Afternoon tea used to be a fairly sedate affair, where you knew pretty well what you’d get on your cake stand. Sandwiches to begin with, followed by scones or crumpets and then Swiss roll, meringues or fruit cake to round things off. Yet the London afternoon tea, at least the grander sort, has now become a very different kind of meal and there’s a spectrum of variants on offer. Think mini French-style desserts instead of Victoria sandwich, and carb-shy cake. You could even go for a Man Tea or a detox version. Afternoon tea is now a very big deal and where it used to be the cheap way of getting the grand hotel experience, it will now set you back up to £40 per person. You can get a set-price lunch at the same establishments for less. Londoners who are time poor with a sweet tooth will even maintain that a tea meeting is a profitable use of time. So much less of a disruption to your working day! And you get to eat cake!
Let me put my cards, or rather carbs, on the table here. I’m a fan of the traditional version of afternoon tea. Put me in front of a three-tiered assembly with well-filled sandwiches — or even slices of bread and butter — at the bottom, scones or teacakes in the middle, and sponge cake on top, and I’m happy, especially if you throw in a tart on the side.
I grew up on the plebeian version of tea, which is simply your evening meal if you’ve had your dinner at lunchtime; it’s known in polite circles as high tea, though I’ve yet to hear a mother calling to her brood on the street: ‘Would you ever come in for your high tea?’
As Henry James, an American in London, observed in The Portrait of a Lady, it’s one of the great English contributions to civilisation, this mid-afternoon break for tea and cake. It bridges the gap between lunch and dinner in a potentially sublime way; wonderful in summer in the open air, and no less pleasurable in winter, when your thoughts turn to crumpet. History doesn’t relate if Henry had a fondness for a toasted teacake, but as he put it, ‘There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.’
The nature of the contemporary sandwich, however, has had an overhaul. The Ritz afternoon tea does its Cucumber sandwich with Cream Cheese, Dill and Chives on Granary Bread; its Scottish Smoked Salmon one with Lemon Butter on Sourdough Bread; and its chicken with Parsley Cream. Any hotel worth its salt will keep the sandwiches coming ad lib, so that dispiriting moment when you’re too polite to take the last smoked salmon sandwich needn’t be a problem. Ask for more. The same goes for scones. They should be light and warm with a choice of fruit or plain. There must be cold clotted cream, and strawberry or raspberry jam; it’s so familiar, you forget what a sublime combination that is.
That said, some French versions of tea skip the scones altogether; at Galvin Demoiselle, the little bistro overlooking the Harrods food hall, you get madeleines instead, which are hard to find in London; and there’s not space here to do justice to the invasion of the Ladurée macaroon.
The trouble with afternoon tea — or perhaps its point — is that it is the ultimate carb fest. Sandwiches, scones and cake amount to a celebration of starch and sugar enough to wipe the pout off the face of your average hedge-fund girlfriend, let alone the Dukan diet brigade or the fashion pack. And this may account for the contemporary top-tier solution to the problem: mini jellies, panna-cotta, mousses in little glasses.
Brown’s could be said to have their cake and not eat it. They have the delicious little desserts all right, but for traditionalists there’s the option of a proper Victoria sponge or fruitcake as well. They have also invented the virtuous low-carb Tea Tox, with open spelt bread finger sandwiches or a chicory leaf with quail’s egg on the bottom plate, a fruit skewer instead of scones, and a dense gluten-free chocolate cake sliver or chocolate cup with fruits. Reader, I came to sneer but ate the lot, excepting the gem leaf with tabbouleh.
The Berkeley has a different approach for fashionistas. Its celebrated Prêt-à-Portea gives you a sweet take on fashion, with iced biscuits inspired by that season’s collections. (And if you are very restrained you can request a very pretty doggy bag and ration them over several days.)
Afternoon tea poses, perhaps, something of a problem for non-metrosexual men, in that it’s a bit girly. What they want is a bit less of the finger sandwiches and a bit more in the way of pie and scotch eggs. The Soho Sanctum Hotel offers the Gent’s Tea, which gives you as much substance as you could want in the way of a plateful of mini savouries, from oysters to mini steak rolls. It doesn’t come cheap, at £50, but that’s probably because of the silver tankard of Jack Daniel’s on the side and the cigar to finish (there’s a roof garden). My gentleman friend loved it, though he paled at the price.
But for the wildest, weirdest takes on afternoon tea, the boutique hotels excel themselves. There’s the Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea at The Sanderson, a barking mad but rather wonderful assortment of Drink Me bottles of fruit jelly, sandwiches made from coloured bread, blueberry lollipops and chocolate cake shaped like a rabbit’s watch. The website warns: no fancy dress.
The W Hotel’s AnarchTea comes served on a vinyl cake stand, with each creation a tribute to a song. ‘God Save the Queen’ by The Sex Pistols becomes a slice of red, white and blue Battenburg. Delicious, especially when washed down with a ‘Lust for Life’ cocktail, because if you are truly a rock star (if only in your head), doubtless you like your cakes with something stronger than a pot of Earl Grey. You can, in fact, sometimes forget that the point of afternoon tea is the tea. Brown’s treat it as seriously as wine, with adjectives including ‘chocolate’ and ‘honeyed’ on the menu.
The best afternoon teas, it must be said, are often the ones you make yourself. If you’re pushed and can only run to sandwiches, you may like to call up some really good cupcakes from Sweet Redemption; I liked the gluten-free one made with almonds and soaked in lime syrup. Tea can be healthy — really, it can!
But if a cupcake just won’t cut it, for the whole tea experience, sans effort, the lovely Mary McCoy of Mary’s Tea Parties will come to your home, armed with all the main constituents, from a selection of finger sandwiches to scones and a succession of mini cakes: lavender shortbread stacks, lemon meringue tarts, chocolate tuille baskets. She’s an actress, and does the waitressing with aplomb. And, best of all, there’s no washing up.
Updated August 2016. An original version of this article appeared in Spectator Life in 2012.