By Demetra M. Pappas
For a woman who was once weaned on coffee (as a child, a spoonful in a cup of milk was the gateway to a lifelong addiction to caffeine), there was an introductory course to tea on trips to London, followed by a move there for graduate school (and serious addiction). Tea (the drink) was a big thing in school (one professor would adjourn like clockwork for 10 late-morning minutes, proclaiming, “I do believe it is time for tea,” which ultimately created a room full of Pavlov-style students. To find anyone in the afternoon, a tour through the cafeteria between 2:30PM and 3:30PM was sure to turn up some very strong tea, as well as whoever was sought. Further, a whole subculture referred to the evening meal as “tea,” rather than “supper” (meaning a light post-theater meal) or “dinner” (often referring to a dressy date at a swanky place).
No visit to London is complete without “going to afternoon tea,” a very different experience, often involving a hotel and a multi-course meal. Legend has it that this tradition originated with the Duchess of Bedford, who would have servants sneak her a snack because she was tired and found herself cranky in the late afternoon (which we would now attribute to a drop in blood sugar). She started with a pot of tea and some bread, at 4PM, then started inviting her friends to join her for a late afternoon meal of more tea, sandwiches and sweets starting at 5PM at Belvoir Castle in Granthan, Leicestershire (an hour away by rail). Having been to the sumptuous Belvoir Castle, it is easy to imagine an 1800s version of Sex and the City in the country estate. According to legend (and likely, fact), this became a social practice of upscale hostesses.
Perhaps the most famous of all contemporary London afternoon teas is that at the Dorchester Hotel. On London’s Park Lane (also known as Embassy Row) the Dorchester is most famed for the afternoon tea in the Promenade, which was refurbished in 2005 by Thierry Despont. It is a beautiful space, replete with splendid floral arrangements (someone checks the roses daily in one display) and it is a place to see and be seen.
That said, consider the Spatisserie for a quiet retreat, which, like the Promenade, has five timed seatings. This is the place to go if you want a multi-hour girls’ gab (men are also welcome) over champagne and sandwiches in an adult space (guests must be 16 or over). There is an extensive tea menu, which educated (but not intrusive) waitstaff will help guests to select from, based upon preferences expressed. Attention to detail is such that a colleague who is a vegetarian, and politely did not eat the smoked salmon and the chicken sandwiches, was promptly brought an array of vegan treats, including options beyond the traditional, such as hummus sandwiches, all without making the slightest request or comment.
For details, check out www.dorchestercollection.com
Belvoir Castle, www.belvoircastle.com