Afternoon tea has always been associated with a welcome break between lunch and dinner and this very British institution has taken on local flavours and nuances, wherever it’s become a tradition. So coming from an Asian background I’m very used to having masala tea flavoured with cardamoms along with crispy samosas filled with softly spiced potatoes and peas overlooking lawns in Nairobi or Delhi while on holiday from London. But afternoon tea in London has taken on a new lease of life and has evolved into a whole meal in itself, a long way from simple Assam and scones with a blob of jam!
It seems to be London’s new meal of choice for family celebrations, baby showers, engagement parties and birthday get togethers. I was lucky enough to sample the afternoon tea at the newly refurbished Conrad hotel in London’s St James this summer and would highly recommend the experience to anyone looking to arrange a special get together or for those who want to skip a heavy evening meal in favour of a more sensibly timed repast.
It’s very easy to get to the Conrad hotel as it sits conveniently next to St James park underground station on London’s Circle or District lines and is a few minutes walk from Buckingham palace and the peaceful St James’s park. The lobby of the hotel has an iconic sculpture of the Stairway to Success that reaches up towards a large skylight in the roof next to the reception. Nothing like being reminded to constantly look upwards in life! The room where we had tea was a very elegant, modern but welcoming space, comfortable and cool and provided a much needed respite from the hot summer streets!
Afternoon tea for me was a chance to catch up with a cousin who’d had a whirlwind year, we didn’t want to worry about the time or what we were eating, just to be looked after and attended to in elegant surroundings. The service, food and drinks were exceptionally good. The theme of the Conrad’s afternoon Summer in the City tea was retro and modern at the same time with a nod towards the Caribbean and made for some excellent photographs!
The savoury selection comprised of a miniature pint of prawns, a barbecue chicken wrap with fresh coleslaw as well as a good selection of fresh rolls and sandwiches. The staff were happy to bring us an extra serving of anything we needed to savour for a second time! Their spin on the scones was to offer coconut and pineapple as well as the more traditional variety but all were served with thick Devonshire clotted cream and homemade strawberry jam and lemon curd!
When I was young growing up in London there used to be a type of cake called Fancies, I can’t remember whether it was a Mr Kipling cake or another brand and this is the term I would use to describe the Conrads special selection of mini cakes and pastries that included jellies with Maraschino cherries, bounty cakes with passion fruit and coconut as well as mini chocolate ice creams and flavoured macaroons!
Then there is the selection of teas itself, well there are a number of categories of tea you can choose from and within each category, there are yet more varieties. We struggled to decide but eventually acceded to our waitress’s suggestion of her favourite which was the Vanilla Black tea. A tea taken without milk that was infused with the flavour of exotic vanilla pods, no need for any sugar, honey or lemon!
I loved the names of some of the other teas though! Darjeeling First Flush - a black tea, Jasmine Silver Needle - a white tea and Pinhead Gunpowder - a type of green tea but a name of a spicy South Indian chutney too! There is also a good selection of herbal teas as well.
Afternoon tea is priced at 35 UK pounds per person or there is free flowing champagne/bubbly option at a very reasonably priced forty nine pounds per person. It might be an idea if you don’t imbibe to perhaps inform the Conrad at the time of booking your afternoon tea as some of the cakes and pastries are flavoured with a little alcohol, so these can be made without if they are informed before hand. The current theme for tea at the Conrad is Autumn Bramble and incorporates Goat’s Cheese and beetroot as well as pumpkin cheesecake and the very modern tonka bean chocolate mousse cake! If you’re planning a Christmas visit then wrap up warm and savour their Snow Queen afternoon tea with shards of blue sugar almonds and cardamom snowflakes! Definitely something borrowed from Indian teatime!
By Monica Kapila