Thursday, 13 December 2012

Afternoon Tea at Claridge’s

“According to Chinese legend, in 2737 BC when the Emperor Shen Nung was meditating under a wild tea tree, leaves drifted into his hot water and he found the brew so delicious and refreshing that tea was born.

The introduction of afternoon tea, a quintessentially English Tradition, is usually credited to Anna 7th Duchess of Bedford, in the early 1800s. Apparently, the Duchess grew hungry between breakfast and dinner and conceived the idea of a separate meal, served in her boudoir in the mid-afternoon, to ward off her own and her guests’ hunger pains. The Duchess’ early snack evolved into afternoon tea as we know it today, a meal growing in popularity around the turn of the centry when it became chic to dine out.”

Excerpt from the Claridge’s Menu

Afternoon Tea or High Tea as it is called in Hong Kong, was a family tradition. For the first 14 years of my life spent in Hong Kong, we visited the Foyer of The Peninsula and Tiffan at Grand Hyatt religiously every Sunday from 3 to 5 pm, grazing on sweet and savoury treats that came in three tiered tea sets while a piano played in the background, accompanied by a violin and a cello. It was an idyllic and serene setting, and those were the Sunday afternoons that were spent without a care in the world. Ironically, the tradition was broken when I went to boarding school in Brighton, where tea was watered down and cardboard tasting biscuits were served. Proper afternoon tea became a long lost childhood memory, revived only three years ago when a visiting friend from Hong Kong requested we go for tea at the Claridge’s. I have since returned many times, always leaving with a huge sense of gratification after some serious indulgence.

Entrance to The Foyer
The Foyer
The appeal of Claridge’s comes as much from its delightful food as its beautiful and atmospheric surroundings. The foyer of Claridge’s is so spectacular Marie Antoinette in her extravagant wig and corseted ballgown, would have felt at home there. The high ceilings and mirrored walls give the room an unspeakable grandeur that is timeless and everything about the room is elegant and classy. A pianist and cellist play soothing melodies, creating a relaxing backdrop to the intimate conversations happening on each table. You can tell from the impeccable service the pride each server feels in his or her role. In the midst of buzzy central London, Claridge’s is an oasis where you can spend a few hours in pure luxury.

We tried their Festive Champagne Afternoon Tea when we visited last week. We had wanted to get a weekend booking when we heard that a choir singing Christmas carols would be present, but sadly, all dates were fully booked when we called in early November, so we settled for mid week Tea. Sipping on our Laurent-Perriers, we got comfortable in our seats before the onslaught of food. 2 big plates of sandwiches arrived, all the usual suspects (cucumber, salmon, egg and ham) were present, but my favourite, the smoked chicken sandwich, was replaced by Turkey with stuffing. Some people may brush sandwiches off, seeing it as something even a 3 year old can throw together, or they may look down on it, as a food most commonly consumed by office workers who work by a Pret. At Claridge’s, the sandwiches are simple but gourmet. They use organic produce (you can tell from the “egginess” of the eggs) and artisanal bread. There is skill involved in making rows of sandwiches look neat and identical, it involves painstakingly slicing everything to the same width. We love Claridge’s sandwiches so much, we always order them again after having a round of scones. Yes, that’s right, at Claridge’s Tea, you are expected to indulge and reorder!
First serving of sandwiches

Second serving of Turkey and Egg sandwiches
Next up were the scones, which are my absolute favourite. They are served fresh, straight from the oven and still steaming. Two types are presented: Raisin and Apple Scones. You break them open with your fingers, slather the most luxuriously thick Cornish clotted cream and top it up with the homemade jam infused with Marco Polo Tea, pop it in your mouth and as it crumbles delicately, you’re in tea heaven. I have yet to meet anyone who has not been blown away by the scones at Claridge’s. 

We were served the Winter White tea blend with the scones, “A pai mutan white tea blended with sweet vanilla, almonds and a hint of tangerine. A delicate tea, as fresh and crisp as snowflakes with a sprinkling of white flowers”. Claridge’s offers an extensive tea selection that spans 10 pages in the menu, from Ceylon Teas from India to Jasmine and Green Teas from China and Japan. There are tea blends (Marco Polo, French Vanilla) as well as rare teas (royal white silver needles). The Winter White we were served had a festive aroma and complimented the scones perfectly.

Then came the French pastries and with it Christmas Cake and Stollen. I’ve always found the French pastries anti-climatic after the highs of the sandwiches and scones. In the past, they served a chocolate cake we call “chocolate intense” because the high percentage of cocoa makes the cake uncomfortable to eat. There were other run-of-the-mill cakes and jellys, but nothing that really got us excited, often we left the French pastries untouched. This time however, I was pleasantly surprised. The chocolate cake was lighter, the chocolate percentage dialled down to make it enjoyable. The others were delightful as well and were of a standard that was on par with the rest of the experience.
Every year Claridge's gets a designer to design their christmas tree. Last year it was Alber Elbaz, designer of Lanvin, John Galliano has participated before. This year, it was designed by Kally Ellis, founder of British floral designers, Mcqueens. Commenting on her creation Kally Ellis said “With Forest Murmurs, we’re capturing the spirit of a traditional Christmas – the nostalgia that evokes – and combining that with the style and glamour associated with Claridge’s that gives it a certain sparkle. It brings a freshness and warmth that we think sums up the season perfectly".

Our afternoon tea lasted almost 3 hours, as when you are in good company, seated in a beautiful room, you don’t want that moment to pass. Most of us lead busy lives, dashing from one place to another, replacing face-to-face interactions with texts, Whatsapp and Facebook messages, so to be able to sit down for a few hours in the afternoon to enjoy a cup of tea and a scone (or many) is a luxury. Life’s too short, so go on, live a little!


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