New Twists on Afternoon Tea in London

Photo Courtesy of London on View
By Jane Pettigrew

Afternoon tea has become so popular in London  that the smart hotels and tearooms are vying for attention with clever and colorful variations on the traditional menu. Some of these less conventional teas are designed to reflect current fashion trends, to introduce flavors and ingredients from around the world, to celebrate special seasonal occasions, or to link with the theatrical and cinematic productions that are drawing crowds. Guests still expect the usual selection of mouthwatering savories, followed by an indulgent serving of clotted cream and thick, fruity jam with the scones, and an array of exquisite little pastries that provoke gasps of pleasure and delight. But all partakers are enchanted with the ingenuity and creativity of the chefs who weave a new theme through the classic afternoon.

Tea at The Palm Court in London
The Theo Fennel Afternoon Tea at The Palm Court is a tribute to the witty designs of the luxury jeweler.

1C Portland Place, Westminster
London W1B 1JA

44 (020) 7965-0195

The Palm Court at The Langham is like a jewel box filled with gems and ornaments that sparkle and shimmer all around the room, the perfect setting for the Bijoux Afternoon Tea. Luxury jeweler Theo Fennel—known for his witty designs, exuberant use of color, and love of fine craftsmanship—inspired this year’s “jewels” by The Langham’s Head Pastry Chef Cherish Finden.

Instead of conventional sandwiches, The Theo Fennel Afternoon Tea begins with an enticing selection of little savory bites—foie gras and smoked duck with mandarin, beetroot-cured Scottish salmon with Grey Goose vodka cream, Perl Las blue cheese and broccoli quiche with piquillo peppers, crayfish with fennel, crème fraîche and tobiko (flying fish roe), and a little round Montgomery’s Cheddar and sweet onion biscuit.

After the light, fluffy scones (a selection of raisin, chocolate, and marinated orange) comes Cherish’s ingenious sweet tribute to Theo Fennel. The golden seahorse with salted caramel pearl and pistachio fudge celebrates Fennel’s intricately crafted 18-carat Yellow Gold and Pearl Tropical collection—currently showing in the Fine Jewellery Room at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Kentish strawberry with white balsamic macaron pays homage to his signature Art Pendants; the Victoria plum with sakura cherry blossom sponge and the mango and passion shortbread are almost too good to eat; and the gleaming emerald green Royal Gala apple with champagne is the star of the show.

The extensive list of teas offers an excellent choice of black, green, white, oolong, yellow, and dark teas from around the world, as well as house blends, scented teas, and tisanes.

Tea at The Dorchester
Tea at Spatisserie at The Dorchester includes a glass of champagne.

Park Lane, Mayfair London W1K 1QA
44 (020) 7629-8888

The Beau-Tea-Ful Spa offer at The Dorchester hotel creates the ultimate luxury experience based on the philosophy that “a little of what you love is good for you.” Spatisserie provides a little pampering, a little relaxation, and a little afternoon tea in a beautifully stylish art deco setting. An abundance of white-gold mirrored screens, sparkling glass surfaces, shiny silver handrails and frames, and rose-pink and ivory upholstery create an opulent film-set ambience. How could anyone not feel utterly spoilt?

A glass of chilled champagne is a must, and then little finger sandwiches, warm scones, and tiny bite-size pastries and French macarons are just enough to satisfy the hint of hunger that follows a relaxing facial, body treatment, aromatic steam shower, or massage.

Tea at Grosvenor Hotel
The Grand Imperial Restaurant at The Grosvenor Hotel offers a English tea with Cantonese influences.

101 Buckingham Palace Road London SW1W 0SJ
44 (020)

What was once the ballroom of The Grosvenor Hotel in Victoria, Central London, is today home to the Grand Imperial restaurant where imposing marble columns, sumptuous black and cream silk drapes, tall vermillion orchids, and ancient Chinese calligraphy bearing the words Dragon and Phoenix set a somewhat palatial scene for extremely elegant dining. Chef Rand Cheung has devised an impressive afternoon tea designed around the English ritual but influenced by his native Cantonese cuisine. The traditional English cake stand brings a seductive selection of Hong Kong Cantonese delicacies: prawn dumpling, barbecued honey-glazed pork bun, pumpkin and seafood dumpling, lightly spiced crispy duck salad with pomegranate seeds, and satay chicken—all absolutely yummy. The sweet course includes a baked egg tart, a sweet crispy water chestnut roll, and an amazing chocolate-filled dumpling that drizzles a generous pool of delicious chocolate sauce onto the plate as the shell is carefully broken. It is admittedly somewhat unconventional to tuck into our favourite midafternoon indulgence with chopsticks, but it’s fun! Choose jasmine tea or Tie Kuan Yin oolong as a perfect match, and sip the heavenly brew from the small white porcelain cups whose delicate orchid design echoes the flowers around the room.

Tea at Brown's Hotel
In addition to traditional teas, Brown’s Hotel offers a Tea-Tox option full of healthy tea treats.

Albemarle Street London W1S 4BP
44 (020) 7518-4006 4155

Brown’s Hotel, in the heart of Mayfair, is one of London’s most established and best-known afternoon tea venues. Its calm lounge is a perfect oasis for enjoying an unhurried and very genteel tea. The “proper” afternoon tea includes all the usual generously filled sandwiches, scones warm from the oven, and pretty pastries. But for those who perhaps take tea a little too often and are aware of all the calories involved, the hotel also serves a Tea-Tox option. Instead of sandwiches, the savories include healthy canapés of smoked chicken and guacamole on high-protein, high-vitamin spelt bread; poached salmon with low-calorie dill crème fraîche on lovely, textury rye bread; chicory leaf with smoked mackerel and a soft-boiled quail’s egg; and tabbouleh on a bed of crispy gem lettuce leaf. This is an inventive feast of nourishing, appetizing combinations that give the waistline a chance to recover and the taste buds an opportunity to try something different.

Even the sweet items on the menu manage to balance low calorie and healthy with tasty and satisfying. The Sea Buckthorn jelly with lime is deliciously refreshing; the flourless chocolate cake with marzipan is not too naughty; the sharp citrus orange cake is wonderfully complemented with the honey and lemon low-fat topping; and the chocolate cup with blueberries and lemon cream is a little bit of summer heaven. Round off the entire occasion with the seasonal fruit sorbet and the fruit skewers with yogurt and honey, and you will feel positively virtuous.

The well-trained staff offer detailed information and advice about the teas and infusions. And if you can’t resist a little alcoholic indulgence, even the Dosnon & Lepage Extra-Brut Champagne is low in calories!

Tea at Betty Blythe Vintage Tearoom
Kids love having tea at Betty Blythe Vintage Tearoom, named after a silent movie star.

73 Blythe Road Brook Green London W14 0HP

Betty Blythe, a 1920s vintage-style tearoom on Blythe Road in West London, is named after one of Hollywood’s first silent movie stars. The style of the tearoom; the antique furniture and period décor; the costumes the staff wear; the dressing-up box full of 1920s and ’30s feathers, stoles, pearls, hats, and gloves for guests to wear at teatime; and the pretty mix of period china and tablewares pay tribute to the elegance and romance of that glamourous era. Sit and enjoy a pot of leaf tea, sandwiches with traditional fillings (cucumber and cream cheese, egg mayonnaise, smoked salmon and cream cheese, and English ham with wholegrain mustard), scones with strawberry jam and Devon clotted cream, and a lovely selection of homemade cakes.

As well as hosting tea at Betty Blythe, owner Lulu Gwynne takes the popular vintage experience out to other venues. Afternoon tea for children’s birthdays, hen parties, baby showers, and other celebrations can include burlesque and Charleston dancing, hat making, face painting, makeup and vintage hair styling, tea-leaf reading, tea-set painting, and cupcake decorating. Her canapé selections bear the names of Betty Blythe films (The Silver Hoard, The King of Diamonds, Dust of Desire!) and for a topical tribute to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary success, The Great Gatsby Soirée offers bite-size savory canapés and sophisticated cocktails.

Tea at Asia de Cuba,\
Tea at Asia de Cuba, inside St Martins Lane, is a quirky fusion of Latin and Asian influences.

45 St Martins Lane London WC2N 4HX
44 (020) 7300-5500

The décor at Asia de Cuba, the eclectic restaurant at St Martins Lane in Central London, is a quirky fusion of exciting Latin and Asian influences. It is inventive and colorful, simple but sophisticated, witty and stylish, but very comfortable. Afternoon tea here has always been a little bit different, and the brand-new Cafecito & Afternoon Tea unusually creates the mystique and ambiance of a Cuban teahouse. The stars on the brightly coloured crockery, specially created by Luna & Curious, reflect the design of the Cuban national flag and immediately set the Latin scene. A handmade wooden cigar box holds all the tea utensils required to enjoy the meal, and when the food arrives on the unconventional cake stand, it is a culinary fiesta of fun savories and sweet treats.

Start with the exotic mango, kiwi, and strawberry aperitivo that comes layered in a bottle (the hotel does aim to be a touch quirky and eccentric!), order a pot of wonderful Big Red Robe Oolong with its richly toasty notes or a lightly smoked Bohea Lapsang to complement the spicy food, and then savor every last crumb of the Cubano pressed sandwich with BBQ pork, the delicious little smoked salmon tart with quail egg and smoked chili hollandaise, the beef and veggie empanadas with Caribbean hot sauce, and the yummy hot and sour chicken and avocado spring roll. Although the typical Cuban diet does not include scones, Cafecito bends to English tradition and offers little savory scones and Mojito butter with lime and mint. Sweet bites include a wonderful Key lime pie topped with meringue, a chocolate chili cream and pistachio crumble, and little doughnuts rolled in cinnamon sugar and sticky with a wicked butterscotch sauce. This is food that excites the taste buds and views afternoon tea from a completely new angle. For extra zing, add one of the specially created cocktails—Old Cuban Martini
 (black grapes, fresh mint, Havana rum, fresh lime, elderflower cordial, and champagne); Passionate About Tea (a mix of Appleton tea–infused rum, Passoã liqueur, lime, crème de pêche, and passion fruit); or Asian Passion Martini (a blend of Finlandia Vodka, crème de fraise, lime, and passion fruit)

Hamilton Place, Park Lane London W1J 7DR
44 (020) 7499-0888

Because the Amaranto restaurant at London’s Four Seasons Hotel is inspired by Italian cuisine, the hotel is offering an ultra-luxurious Dolce Vita Afternoon Tea, the creation of Chef Adriano Cavagnini. Tea is served in the bar, the restaurant, the garden, or the lounge (most people’s favourite, with its rich crimson and bronze backdrop and spectacular display of sculpted modern glass dishes and vases in every rainbow color). The spherical polished chrome cake stand captures total attention when placed on a butler’s tray beside the table. Dramatic and visually exciting, the scrumptious selection of savories includes a tomato and mozzarella bruschetta, little triangles of cheese focaccia, bottoncini (dainty round brioche rolls) with Parma ham and creamy Robiola cheese, and a little cone filled with vegetarian fritto misto (crunchy vegetables deep-fried in a light-as-air batter)—all really unusual and so tasty with a pot of Taiwanese oolong!

Tea at the Four Seasons Hotel
When weather permits, guests at the Four Seasons Hotel can enjoy tea in the garden.

Next comes sweet brioche filled with apricot jam—a welcome change to English scones—and then little Italian sweetmeats that are so tempting it’s hard not to tuck straight into them before nibbling on the other treats. Canolo Siciliano is a neat rolled shell of light pastry wrapped around a creamy ricotta filling; Torta Caprese, a soft chocolate almond cake, is named after its home, the island of Capri; the Cannoncino pastry cornet is filled with cream and pistachios; little Bigne San Giuseppe fritters of choux pastry have pastry cream inside and a topping of candied cherries; and the Soft Torrone is that wonderful Italian nougat made with honey and little slivers of toasted almonds. Chef Cavagnini’s passion for his native desserts is apparent in this indulgent and delicious selection.

If guests prefer the traditional Four Seasons Afternoon Tea, they can swap the usual scones for a serving of the first ever British-farmed caviar. Harvested in North Devon and seasoned with Cornish sea salt, its salty silkiness blends perfectly with the nuttiness of tiny seven-seed wholemeal scones and the sweet creaminess of clotted cream—an unusual and delicious teatime fusion of tantalizing flavors and textures.

Jane Pettigrew is an international tea expert, who has written 14 books on the subject, including the new edition of  A Social History of Tea, coauthored with Bruce Richardson and published by Benjamin Press. A former tearoom owner, she is a much-sought-after consultant to tea businesses and hotels, a conference speaker, and a tea educator. Although her travels take her around the globe, she resides in London.

 From TeaTime January/February 2014


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