Dripping crumpets, rich, tangy and melt-in-the-mouth Victoria Sponge, a warm, orange-scented clotted cream of a scone, and a spicy brew made of leaves from far-flung exotic places such as Darjeeling or Ceylon, … afternoon tea really is the stuff of whipped dreams.
The French refer to afternoon tea as “Thé Anglais,” or English tea. It is a quintessentially British ritual, and one which I remember well during the six summers I spent with my friend Angela on her farm in Leicestershire, in her aunt’s beach house in Brighton, and in the pretty guest houses of idyllic Rock, in Cornwall. It’s thanks to Angela and to her family that I love baking as much as I do: the children were tasked with making a trolley-laden tea every day for the fifteen or so people staying in the house.
“Wouldn’t it be dreadful to live in a country where they didn’t have tea?” Noël Coward
I can’t quite remember what I specifically contributed to those teas, but they were my most memorable English meals: sponges lathered in homemade jams, chewy meringues with full-blooded strawberries, crustless cucumber sandwiches, and lots of homemade lemon, lime and orange squash. I still associate tea with tennis: Angela’s parents would host idyllic tea lawn parties, not blue-lawned Gatsby ones, but mint green and Wimbledon-white ones. It all seemed frightfully posh, and très très British.
The Truth about Tea
Although Charles II’s Portuguese wife, Catherine of Braganza, is often credited with the introduction of tea into England, Samuel Pepys had already sampled it in 1660 :’I did send for a cup of tee, (a China drink) of which I had never had drunk before”. Catherine popularised the tea leaf, but the afternoon ritual of cakes and sandwiches has to be attributed to Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford and a friend of Queen Victoria. Feeling peckish between her luncheon and dinner, the Duchess would nibble on sandwiches and cakes, inviting some of her prominent friends to join her. The ritual suddenly became de rigueur with the Empire and flourished into what we know call Afternoon Tea.
It’s not as High as you think
For goodness sake, don’t ever refer to Afternoon Tea as High Tea. Tea aficionados will bite off your crumpets. High Tea was for servants and the working class, referred to as high because it was consumed off a kitchen table rather than a low table. It consisted of meats, cheeses, pickles, bread, and of course tea, and was the main meal after an exhausting day working as a servant or in a factory. In certain parts of Britain, dinner is still referred to as tea.
Before Facebook, there was the Tea Room
Tea Rooms became the hub of social networking for women. Ladies could sip away, unchaperoned and guilt-free. Thomas Twining introduced the tea room in 1717, and in 1894, Lyons opened up its first teashop on Piccadilly, eventually developing into a chain of tea shops: the Lyons Corner Houses.
“Tea would arrive, the cakes squatting on cushions of cream, toast in a melting shawl of butter, cups agleam and a faint wisp of steam rising from the teapot shawl.”
Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals
London’s best tearooms
Here is my guide to the best teas about town: the top pekoes, best gin-fuelled brews, tea for the gents, tea for royalty, and the prettiest cupcakes for your little whippersnappers.
Fogg’s Residence and Tavern
At Fogg’s Residence in Mayfair, the Tipsy Tea with a Bottomless Teapot of Gin comes with a warning: “after a particularly unpleasant experience in Svalbard, Norway, Mr Fogg will no longer entertain the consumption of scones within his residence.” Fear not, sandwiches and cakes are allowed, all washed down with copious amounts of gin. Over at Fogg’s Tavern in Covent Garden, Aunt Gertrude only serves her gin-infused teas on Saturdays at 3.01pm precisely. Don’t expect to leave sober. Mr Foggs
It’s called the “Not Afternoon Tea” here, and it’s the tea with the view: located in the iconic OXO tower, overlooking the River Thames across to St Paul’s, it’s also next to The Globe, Tate Modern, The London Eye and the Royal Festival Hall. Each dish here is paired with a cocktail: the rice pudding with wild plum jam is married to the “Delicious Union Jack” cocktail (Sipsmith Summer Cup, Chase marmalade, apple juice, cider, vanilla foam, cherry bitters), while the rhubarb and wild fennel meringue is accompanied by a “Rhubarb cocktail” (Portobello Road Gin, rhubarb liqueur, lemon juice). The “Not Afternoon Tea” is guaranteed to make you giggle your way down Southbank – you might want to get the sightseeing done first though! From £26 Oxo Brasserie
Tea for Men has become the tea du jour. I haven’t sampled these, but I hear they kick a punch for all you Popeyes out there.
The Reform Social & Grill
What gentleman wouldn’t swoon at the idea of a steak and snail sandwich, a British sausage roll and a real ale chocolate cake? The Reform Social is part of the Mandeville Hotel in Marylebone, a stone’s throw away from Selfridges and from the boutiques of Marylebone Village. Tea here is priced at £26.50, and for £12 you can add some liquid fortification such as a “Reform Club Sugar Cube”. If you fancy taking the kids with you, the Mini Afternoon tea at £12.50 includes a choice of peanut butter and jelly or fish finger sandwiches, milkshakes, chocolate and marshmallow lollipops and jelly and custard pots. Reform
This devilishly tempting tea is guaranteed to put a few hairs on chests: mini steak fillets, potted ham & Piccalilli, mini lobster brioche, and scones with raspberry and chocolate jam, all washed down with a tankard of Jack Daniels’ “Gentleman’s Jack.” £55 per person. Sanctum Soho
Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe
The Bard would probably approve of the Gent’s tea menu here: blue cheese and cider scones, Scotch eggs, fish finger sandwiches, and a bit of French Croque Monsieur thrown in. Served with a tanker of smoked brown ale, of course. £26.50. The Swan
Sugar and spice and everything nice
Kids don’t always want the fanfare of a three-tier afternoon tea marathon. Here are some ideas for your little angels and rascals:
The BB Bakery is a cute tea salon in Covent Garden, but what makes this tea destination special is the Tea Bus Tour, which combines sightseeing and a full afternoon tea with macarons, cupcakes, sandwiches and pastries. From £45 for adults and £25 for children (over 6 only). BB Bakery
The Biscuiteers Boutique and Icing Café is one of the most photographed shops in London. If you have a budding baker in the family, the Little Biscuiteers School of Icing is frosting mecca. For a red, white and blue British themed tea, including Biscuiteers’ famous biscuits, brownies, macarons, mini cupcakes and finger sandwiches, your little ones will be in tea heaven. £48 per person. Biscuiteers
The Potting Shed, Firmdale Hotels
This tea won’t disappoint your little ones, and it’s close to Madame Tussaud’s and London Zoo. With a dreamy menu of peanut butter sandwiches, mini ice cream, chocolate sprinkle cake, create your own cupcake and hot chocolate, I just wish they made these for the adults too! £12 per child. Potting Shed
Tea at the Museum
The Fan Museum
You have to book well in advance for this exceptionally well-priced and highly-rated tea: at £8 a person for a cream tea and cakes, you’d be silly not to try it. Make sure you visit The Fan Museum, a quirky and delightful venue dedicated to fans dating from the 12th century. Fan Museum
I can spend hours getting lost in the Wallace Collection: my favourite work of art is the saucy The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. You can rest your weary feet in the pretty courtyard restaurant where they serve afternoon tea for £18.50 (or add the fizz for £26).
Worth a King’s Ransom
My absolute favourite place for afternoon tea is Claridges: it’s expensive, but worth every penny. I’ve spent a few special occasions in Claridges’ spectacular Foyer, an art deco-inspired room with a dazzing chandelier by glass master, Dale Chihuly . The tea is a culinary and gastronomic work of art. The Children’s Tea at Claridges for your 5-10 year-olds includes vanilla fairy cakes, brownies and a menu that doubles as a colouring book. From £58. Claridges
Fortnum and Mason
The Diamond Jubilee Room at Fortnum’s was opened by none other than Her Majesty in the company of the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Cambridge, and it reigns supreme as one of London’s best tearooms. Cucumber sandwiches with mint and cream cheese and picture-perfect patisseries will be served on Fortnums’ signature eau-de-nil plates. You can even get your own personalised bottle of champagne. From £44, or add £3 to have one of Fortnum’s rare teas. Fortnums
The Charlie and the Chesterfield tea is confectionary magic: a delectable selection of sandwiches and scones, Oompa Loompa cupcakes, blueberry macaroons, fizzy lifting cakes and chocolate Wonka bars for the adults; and peanut butter and jam sandwiches, fruit and chocolate chip scones, and Wonkatastic pastries for the kids. Adults from £36.50 and children £17.50. Chesterfield Mayfair
More than just tea
Peggy Porschen in Belgravia is an Instagrammer’s dream window display. The Parlour sells the prettiest cakes and cookies in London, and across the road, the Peggy Porschen Academy might transform you into a cake craft queen or king. Peggy Porschen
This used to be a favourite of mine when its home was in Westbourne Grove. They had divine homemade crumpets on the menu, and a seemingly endless choice of teas with exotic names. The Tea Palace has now moved to Covent Garden, and whilst it does not offer afternoon tea, it’s a tea emporium not to be missed. With teas such as “Afternoon at The Palace”, “Midsummer Mango,” and “Earl Grey Blue Flowers,” you’ll forgive them for not having cake and crumpet. Tea Palace
“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” Henry James, Portrait of a Lady
Do you have any places you’d like me to add to my list of London’s best tearooms? Leave me a comment below!