It is Queen Victoria’s lady-in-waiting, Anna Maria Stanhope, or the Duchess of Bedford, who is said to have started the tradition of afternoon tea in England. She found that a light lunch wasn’t quite enough to get her through to dinner, and by four in the afternoon, she was dying of hunger pangs. There she was, in a situation we all find ourselves in from time to time – ordering her servants to secretly bring her pots of tea and bread to her bed chamber. But then she had a better idea. She invited her friends to join her for five o’clock tea in her rooms at Belvoir Castle. As I always say, if everyone else is doing it, the calories cancel each other out.
Unlike Gwendolen Fairfax, in The Importance of Being Earnest, who complains to Cecily Cardew that there is sugar in her tea and cake on her plate instead of bread-and-butter, the Duchess of Bedford went the whole hog. Her menu was made up of delicate little cakes, a variety of sweets, and bread-and-butter.
Starting from December 2012, Rocco Forte Brown’s Hotel is celebrating a hundred-and-seventy-five years in business. If you are a tourist in London, or if you would just like to get a taste of Victorian England, try The English Tea Room, at Rocco Forte’s Brown’s Hotel on Albemarle Street. You will be in auspicious company. Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book at Brown’s, and Agatha Christie based her novel At Bertram’s Hotel on Brown’s. But unlike Bertram’s, Brown’s is not too good to be true.
Walk into the wood-panelled rooms of the tea room, that looks like a study on a country estate, with its ceiling relief, decorated architraves and other period features, and enjoy your afternoon tea to the very chilled-out jazz rhythms of their resident musician, who plays at the piano every afternoon and evening. Though the extensive tea menu boasts a de-tox and a champagne option, I would choose the authentic experience and go for the traditional afternoon tea.
Start with choosing from the seventeen teas available on the menu. There is a range of black and green teas, and herbal infusions for the caffeine-free. The personable servers (who look like they are part of a wedding party in their tail-coats) will bring out your tea in silver tea-pots, and then out will come the tiered cake-stand. Now, you might think, how good can sandwiches get? Try the sandwiches at this tea room. That’s how good sandwiches can get. They are miniature finger sandwiches, but you can eat as many platefuls as you like. From chicken, ham, smoked salmon, to avocado, cucumber, and cheese-and-pickle, there’s a variety to suit even the most exacting sandwich connoisseurs.
Just as you are thinking this tea cannot get any better, out will come the freshly-baked scones with a pot-ful of Devonshire clotted cream and strawberry jam. The scones melt in your mouth, and I would diet for a few days before going there, to make up for the large amounts of cream you are inevitably going to consume. If you’re getting full by now, then I would say leave the miniature cakes, and save room instead for the cake trolley. At the end of your meal, your server will bring out a cognac-laced chocolate cake and a Victoria sponge. Try a little of each if you dare. Phew.