Last updated on June 1st, 2018
The Victorian Afternoon Tea at the Victoria and Albert Museum had me at seed cake. These two words always bring my childhood back in a whoosh of nostalgia wrapped in a cocoon of Englishness. If seed cake was good enough for Bilbo Baggins and his Unexpected Party, then it’s good enough for Londoness. And thanks to food historian Tasha Marks who designed the Victorian tea menu, seed cake wasn’t the only historical dish that made it onto my Burleigh Pottery plate in the V & A Morris Room, one of the prettiest tea rooms in London. Londoness was a very happy lady indeed.
“have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful and beautiful” William Morris
A Slice of History
The V & A, originally named the South Kensington Museum, introduced cutting-edge gas lighting for its art-loving public, allowing visitors to wander around after-dark. Between 1868 and 1881, it would innovate further with the world’s first museum restaurants. The Centre Refreshment Room was the design brainchild of James Gamble, the Grill Room was Edward Poytner’s and the Green Dining Room was William Morris’s first secular commission.
Morris was one of the most important interior tastemasters of the day, and he enlisted the help of his friends Philip Webb and Edward Burne-Jones to help with the design. The result is an Arts and Crafts marvel, and you’ll feel you have truly walked into a room from the House Beautiful.
Morris was an excellent and generous host. We know he threw some excellent Oxford and Cambridge parties from his Hammersmith home at Kelmscott House. He loved food, once saying he wouldn’t have minded being a cook. He wasn’t fussy, although he preferred French food to English fare. I don’t know if he enjoyed the fruits of his labour in the Morris Room but during his day, it was a popular meeting-place for artists.
Much credit has been given to Philip Webb for the designs in this Morris Room, including the wall panels, several stained-glass quarries and the painted Zodiac panels, but Barbara Morris (not a relation) and once curator of the V & A, claims that Morris was much more hands-on than had been previously thought. She suggests that the gilded panels with the fruit and foliage, as well as the stencilled ceiling, are by Morris.
The Victorian Afternoon Tea
According to Tasha Marks, the inspiration for the Victorian Afternoon Tea menu came from a variety of historical sources, including the works of Mrs. Beeton, Mary L. Allen and A.B. Marshall. The dishes offer a contemporary twist on historical plates which would have been enjoyed by the Victorians, and each item is accompanied by the specific year in which the recipe was published, from 1897 to 1901.
The dishes may not be the exact ones enjoyed by Queen Victoria, but they do pay homage to her. The Indian Chutney and Ham Hock Sandwich, for example, is a nod to the Empress of India who enjoyed her curries. From 1897, Indian dishes would make a weekly appearance on the royal menu.
We know that Queen Victoria relished her Afternoon Tea (referred to as ‘At Home Tea’). She would almost always take a hamper of tea and cake whenever she went out, and was also a lover of fruit and of Brussels biscuits, a type of rusk. Following Albert’s death, the tea would be replaced with whisky.
My husband and I ordered a vegetarian menu, but the standard savoury fare includes crayfish and mayonnaise with anchovy paste as well as an open sandwich with fresh anchovy and Nasturtium flowers on pumpernickel (the Victorians loved fishy food). I was thrilled to tuck into a Mrs Beeton cucumber sandwich instead, followed by a creamy asparagus and parmesan mini tart. Both tasted of British summer.
The Bundt-shaped Lemon and Seed Cake was the highlight of the Victorian Afternoon Tea. The poppy seeds added crunch to this light and zesty morsel. I can report that it was tastier than all the seed cakes of my childhood literary fantasies. The iced orange cake with clementine purée and pistachios was also scrumptious.
The Earl Grey infused sconelets were moreish, and Queen Vic’s Sandwich was confection perfection, a buttermilk and blackcurrant version with a feathery elderflower cream.
There were only six teas to choose from on the menu (a little meagre I thought). Queen Victoria was a lover of tea and coffee, and liked nothing better than to dunk her cake (and her Brussels biscuits) in both, giving them a good soak. In her honour, I did dip a corner of my iced orange cake in my bergamot-infused cup of Earl Grey, and the soggy version was equally tasty!
Now, if you’re vegetarian (or pesco-vegetarian), fret not as the kitchen can make tweaks to the menu. But if you have food intolerances such as gluten, I’m afraid you’re stuffed. You’ll have to head next door to the jaw-droppingly Gamble Room for your slice of cake.
The Victorian Afternoon Tea in the Morris Room costs £30 per person (which is fantastic value for money). Add Prosecco for an additional £5.
Thanks to food historian, Tasha Marks who provided insight into the historical tea menu design. Tasha holds workshops and talks throughout the year, and you can check out her latest events here. You can also follow Tasha on Instagram. I would also like to thank Helen Elletson, curator of the William Morris Society collection at Kelmscott House, who blew me away with her knowledge of Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. She kindly gave me a copy of Barbara Morris’s lecture on William Morris and the South Kensington Museum. If you’re interested in Arts and Crafts design, do make sure you visit the Emery Walker House in Hammersmith. It houses some exquisite William Morris and Philip Webb masterpieces and is a House Beautiful time-capsule.
And if you’re a Queen Victoria fan, I highly recommend you read Annie Gray’s The Greedy Queen. It provides a fascinating insight into the most gastronomically-obsessed queen that ever was in this fair land of ours, and it helped me with some of the historical snippets in this post.
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