Keeping time-honoured traditions alive is one of the big challenges we face in this day and age, but one ritual that continues to flourish is the Traditional Afternoon Tea. And while waiting for the tea to brew, let’s pause for thought at how this reviving beverage made its way to Blighty in the first place.
Sixteenth-century Britain was not the typical tea-guzzling nation we know today, and the concept of drinking this brew at leisure from elegant porcelain teacups was unheard of. Meanwhile, in Portugal, it was already a popular reviving drink amongst aristocratic circles, which is no surprise considering the country had been trading tea with China since the mid-1500s.
It wasn’t until the 1650s that tea from China arrived in England through Dutch traders distributing tea in Europe. Drinking this rare, priced commodity became a regular custom in the royal household when the Portuguese wife of King Charles II, Infanta Catherine de Braganza, included a crate of loose-leaf tea amongst her valuables when she relocated to England in 1662.
It’s better late than never, and the birth of tea plantations in India’s Assam region in the 1830s finally opened the floodgates to tea consumption in Britain. Thereafter, English thirst for the brew blossomed, so much so that the seventh Duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria Russell, made a habit of sipping tea in style in the afternoons, served with dainty sandwiches and cakes. Ever since, its purpose went beyond simply satiating hunger pangs between lunch and dinner – it became a fashionable social custom among the upper class and nobility. In today’s terms, it would be fair to say the Duchess was a veritable ‘influencer’ of her time.
TEA AND CIVILITY
Fast-forward to the 21st Century, and the Traditional Afternoon Tea is very much alive and relished by tea connoisseurs around the world. Dainty tea rooms have sprung like mushrooms across London and the British countryside, but credit goes to the capital’s five-star institutions that have long upheld this ritual’s high standards and turned it into a fine art.
Choosing the right setting is part of the experience, and The Drawing Room at Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair, in particular, imbibes a warm and intimate ambience with its oak-panelled walls and cosy velvet chairs. And just as Queen Victoria enjoyed her afternoon teas here, today’s seasoned tea drinkers and first-timers can indulge in this refined custom in all its glory.
The Tea Library (menu) is a dizzying plethora of loose-leaf varieties from around the world, starting with traditional black teas from India (Assam, Darjeeling and Chai), Sri Lanka (Earl Grey and Ceylon), and even Cornish-grown tea. Then there’s Oolong, Jasmine and White Tea from China, Green Teas from Japan, plus a premium range of unusual fruity and floral infusions – pineapple and Osmanthus, strawberry and Rooibos, and raspberry and rose.
Our tea sommelier, Yonka, simplified the selection process by suggesting special types of brew that would complement our choice of afternoon tea. Her in-depth knowledge is matched by her bubbly personality and enthusiasm – a trait unheard of in the old days of the ‘stiff upper lip’. It certainly made all the difference in making my husband and I, and other guests, feel at home.
Impeccable service goes hand-in-hand with quality silverware and China, and the crowning glory had to be the Victorian style tea-stand filled with dainty sandwiches. While honouring history and tradition, Brown’s also keeps up with the demands of our modern lifestyles. Aside from the ever-popular award-winning Traditional Afternoon Tea, dietary preferences are well catered for with healthier versions, such as a Plant-based Afternoon Tea, Tea-Tox Afternoon Tea, and a Gluten-free Afternoon Tea, which is available on request. And they all come with an option to include Champagne.
SAVOURY AND SWEET
I’m not a big fan of scones, so I opted for the plant-based version, which included a refreshing array of delicately crimped sandwiches: semi-dried tomato, smoked aubergine and basil on rye bread; courgette, cashew nut hummus, rocket and chilli on spelt bread; cucumber, lemon mint and vegan cream cheese on white bread; quinoa cracker with beetroot, pomegranate and coriander, and my favourite – Coronation curried vegetables, toasted almonds and apricot on malted brown bread. They were all delicious, and although I could have opted for gluten-free bread, I wanted to savour these fillings on a variety of tastier breads.
Head Pastry Chef Reece Collier created tempting pastries and cakes that indulged my penchant for citrusy, fruity and nutty flavours: Yuzu and lime macaron, mango and coconut cheesecake, raspberry petit gateau, chocolate tart and carrot and walnut cake. They were delicately crafted – a work of art you’d expect from a pâtissier extraordinaire.
“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea,” wrote Henry James in his 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady. This legendary ritual is not meant to be rushed, particularly at Brown’s, where time goes by quickly when you’re enjoying each morsel and every sip in-between conversations, while a pianist plays gentle tunes in the background. Guests need not be shy about asking for a top-up of sandwiches and cakes – the staff will gladly offer this option before you tuck into that last sandwich. Make that two to three hours then.
Our technology-dominated world is making life move faster and faster; there’s very little time to stay still, rest the mind and let the body recover. Fortunately, there’s the afternoon tea ritual to remind us that slowing down with a good cup of tea in good company does our wellbeing a lot of good. For me, it was a rare moment to unwind and be treated like royalty. It’s certainly one of few pleasures in life worth raising a cup to.
The Drawing Room at Brown’s Hotel is open Monday to Friday from 8am to 8pm, and on Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 8pm. Traditional Afternoon Tea is served daily between 12pm and 5:30pm.
For reservations, email email@example.com or call+44 207 518 4006.
Images © in order of appearance: Ming Tang Evans; Lateef; Lateef; Lateef; Rocco Forte Hotels