Afternoon Tea is a 175-year-old custom brought to England by a Duchess that swiftly made its way into the British society and is now a tradition in the British culture. However, this custom, or as I believe it to be an ‘experience’ hasn’t really caught the imagination of the rest of the world and still seems to be an alien concept.
A typical afternoon tea is not meant for the impatient. A two hour ritual where you indulge in scrummy scones with clotted cream, lemon crème and an array of preserves, crisp cucumbers lined with herb cream cheese on a caraway bread that make delicious finger sandwiches, or the classic rich coronation chicken sandwich with raisins and a delicate yellow spread on olive bread followed by tempting scrambled eggs on an English muffin topped with smoked salmon, hollandaise, capers and Fennel oil, quiches peppered with sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes and caramelised onions. The savories are usually followed by delicate patisserie that in most places, comes on a teatime trolley or a multi-tiered tray. These trays are culinary goals! It is a visual treat as bite-sized tarts, macarons, cake bites, éclairs, and bonbons jostle for space. All of this is usually accompanied by a specially curated collection of teas (Countess Grey at Fortnum & Mason for the win!), artisan coffee, luscious hot chocolate or a glass of bubbly if you’re in the mood to celebrate.
I’m a huge believer in Afternoon tea because (A) you start at 4 pm and end at around 6:30 pm, so you binge 4-5 hours before bedtime and dinners are not really needed. (B) It is a lovely way to spend quality time with interesting conversation & mouthwatering fare. (C) Dessert is not an option! It is a given. (D) It is better than breakfast because it’s much more than plain eggs and Granola. Chefs in quality establishments play around with eggs in extraordinary ways to prepare the most exquisite delicacies. (E) The tea! It is the best time to experiment with different flushes and leaves. You can try black, white, green, Oolong and even yellow tea to find your preference.
Being the classic British experience that it is, I have had some of the best Afternoon tea in London. However, Thames Foyer at the Savoy hotel is my favorite. Sitting beneath the lovely glass cupola and basking in the classic colonial ambiance, it is an indelible experience. The Savoy afternoon tea is decadent, to say the least. Out of the usual fare, what really strikes the taste buds is their elegant patisserie trolley laden with goodies like the Pistachio Opera and Battenberg cake. It is the kind of stuff dreams are made of! Crumbly and light vanilla and chestnut sponge with just the right hint of Mandarin complements any tea you choose from their extensive menu perfectly. Another high tea I’ve thoroughly enjoyed is the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon at Fortnum & Mason. A lot less highbrow than the Savoy this British tearoom serves the loveliest sandwiches all in Tiffany blue crockery with a live pianist. However, the quality of Patisserie is average with the most extensive tea selection I have come across till date. A place I definitely don’t recommend if you are looking for quintessential afternoon tea experience. In London is prêt-à-porter at The Berkeley hotel in Knightsbridge, Chef Mourad Khiat plays with a unique concept ‘High fashion bakes and biscuits’ where every 6 months the menu is changed to suit the new runway hits. A Bottega Veneta suit turns into a biscuit, a Moschino bag becomes a cake enrobed in fondant and a Miu Miu dress is reinterpreted as a macaron. This afternoon tea reinvigorates your imagination and your Instagram feed. However, unfortunately, it isn’t the most delicious, especially the sweets. The Georgian at Harrods also boasts of one of the oldest Afternoon teas in England but honestly feels a little too stiff and outdated.
Outside of London, the Ritz Paris Salon Proust serves a delectable afternoon tea complete with Brit-style entrées and all the desserts belong to the French patisserie. Since Chef Francois Perret took charge, the high tea experience at Ritz Paris Salon Proust is amongst the best. His unique Madeleine themed afternoon tea compliments the rich baroque setting of the Ritz beautifully. I’m sure Proust himself would approve of this salon which holds true to its famous savoir-faire.
Another afternoon tea I recently experienced was one with an oriental twist. The TWG teahouse at Marina Bay Sands Singapore does a phenomenal afternoon tea where even though the patisserie is classic French, the savory has influences of oriental flavors like Sriracha and the tea selection is distinctly oriental with Pai mu tan and Sakura, making it a perfect blend of different flavors.
Unfortunately, Delhi hasn’t quite picked up on this concept yet, Cafe 88 in Meherchand market tried it out but they shut before they properly opened. So, the two places that serve a passable high tea are The Imperial and the Emperor’s lounge at Taj Mansingh. The folks at Taj have shown a little creativity and do a Desi afternoon tea with Samosas and such, while their English Afternoon tea is standard. Therefore, for the time being, I’ll have to make do with it while dreaming of buttery scones, fluffy madeleines, and delicate sablés till somebody offers Delhi the real deal.