Tea time here may seem exceedingly English, but the poised service is decidedly more French and piano tunes are of the Great American Songbook, from George Gershwin to Cole Porter, which somewhat relaxes the formality. Pianist Brian Morris, a longtime Lanesborough loyal, has played here for more than 20 years entertaining royalty and celebrities. He delights in requests; ask for “When You Wish Upon a Star,” one of his favorites.

Fortnum & Mason

This is the perfect pairing of pedigree afternoon tea with souvenir shopping. Food emporium Fortnum & Mason has blended tea and imported loose-leafs for more than 300 years. These combine in a bewildering array of fine teas sold in Fortnum’s elegant tin caddies and a similarly extensive menu served in the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon, reopened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2012 to commemorate her 60 years on the throne. On Fortnum’s fourth floor, this old-fashioned afternoon tea is how the properly posh do it: quietly, without pretension and just a little bit shabbily (think prep school common room rather than penthouse). The menu does not veer from the traditional. Finger sandwiches include smoked salmon; coronation chicken; cucumber with mint and cream cheese; and Wiltshire roast ham with honey mustard. Scones are served with Somerset clotted cream and fruit preserve.

Fortnum’s also serves high tea, which focuses more on savory than sweet, and a tea with vegetarian treats. In the second-floor parlor, children can have a tea of their own with jammy dodger biscuits, ice cream, floats and cakes. But other than the unwavering tradition, the real reason to come here is for the food halls on the lower floors. Pick up Fortnum’s Royal Blend Tea of low-grown Flowery Pekoe from Sri Lanka or the Royal Blend created for King Edward VII in 1902. With the last season of Downton Abbey upon us, this old-school, gimmick-free tea is the perfect way to live out our Downton dreams with a final flourish.