With hotels offering six sittings a day just to cope with demand, the afternoon tea business is booming. Where should you go to enjoy the delicious British tradition this week? By Kerry Hiatt
When the clock strikes four in England, something a little bit special happens. Up and down the land, people of all ages, from all walks of life, are seated at elegant tables and served dainty sandwiches, cakes and tea, by uniformed waiters in pristine white gloves.
Afternoon tea is a quintessentially British tradition that dates back almost 200 years. Yet, far from feeling antiquated, the UK’s love affair with afternoon tea is undergoing a massive resurgence, with industry experts reporting a 70% rise in bookings in the last year alone. From 11-17 August, Afternoon Tea Week returns.
Tourists list the activity as a must-do when visiting the UK, according to Visit London. Keith Newton, managing director of Afternoon Tea, explains: “Over the past few years there has been a renewed interest in British traditions – particularly in classic food and drink – thanks to television shows such as Downton Abbey and The Great British Bake Off.
“The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics also helped to increase the nation’s sense of pride, and we saw a huge increase in people taking afternoon tea as a result.”
Keith is passionate about celebrating the nation’s tea-drinking heritage and launched National Afternoon Tea Week in 2010, which sees 80 tea service venues offering discounts and special activities throughout August, to make the experience more accessible to the public.
He continues: “This year through Afternoon Tea, we will book £6.5 million in afternoon teas.”
Afternoon tea has become such big business for hotels in London that some, like The Ritz, are having to offer six sittings a day to cope with demand, with places snapped up months in advance.
It was actually Charles II’s Portuguese wife, Catherine of Braganza, who truly popularised tea drinking in England, when she arrived at Hampton Court Palace after a stormy ocean voyage from her homeland in 1662 and asked for a cup of tea as a means by which to cure her seasickness.
Some 200 years later in 1840, Anne, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, started requesting tea, bread and cake at 4pm to stave off hunger until dinner. It didn’t take long for word to spread and for the ceremony to become highly fashionable across the country.
While still practiced somewhat ritualistically in a few aristocratic families (Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is said to enjoy a spread of honey and cream sponge, chocolate biscuit cake and cucumber sandwiches every day) today, hen parties, mothers who lunch and even groups of guys are taking part.
Irene Gorman, Head of The Tea Guild, says establishments are more than happy to accommodate. “Afternoon tea is worth millions of pounds to the larger hotels every year and is often the biggest revenue maker in food and drink.”
Despite fierce competition within the capital city, many hotels are enjoying an increased number of afternoon tea guests. The Langham Hotel’s Palm Court, which has been serving tea for more than 140 years, has had a 20 per cent rise in bookings recently.
Tea business at The Goring Hotel, winner of The Tea Guide’s 2013 Top London Afternoon Tea Award, is also booming. Though the property adheres to the traditional service time, only offering one sitting per day from 3-4pm, it still welcomes more than 2,000 guests a month.
David Morgan-Hewitt, managing director of The Goring Hotel, understands the allure. “It appeals to all generations and brings friends and family together,” he explains. “It is an interactive meal. The sandwiches, scones and cakes are delicious, the teas are many and fascinating.”
Of course, there’s more to the world of afternoon tea than white gloves, clipped accents and bowler hats. From the opulent to the cheeky and the downright weird, options are endless.
Venture up the rickety stairs of the Coach & Horses pub in Soho, for example, and you’ll be confronted with a secret tea room straight out of the 1940s, complete with ration books and atmospheric gramophone jazz.
Alternatively, you can tumble down the rabbit hole straight into Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland at the Sanderson Hotel on Oxford Street, with an afternoon tea full of riddles, theatrics and general eccentricity.
History buffs might enjoy the first-class service of cakes and pastries on board Titanic Belfast, where you can wander around a full-size replica of the famous grand staircase.
If you like a little sizzle with your sandwich, Volupté serves a menu of tried-and-tested classics and cocktails with a side of burlesque.
Whatever your particular tastes, David from The Goring adds: “Afternoon tea embodies all the best characteristics of Englishness. It is understated, polite, definitely a ritual, but also very inclusive.”
High tea and afternoon tea are not one in the same. High tea is actually a less formal affair of hearty meat, cheese and egg dishes served around 6pm. Afternoon tea is traditionally served at 4pm and consists of delicate finger foods.
• Do go with your preference when choosing to slather on the jam or cream first. In Devon, the cream always comes before the jam. In Cornwall, however, it’s jam first and cream on top. Go with your gut.
• Do not stretch your pinkie finger out when taking a sip of tea. It’s a common misconception that this aids the balance of the cup. It doesn’t and the very act is considered to be a faux pas.
• Do use your fingers to eat afternoon tea treats. They’re called finger foods for that very reason.
• Do not place a slice of lemon in your tea if you are also adding milk. It will cause the milk to curdle.