Tea is a simple thing really. Add hot water to dried leaves, let it steep for a while and there you have it. Yet independent cultures have built ceremonies and occupations around the idea and practice of consuming said refreshment, countries fought wars over it, and transporting it helped establish important and coveted positions among trading nations. Therefore it’s not surprising that to this day in certain countries, not liking tea is viewed not only uncanny but downright insulting. Even if nobody would say anything of the sort, the unsettling silence that follows your statement of “I’m not much of a tea person” or the clearly unsuccessful pun of “It’s not my cup of tea, really”, is almost palpable. You even draw looks from others that are not part of the conversation; all to make you shrivel with the certainty of not being trusted anymore, as with a single sentence you managed to alienate not only the people in hearing distance, but at least half of the country’s population. The only thing that can save you in this situation is quoting Churchill and demanding whiskey at haste instead.
When I moved to live in Ireland, the entire nation’s fascination with a hot beverage that’s enjoyed and recommended to consume at any given time of the day, with any meal or activity, intrigued me. This curiosity of mine peaked when I learned that afternoon tea is not an archaic concept, but a treasured pastime some locals still adhere to religiously. Furthermore, it now became a coveted tourist attraction, and hotels, department stores, river cruises offer it in a rather posh setting that makes you feel sophisticated (even in your jeans and shirt), as you catch a glimpse of Royal England.
Naturally when moving over to England, one of the first things I wanted to try was a classic afternoon tea. Being truly flabbergasted by the amount of choices however, I kept putting it off as I didn’t know which company to trust. I finally settled on Fortnum & Mason, one of UK’s leading department stores, and the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon on the top floor of their Piccadilly location. I figured a company that’s been established over 300 years ago, invented the Scotch egg, provisioned the first British Everest expedition, and supplies the royal family, is good enough for me too.
Upon arrival a large entry hall with tranquil live piano music greets you. The rules and etiquette here are not that different from any elegant restaurant. After signing in with the hostess you are escorted to one of the tables set with delicate tea cups and polished silverware. You’re then presented with a tea menu listing several options, including high tea with warm dishes, a savoury alternative for the classic afternoon tea, and even a vegetarian option. In case you’re allergic, the menu can also be altered to suit any food intolerances. Once you placed your order, you just have enough time to wash your hands in the powder room, dry them on one of the soft rolled up hand towels, and make your way back to your table.
Just when you start taking in the room dressed in elegant pastels, mostly in shades of turquoise and blue, your tea with your choice of finger sandwiches, scones, canapés and cakes arrives. The food is exquisite, and for the relatively steep price you can have as many refills as you want on sandwiches, cakes and your choice of tea alike. My personal favourites are the scone with Wiltshire ham, spring onion & mustard butter, and the Oeuf Drumkilbo, a combination of lobster, eggs and fresh tomato, both from the savoury afternoon tea menu. If you have a sweet tooth, don’t pass on the fruit scone with clotted cream and lemon curd preserve.
Yet, the crown of any menu you choose is the tea itself. Fortnum’s wide selection of its famous blends, single-estate and infusion teas suits every taste. One of the 82 varieties will surely satisfy even the most sophisticated palate. Are you still overwhelmed, and not sure which one to get? Narrow your options by taking a tea tasting offered by experienced “Tearistas” presented at your table, followed by your choice of afternoon tea. Great care is taken by heating the water to the correct temperature, so you can always enjoy the aroma to its fullest. Also the tea varieties are graded as strength, flavour and colour infuse at different rates according to leaf size.
I know that afternoon tea is supposed to be a quick bite between lunch and dinner, but Fortnum’s selection is not only created into an elegant repast, but also filling beyond my expectations. An excuse for a snack turned into a full blown meal, as we sat there for nearly two hours, savouring every flavour in every single bite. Apparently this is not uncommon, as nobody blinked an eye, rushed us, or asked us to finish at any point so they can clear the table for the next guest. The waiting staff is friendly, polite and efficient. After they presented our serving plates, introducing every item on the trays, they didn’t hover around much, giving us the privacy we wanted. Yet they seemed to appear out of nowhere as soon as one of us raised a head, looking for an available staff member.
For over 300 years Fortnum’s been sourcing and selling an excellent selection of tea. They started serving afternoon tea in this transformed Food Emporium store in the early 20th century. In terms of afternoon tea it doesn’t get much more traditional than that. And in case you can’t get enough and decide to take the experience home with you, all the teas and preserves listed in the menu are available to purchase in the Food Hall on the ground floor. Oh, and for the quintessentially classic English treat don’t forget to get butter biscuits along with your favourite tea.
Note: Booking a table is highly recommended, at least a few days ahead.
Have you ever enjoyed a traditional afternoon tea?
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