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Afternoon tea – the devil is in the detail!

Afternoon tea – Sounds simple, but it’s really not!!

Recently my wife and I have been lucky enough to partake of afternoon tea in several of the best “Afternoon Tea” joints in this country (and abroad) and I can tell you, it’s a booming market, and so different from one venue to another, but it’s always a pleasure!

Just the thought of being able to relax in beautiful surroundings with some lovely sandwiches and a selection of perfect cakes, both to look at and eat, fills me with a warm glow.

Obviously, some of the best (and most expensive) venues for excellent afternoon tea are in London and I will come onto some of them, but we recently visited Gleneagles where afternoon tea is deeply engrained in their history and served in The Bar. It is very traditionally presented on 3 tier cake stands with Gleneagles own range of jams and you are sat in deep leather chairs at coffee tables, all very grand but very comfortable – special handbag stands for ladies, refolded napkins if you leave the table, it’s just good.

I’m aware that there are many excellent venues in London, and I welcome your comments and information, however recently we have been to the Ritz and Claridges, both are excellent but quite different in their styles of service and presentation.

Firstly, getting a table needs some pre planning – unlike Gleneagles where we were able just to wander in (although they do advise booking) for both of these two booking is essential, the Ritz for instance, starts their first service at 11.30! And they go on at 2 hourly intervals until 7.30pm and it always seems to be packed.

Once you have your booking, check the dress code as there will most probably be one – once again, at the Ritz its jackets and ties for men and certainly a minimum of smart casual is required at all venues – you really don’t want to be asked to change or leave when you arrive!

At the Ritz the venue for afternoon is the very beautiful Palm Court which is right at the centre of the hotel, fabulously decorated, at Christmas time it really is amazing, this year with decorations entwined with silver teapots, sugar bowls and even crockery – sounds odd but looks excellent. The chairs in the Palm Court are large and comfortable but they are set at quite high tables, not coffee tables and the whole atmosphere is more formal than others. The service is slick and the waiters dress in very traditional neat uniforms.

First thing is to order your favourite tea from a list of perhaps 15 different types, you are then brought a 3 tier cake stand with a plate of small cakes on the top, ours had a macaron, 2 slices of delicious chocolate cake, a fresh fruit tart and another almond based cake, on the second layer are finger sandwiches of 5 different types – based on ham, chicken, cucumber, egg and smoked salmon. Initially there is one of each type for each person, but don’t panic, as soon as it starts to look like you might get through them, more arrive!

On the table are 2 pots, one containing lovely jam, and the other clotted cream, which is useful for the next arrival – 2 fruit scones each! When you’ve managed to (hopefully) work your way through that lot, they then bring round a trolley upon which are other large cakes, on our recent visit there was Bakewell tart or a very moist looking orange cake.

Claridges also needs to be booked in advance as it is extremely popular, and busy. They start serving from 2.30 with quarter hour booking slots, and their service is in the main hotel foyer, once again the hub of the hotel. To us this service felt much more relaxed, sitting on settees and at coffee tables, the waiter was just as attentive, and the senior staff were excellent using our names often.

One of their stand out points is the sheer selection of tea choices, probably as many as 50 different variants of different types of tea, some that sounded very rare – I stuck to green tea but had one of their more unusual types and it was excellent. Food here was served on oblong platters with sandwiched being brought out first, and then a second set of sandwiches, with similar fillings to the Ritz. Then we were brought a selection of lovely cakes (I’ve actually forgotten what they were!) What I can say is that at the end of the meal when we were full after the scones, jam and cream, the waiter asked us if we would like a box to take the cakes that were left home, how could we refuse! And he also added 2 packets of sweets to the bag – real high standard of caring service!

Over the years we have also sampled afternoon tea in some other well-known outposts of colonial thinking like the Peninsula in Hong Kong where people will queue for hours to be seen sitting in the foyer of that grand hotel, but we still prefer what we receive in this country – anyone else any tales to tell?

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