Monday, 27 August 2012

Afternoon tea overview

As I have mentioned previously, my favourite British food tradition is afternoon tea. Me and Best Friend are crazy about this wonderful tradition of dressing up a bit and sitting down on a lazy Saturday or Sunday afternoon to enjoy elegant finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam and tiny pieces of cake.

There are so many genius things about afternoon tea. First of all, the whole idea of having a nice little mid afternoon snack between breakfast and dinner. Second of all, I love the combination of having a bit of savoury things and many sweet ones. My absolute favourite thing about afternoon tea is that most places serve many tiny small pieces of cakes and pastries, so you get to have a taste of many different things. I much rather have several tiny pieces of different cakes than one big piece. But more on that later...

Funnily enough, for me the actual tea is the least important thing when having afternoon tea. All expectations I have of a great afternoon tea relate to the food. After trying afternoon tea in several places, I have come to expect several things. First of all, I am disappointed if there isn't a smoked salmon sandwich and an egg sandwich, those two are my absolute favourites. Any additional ones beyond these two are definitely a plus, but no salmon or no egg is a big no-no. The next one has to do with the scone, it has to be warm, fresh and crumbly. Also very important, the cream has to be proper clotted cream, not some sort of whipped cream or other "light" substitute. The third thing is, one big piece of cake is simply not acceptable. In my humble opinion, afternoon tea is supposed to be served with a selection of tiny cakes and pastries. Preferably something with lemon, something with berries and something with chocolate. 

In our frenzy to find the best place to have afternoon tea, me and Best Friend have sampled quite a few places. Of the places we have visited (and usually visits are preceded by thorough online research of available options), all have their pros and cons. But I have ended up with one clear favourite above all others. Of course, there are still so many places left to try, I would love to sample the afternoon tea at The Athanaeum Hotel, voted to be the best Afternoon Tea in London 2012 by the Tea Guild. Another place I'm almost ashamed I haven't managed to visit yet is the Peacocks tearoom in Ely, only a 15 minute trainride from Cambs, which has been awarded the Tea Guild's Award of Excellence many years running and has the most amazing selection of teas. Below is a mini-review of some of the places we have visited with a few pictures and my opinions and thoughts. 

Harriets Café Tearooms, Cambridge (£15.45)
Me and Best Friend have been a bit disappointed in the selection of tea rooms in our hometown. Luckily enough, Harriets recently opened a Tearoom in central Cambridge , so of course we had to sample the menu. We wanted to celebrate the Jubilee weekend by having afternoon tea, so I called ahead to make a booking for Jubilee weekend Sunday. Interestingly enough, I was told they don't take bookings for weekends, but right after telling me this, the lady on the phone kindly promised to book us a table anyways. When we arrived with Best Friend on the rainy Sunday, there was indeed a cosy little table for us, right by the window so we could watch the world go by while elegantly sipping our tea. We were both wearing pretty dresses and felt like we fit right into the atmosphere of the elegant yet cosy tearoom, where a live pianist was playing. There are two tea menus to choose from, a  regular and a somewhat extended special afternoon tea menu. Obviously, we went for the special menu. 

The service was very friendly, and we got our tea very quickly. The food was also served without major delays despite the fact that almost all tables were occupied. I chose a very interesting Lapsang Souchong tea, which is smoked over wood chips. The tea had a strong scent of smoke, and there was a distinct taste of smoke, almost with an undertone of tar. I think on it's own, it would have been very nice, but I'm not sure if it was the best choice to go with the food. And the food is, like I said, the main reason I love the afternoon tea. The sandwiches were good, not the best ones I have had, but very nice. The smoked salmon was good quality, but the chicken and cucumber sandwiches were a bit plain. The scones were very nice and crumbly, again not the best scone I have ever had, but not far from it. I also liked the fact that instead of one big scone, you got two small scones. And then the sweets. There was four different tiny sweets, an eclair, a tiny brownie, a piece of carrot cake and a piece of coffee flavoured coffe cake. The coffee cake was probably my favourite, and the carrot cake was Best Friend's favourite. We both thought Harriets is a lovely addition to the cafes in Cambridge, the afternoon tea was beautifully presented, the service was friendly, the size of the food was appropriate. We will certainly be back for more, and find it a bit scary that there is such a good tearoom right down the street from where I live.

Bettys Café Tea Rooms, York (£17.95)
The place to be seen in York is definitely Bettys Tea Room. Me and Best Friend visited on a windy and chilly Saturday afternoon, and stood in line with dozens of other tourists for over half an hour to get a table. Once we got in through the door, we were warmly greeted, and shown to a cosy table downstairs. So we didn't get to sit in the huge glass windows and be seen, but we loved the wood paneled atmospheric room downstairs.

Despite the place being absolutely packed, service was friendly and rapid. The tea arrived quickly and the wait for the food was not too long. I had a mild Yu Luo White Tea, which was very delicate, and nicely went with all the different foods. The sandwiches were nice, but the salmon sandwich was warm smoked instead of the usual cold smoked, which in my book was a bit of a disappointment. The good side was that there were four different sandwiches, salmon, chicken, ham and egg. The scones were very good. They looked a bit bland, but once again this was a reminder not to judge a scone by it's looks, the texture was creamy and crumbly just as they are supposed to be. And then the grand finale, the sweets. Three different tiny servings of lemon sponge cake, a raspberry mini tartlet and a rich chocolate cake with coffee flavour. Surprisingly, out of these three, the chocolate one was my least favourite (shocking, I know). The raspberry tartlet was very good, but the favourite was actually the lemon cake. It was really refreshing and incredibly tasty, not dry at all. All in all, this was a great place to have afternoon tea, with the long wait being the only big drawback. There is also a lovely bakery shop in the same building with the tearoom, so you can get some of the goodies to take home with you.

The Rose, Oxford (£12.50)
Oxford seems to have several great places for afternoon tea. After doing a thorough online search, me and Best Friend ended up having tea in a small cafe called The Rose, which had very good online reviews. We arrived quite early on a Saturday afternoon, and were seated immediately. The service was very friendly, but given that the place was half empty, we waited for quite a while before getting our food. However, it was definitely worth the wait. The sandwiches were very nice, and included both the smoked salmon and egg varieties, so full points for that. And the scone... it gets absolute top marks. It was the most decadently crumbly scone ever, absolutely lovely with the cream and jam. However, the sweets were the letdown of this afternoon tea, as it only consisted of a piece of cake from the cafe's selection. Good thing there was two of us, so at least we got to sample two different cakes. We went for a warm apple pie, and a chocolate almond tart, which were both good, but not exceptional. However, this was a great value for money afternoon tea experience in a pretty litte cafe which gets a huge plus for the best scone at any afternoon tea we have had.

Kettner's, London (£18.67, not available any more)
Because of the Diamond Jubilee, Kettner's celebrated with a limited time afternoon tea. So if you didn't grab the opportunity this summer, you missed your chance for afternoon tea at Kettner's. I thought I would still leave in my review of the afternoon tea experience at Kettner's so you all know what you missed. 

Me and Best Friend usually go to afternoon tea specifically for the tea (ok, well I admit, specifically for the scones and pastries) so we don't usually go for the champagne options. However, this was Kettner's so we felt like we were kind of obliged to have an aperitif before the actual tea itself. As we both love rhubarb, we ended up ordering a glass of Rhubarbellini, which was decribed as "Rhubarb liqueur, bitters and puree, topped with 
prosecco". Although the drink was nice and refreshing, it was not very rhubarb-y. However, it was a nice way to pass the time while we waited for our three tiers of goodiness to arrive. 

The tea was served in lovely glass teapots which nicely showed the colour of the tea. The china set at the tables was absolutely adorable, all cups and saucers were unique and non matching, but they all were lovely with flowers and other beautiful decorations. The tea salon at Kettner's was also very beautiful and had a relaxed atmosphere, and the service was excellent. The sandwiches were nice, the scones were not very memorable. The selection of desserts certainly warrants to be mentioned. It was a very different selection of desserts with mini Chelsea buns, trifle, rhubarb jelly with pomegranate foam, chocolate digestive and treacle tart. Not your run of the mill afternoon tea dessert selection, and I mean that in a good way. Particularly the treacle tart was delicious. 

The Ritz , London (£42)
The Ritz... the big kahuna, repeatedly chosen to be one of the top afternoon teas in London. Apparently, this is the one to measure all the other afternoon tea's against. And the Ritz most certainly is a very impressive setting to have afternoon tea. It is the Ritz after all. We got dressed up to the nines and hit the afternoon tea with great expectations.

The menu had a huge number of sandwiches, warm scones with clotted cream and jam and a selection of pastries. To summarise my experience of the Ritz afternoon tea: Overpriced and over-hyped. If this would have been my first afternoon tea, I would most certainly have been impressed. But after having experienced what I would guess soon comes to a dozen different afternoon teas, apart from the very nice surroundings, the afternoon tea in itself was not too impressive. I'm not saying it was bad, but given the price which is pretty much double that of any other afternoon tea we have tried, it certainly left a lot to hope for. We were left with a feeling of being rushed all the time, the scones were a total disappointment and the cake trolleys circulating in the tearoom constantly overlooked our table. The selection of teas was great, as were the sandwiches. One major complaint I have is that usually you get a selection of pastries with everyone getting the same pastries, whereas here we got a total of five small pastries (for three people, why not six??) and as some of the pastries didn't look very good, we were left to try to divide the different pastries between us. Another idea which I loved in theory, but which did not work in practice at all was that the scones were not served at the same time as the sandwiches and cakes as they were served warm. In theory, they were to be served when we were ready for them (which to us meant, after finishing our sandwiches). However, the first overly eager waiter tried to bring them in after we had barely started on our sandwiches, luckily we were able to stop him at that point. A few minutes later another waiter just brought the warm scones over anyways, despite us still being merely half way through the sandwiches. So we ended up eating our scones slightly stale instead of warm. Yet another small thing that added to the sense of urgency of the afternoon tea was the rushing of the checks. I do understand that they have to prepare the tea room for the next guests, but we found it quite annoying that checks were brought to the tables already after an hour, which seems very hurried to us, especially since the reservation card says that the tea lasts from an hour and a half to an hour and 45 minutes. 

As much as I wanted to love the tea experience at the Ritz, I certainly have had better afternoon tea experiences in London. For the actual experience of afternoon tea, I would definitely recommend other places over the Ritz. Of course, the whole experience of afternoon tea is not just the meal itself, but the surroundings as well, which obviously were very impressive. However, as you will see below, there are other places which also offer very impressive surroundings along with a better tea experience. That is of course only in my humble opinion. And despite all my complaints, I'm glad I did get to experience tea at the Ritz as well, for an afternoon tea-o-holic such as myself, it was definitely worth experiencing.  

Chancery Court, London (£23.50)
I was googling Afternoon Tea London and somehow stumbled upon the phrase Chocolate afternoon tea. Suddenly my heart started beating faster. I clicked the link and was greeted by a picture slide show of chocolate cakes, tarts, brownies and all other sorts of goodies. Immediately, I knew that was where I was meant to be. The place where I would find happiness. I booked a table for me and Best Friend for a girl's day out with afternoon tea followed by a bit of pampering at the Purity Spa (for the record, lying down on your stomach having a massage after stuffing yourself with chocolate is not the best of ideas, note to self - next time start with the pampering and finish with massage).

Me and best friend dressed up in pretty dresses, bows in our hair and pearls around our necks and set off for the Chancery Court which is very conveniently located right next to the Holborn tube stop. We were very kindly greeted and escorted to a beautifully set table in a very impressive tea salon. Tea samples were brought to us to aid in the selection of teas, which was very convenient as you got to smell the different teas and did not only have to rely on the descriptions in the menu. I chose one of those pretty herbal teas in the form of a flower which opens up in the hot water and looks so pretty and has a very subtile flavour. The selection of sandwiches was varied and as the salmon sandwiches are my favourites, I was especially taken by the pretty little salmon rolls. The disappointing bit of the tea were the scones, which were not particularly crumbly, but admittedly much better than the ones at the Ritz. And then all madness broke loose when we hit the tables of chocolate goodies. There were macaroons, tarts, brownies, cookies, mousses, pastries, trifles, cakes, chocolate covered nuts and almonds, and even a chocolate fountain with strawberries, fruit and marshmallows for dipping. All through the tea the service was very friendly, we were repeatedly offered re-filling of our teapots and the overall atmosphere in the lounge was relaxed although very elegant. The Chancery Court is located in a beautiful building with the most astonishing courtyard. When we were leaving, we were warmly invited to come again soon. This is without a doubt my favourite afternoon tea of all the ones we have tried, and I will certainly be returning.

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