One of the many wonderful presents that I received for my 60th birthday was a luxury cream tea for two at the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane. Now I have always loved a cream tea, particularly those of the Cornish variety, but a full on afternoon tea has never really sat well with my schedule. I have often wondered why this was an afternoon event, rather than a lunch ? Surely eating copious amounts of carbs and sugar confectionary between lunch and, whatever you call your evening meal, cannot be good for you.
On researching the origins of the traditional afternoon tea (thank you Google as always) I find that Anna the Duchess of Bedford in 1840 asked that she be served bread and butter, tea and cake in her room in the late afternoon, as she would become peckish in between lunch and dinner which was served late at 8pm. She began to invite her friends and by the 1880’s long gowns, gloves and hats were worn for tea, served in the drawing room between 4 and 5 in any respectable establishment in the land.
Now these ladies did not have the demands on their time that the modern lady of the house has. Sitting around waiting for dinner to be served for 7 hours or so, must have been downright boring. Inventing a social occasion in the middle of the afternoon, for which you could dress up to the nines and show off the culinary skills of your pastry chef, was just the ticket.
Our tea was booked for 3.30 and so we ate breakfast, skipped lunch and set off with high expectations, and we were not disappointed. The tea room was exquisite with wide low seating, a glass centre table laden with lilies in tall vases and cakes under glass domes. We were shown to our window table and given the tea menu, which went to several pages, and asked to select our preferred tea and jams, everything else would be taken care of.
We spent a glorious two hours eating, starting with dainty sandwiches, crust free and cut into fingers, and open on mini brioche type bread rolls. Following this were raisin and buttermilk scones, light as air with rhubarb and ginger, strawberry and blackcurrant jams. The top tier of our sugar stack were mini tarts and pastries. These were served on the traditional tiered cake stands and accompanied by tea served in bone china with individual silver tea strainers. Champagne was included with our voucher, and hubby took full advantage of this, being a non drinker, I opted for freshly made lemonade, sharp and sugary at the same time and adorned with sugared mint leaves, as if you hadn’t already had enough of a sugar hit.
The effect of this unaccustomed sugar and carb load was a high the like of which I have not experienced on a Monday for many years. All felt right with the world, we sat in Berkeley Square and contemplated not Brexit or business or the economy, but the virtues of jam or cream first on a scone. We went on to our evening theatre booking with no need for dinner, and with a feeling of bonhomie that took us through a lively performance and the journey home.
So perhaps the ladies of the eighteen hundreds were on to something that wasn’t just about staving off the hunger pangs till dinner time. A mid afternoon hit of pleasure inducing substances to give you an euphoric cloud to float on, would probably take you through any stuffy evening dinner and beyond.
These days of course we do continue this ritual on a regular if not daily basis, but reduced to a tea bag and a dunked biscuit. Still gives you a bit of a lift though !