Scones, cream and jam, elegant sandwiches with crusts removed, cupcakes and tiny tarts, all served with piping hot tea. And preferably with a glass of bubbly. Taste for Travel is a big fan of high tea (or afternoon tea), that elegant British tradition that flourishes still in far flung corners of the Commonwealth. And it’s a popular must-do for tourists to the UK. According to the London Tea Guild, high tea is making a comeback.
Thoughts of high tea usually conjures up dainty china and sitting down for a bit of gossip. In reality, most of us resort to a mid-afternoon cappuccino on the run with our mobile phones welded to our ears. However, according to Australia’s High Tea Society run by tea fan Michelle Milton, taking tea (and coffee) gave British women of many years ago a social outlet to discuss topics such as politics, which were deemed unsuitable for women to discuss in mixed company. Dressing up for the occasion was mandatory.
The ritual of afternoon tea was a Victorian invention and is credited to the Duchess of Bedford. Finding she was in need of an afternoon pick-me-up between luncheon and dinner, the Duchess took to enjoying a cake or crustless sandwich with her afternoon cup of Darjeeling.
High tea also developed because “breakfasts were large in Victorian times, lunches sketchy, and dinner wasn’t served until 8pm, so people were hungry by late afternoon”, Michelle says. In the 18th century, tea in Britain had heavy import duties, consumption was limited to the upper crust. In the 19th century, tea use began to rise with a reduction in import duties, but was still an expensive item.
I had afternoon tea at Harrod’s in London and thought it was OK, but not memorable. However a visit to the UK wouldn’t be complete without a high tea somewhere and London’s Tea Guild has named The Athenaeum’s famed Garden Room as the best place in the British capital in 2012 to enjoy one. The Guild’s prestigious awards now in their 27th year are considered the Oscars of the tea world, with internationally renowned London hotels and tea rooms competing for the honour. The Guild’s inspectors after the hotel’s Garden Room gained a near perfect score.
The judges praised it for its tasteful intimate style and fine furnishings, as well as friendly and efficient staff and excellent selection of scones, sandwiches and cakes. Irene Gorman, the head of The Tea Guild said: “The elegant surroundings make the ceremony a memorable occasion and an experience to cherish, aided by delightfully friendly, efficient and knowledgeable staff, and with delicious food and teas faultlessly presented. It is easy to understand why this leading establishment attracts so many, both the young and the old.
“In the capital as elsewhere in the UK, the tradition of afternoon tea has never been stronger, with Tea Guild members busier than ever.
More and more people are taking time out to enjoy this great British tradition. Afternoon tea is now the most fashionable way to catch up with friends.”
Afternoon Tea is £28.50 per person or £35.00 including a glass of champagne. There are three sittings: 12:30pm, 3pm and 5:30pm daily. Call: +44 20 7499 3464 THE ATHENAEUM, 116 PICCADILLY MAYFAIR LONDON W1J 7BJ Tel: 020 7499 3464
*Main picture courtesy of Ian Jones on behalf of the Tea Guild.