Afternoon tea is quintessentially British. A staple, if you like, or at least for those of us that weren’t born in this country. It’s something we Londoners save for special occasions, especially ones that call for a particular kind of decadence. That said, there certainly isn’t a shortage of venues that offer it, so it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the options from sites such as Groupon or lastminute.com. So where should one start? Let’s begin with the desire to add a little air of luxury to the whole experience, shall we?
The Rocco Forte Hotel Group, established by Sir Rocco Forte and Olga Polizzi (uncle and mother of Alex Polizzi off the telly) in 1996, is a collection of hotels and resorts across the world. Each hotel prides itself on being a landmark, occupying magnificent buildings in interesting locations. Their Mayfair location, Brown’s Hotel, is certainly magnificent. Its original wood panelling, fireplaces and Jacobean plaster ceiling, alongside contemporary Paul Smith lighting and original artworks, contribute to an interior that is both traditional and modern. The English Tea Room itself, which seats 75 guests and boasts a grand piano centrepiece, is lavish with its plush pillows and wonderful window seats, yet intimate thanks to its layout.
Accompanied by live piano music, guests can enjoy either Traditional or Tea-Tox (a fully gluten-free selection with dairy-free desserts and healthy twists on the classics) options for £55pp, including refills of both savoury and sweet options. There is also an option to add a glass of champagne for an additional £12, should you be so inclined.
Brown’s Hotel offers a choice of 17 teas, including several types of black tea, oolong, white tea, green tea, herbal infusions, seasonal teas and Brown’s own blend. This is where the real choices lie, but not to worry, the hotel’s tea sommelier is on hand to assist with your choices and she assures me that one cannot possibly just sample one of the teas. Her record was a couple visiting from Japan, managing 12 varieties in their two or three-hour sitting. Approximately three types of tea for each guest is the average, she suspects.
My mother (this is her first Afternoon Tea experience) and I are not ones to disappoint. Over the course of our sitting, we are pleased to sample a healthy selection. Silver Needle White Tea from Fujian, China is a subtle tea somewhere between a black and a green tea on the palate; Strawberry and Rooibos is a velvety, sweet tasting brew fresh with strawberries and elderflower but robust with rooibos; Dragon Well Green Tea (apparently China’s most famous green tea) is comforting and complex, but doesn’t overpower any of the dishes; Pineapple and Osmanthus is strong with pineapple and fruity notes with a soft finish of chamomile; and Lemongrass and Ginger is the perfect finisher, cleansing the palate after the variety of sandwiches and pastries. Each is delicious in its own right – a particular highlight of the overall experience – but none overpower the selection of food provided.
As for the food, we opt for the Traditional Afternoon Tea selection. On paper, there’s nothing particularly surprising here: finger sandwiches (smoked salmon, egg and cress, cucumber, prawn cocktail, coronation chicken and ham and cheese); plain and sultana scones, and a selection of cakes. The thing that sets Brown’s Afternoon Tea apart from other traditional offerings, however, is the cleverness of how the menu is constructed. Sure, the pairings are not revolutionary in themselves, but the execution is second to none. Instead of serving wafer thin ham with a slice of cheddar, for instance, Parma ham is teamed with cream cheese and fresh herbs on a mini bagel. Typical over-spiced, toxic waste-coloured coronation chicken is substituted for the lightest foam made with yoghurt and the most pleasing suggestion of curry.
Although we’re offered a second helping from the savoury tray, we cannot wait to sample the sweets and aren’t disappointed. Lemon, thyme, yuzu and white chocolate cream is zingy and fresh. Yoghurt, raspberry and peach slices are rich with fresh fruit. Strawberry, lime and mint petit gateau is perfectly balanced, and a pecan and milk chocolate choux would impress Mary Berry. The scones are fresh and absolutely miraculous, both holding their shape yet almost evaporating once bitten. The clotted cream is as fresh as can be and the homemade strawberry jam is the second highlight of the visit. I’d return for the tea and the scones on their own (well, with the jam and clotted cream), yet the rest of the food has gone a long way to elevate the experience to unexpected heights.
Overall, if you are after an afternoon tea experience that will reconfigure your expectations of what this tradition can deliver, I’d book a sitting at Brown’s Hotel immediately. Now, I’m off to hunt down some of that white tea.
The English Tea Room can be found at Brown’s Hotel, 33 Albemarle Street, London, W1S 4BP.