July 9, 2015

I have not sat down for high tea in the UK — so on a recent trip to London, I decided to experience this quintessential British afternoon dining tradition.

Why High Tea and not Afternoon Tea? After all, these sessions generally start at 3pm, in some cases even 1pm, and are staggered all the way until 5.30pm daily in countless hotels all over United Kingdom. Was it named especially for the high society? Well, yes and no. A brief look in history reveals that it started in the 19th century by the Duchess of Bedford, one of the ladies-in-waiting of Queen Victoria. Back then the Brits have two meals — breakfast and dinner. Because dinner is usually at 8pm, the Duchess was reported to have ‘a sinking feeling” by 4pm. So she had her servants sneak in some tea and bread at 4pm. She invited friends over and so was born the afternoon tea over low tables in the drawing room. However, the middle and lower classes would have a more substantial tea, which is their dinner at 5 or 6pm where food was consumed at higher tables. Hence, the name “High Tea”.

Over the years, the tradition of enjoying an afternoon tea or high tea became fashionable for the high society. Today, both names are used interchangeably except in the top end hotels/tea houses, and high tea costs a bit more as it comes with a glass of champagne. This delightful afternoon ritual has now become a popular attraction for tourists who visit the UK. And in London, High Tea sessions in 5-star/heritage hotels pull in streams of visitors daily. The Dorchester Hotel in Mayfair is said to chalk up hundreds of sittings a day in their roster of 5 sessions that start from 1 pm onwards.

The typical tea spread comprises three servings of food. First up, sandwiches and pastries, followed by scones, and finally, cakes. Of course, there is a wide selection of tea to accompany this indulgent afternoon experience.

Without advanced reservations, I could not get a table at The Dorchester (£49) nor The Claridge’s, an art decor masterpiece that has a 150-year tradition of afternoon tea. I finally settled for The Connaught, a 100 plus year heritage hotel in the chic Mayfair area. Before our party settled down for the traditional tea  (£45) at Espelette, an informal brasserie – style dining room, the concierge gave us a tour of this grand lady and its attractions which included an Aman Spa, The Connaught restaurant helmed by two Michelin star Helene Darroze, and The Connaught Bar which features a martini trolley.

The tea menu was impressive. It featured a list of herbal and fruit tisanes offerings. From the true tea section, there were black, green and white teas. The herbal teas offered were beverages made from the infusion of herbs, spices and other plant materials, which resulted in some exotic and fancy names such as Lemon Tango Mango (Zesty Meyer lemons balanced with sweet juicy mangoes); Old Blue Eyes (layers of sweet vanilla, warm caramel, apple pieces, lemon and orange peel, strawberries, raspberries and herbs). My dining partner opted for Mountain Berry, which had a mélange of Canadian berries from Saskatoon, red and black currants, raisins and wild blueberries. It had a ripe and fruity taste. As a tea purist, I went for the Darjeeling Second Flush. The menu describes it as blended layers of different summer harvests from prestigious gardens. It even claimed that their authentic blend has unique flavours which cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world. The taste was not bad, but the best tea I ever had was the A grade Orange Pekoe from Sri Lanka — the delightful aroma of orange peels was out of this world.

In such tea sessions, once the tea is brewed and brought to the table, the server will pour at least your first cup. This is to prevent spillage. And this was executed with aplomb just before the first food tray arrives. The three-tier curate stand had 4 types of finger sandwiches on the bottom. The one with the Devonshire brown crab with celery and chive was most delicious. The other two plates at the higher levels had six kinds of pastries. The chef had given his utmost attention to details, providing colour and shapes which was a feast for the eyes. The Wild strawberry passion fruit and guava macaron and bitter almond and blueberry cheesecake stood out in terms of presentation and taste.

Next up, the freshly baked scones served with Cornish clotted cream. Clotted cream is made by indirectly heating full cream cow’s milk by dairy farmers in Cornwall, South West England. And in Cornwall, the right way to eat scones is to slap on the jam, followed by the clotted cream. As for the jam or preserves, we were spoilt for choice — 7 kinds to be precise, which was created by the Executive Chef and hand crafted by Tea Together. Tea Together has a reputation of producing top quality jams by hand in its atelier using traditional copper pans, and all its fruits and ingredients used are certified organic. Our preserves included apricot with almond, gooseberry with geranium and rose, orange, and ginger. My favorite was Rhubarb with angelica. Clotted cream has a high saturated fat content, about 55%. For once I threw caution to the wind and attacked my well-spread scones with gusto.

When I was almost stuffed to the gills, the wait staff brought out a plate of cakes. They were chocolate and orange blossom battenberg, and bee pollen and raspberry cake. Both were delicious. Fortunately, the battenberg was a light sponge cake, displaying a distinctive 2-by-2 check pattern, wrapped around by marzipan.

When we had our fill, there were still some leftovers. The restaurant offered to pack them in a box for us, but we declined as we were off to the theatre that evening. All in all, it was a highly satisfying experience. There is no doubt this tea tradition is here to stay. Many hotels and tea houses have cashed in, and there are permutations of this centuries-old tradition. Over at the impressive Shangri-La hotel, its Ting restaurant offers an Asian-inspired menu that includes steamed dumplings and vegetable gyozas among other savoury treats. Alternatively, you could enjoy afternoon tea while cruising down the Thames during the months from April to October.

Clearly the choice is varied and plentiful. And there will be a price that will suit every pocket. To each his own cuppa!