There’s nothing more quintessentially British than afternoon tea. Originally thought to be Anna, Duchess of Bedford’s idea in the 1840s, afternoon tea has evolved over the years from a humble slice of bread and butter to stave off 4pm hunger pangs into a celebrated society event, where society ladies would dress up in their finery to take tea at the country’s finest establishments.
After the Earl of Sandwich came up with the idea of putting a filling in between two slices of bread, sandwiches became highly fashionable. The Duchess of Bedford, wanting a light bite before her evening meal at 8pm, instructed her staff to serve some small sandwiches at 4pm. She invited friends to join her, the menu became more elaborate and Afternoon Tea was born.
Afternoon Tea in London
Afternoon Tea is an important part of British heritage and the British Tea Guild have been scouring the country for the most excellent places to take tea for the past 21 years. The Tea Guild are so established that their awards have often been dubbed as the ‘Michelin Star’ of the tea world.
The sought after ‘Top Afternoon Tea in London Award’ is fought over every year by the city’s best hotels and tea rooms. This year the 2012 award went to the Athenaeum Hotel in Piccadilly for the variety, flavour and knowledge of the teas offered.
Other famous spots to take tea in the capital are The Savoy, The Ritz, The Goring and Claridge’s hotels but there are plenty of places to choose from – many of them offering a themed afternoon tea such as the ‘Prêt-à-Portea’ at The Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge (all based around the world of fashion) or the Stupendous Afternoon Tea at The Mercer Street hotel in Covent Garden (based on West-End hit ‘Matilda the Musical’).
What to look for in an afternoon tea
It’s traditional to begin with the sandwiches. Soft white or brown bread filled with smoked salmon, egg mayonnaise and cress, cucumber or ham and mustard – usually a selection but never with crusts!
Moving on to the scones; experts have debated over whether sultanas should be present or not but everyone agrees that the perfect scone should be light in texture, buttery, slightly warm and served with clotted cream and jam.
But which should you spread on first; clotted cream or jam? Rival counties Devon and Cornwall have argued over this dilemma for years – in a recent poll 57% of The Guardian readers online voted the best is Cornwall’s way: jam first with clotted cream on top.
Cakes aren’t so regimented although popular choices are Lemon Drizzle Cake, Victoria Sponge, Chocolate Éclairs and Bakewell Tart – as long as it’s sweet, pretty much anything goes! The Queen’s favourite is reportedly Battenberg Cake or Dundee Cake (a light Scottish fruit cake) and our late Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother even had a cake named after her. The ‘Queen Mother’s Cake’ is a nutty, chocolate creation although her Majesty loved a variety of cakes – Date & Walnut Cake was a Balmoral staple and her 101st birthday cake was made with Pimm’s, a British gin-based fruity liqueur.
Accompanying the food is of course the tea itself. Assam tea is a popular choice for its refreshing taste although most tea rooms offer a range with anything from a fruity herbal infusion to a strong smoky Lapsang Souchong.
So now you know what to look for in your tea, where’s the best place to dine? Radisson Blu Edwardian hotels are one option – with 12 central London hotels, they offer a range of restaurants to choose from in popular areas such as Covent Garden, Leicester Square and South Kensington.