GRUB!: Afternoon Tea

Sunday, January 13, 2013

There are a lot of things that are just quintessentially, even stereotypically English.  Red doubledecker buses.  The Queen.  Cricket.  Pubs.  Queuing.  Humour so dry it’s in danger of blowing away in a light breeze.  The desperate need never to be seen to be “making a fuss”. And, of course, tea. I’ve already blogged about Cream Teas, but we haven’t yet delved into that most British of meals, the Afternoon or High Tea.  So in our continuing series of Adventures with Karen and Steve, today we’re going on a very special trip for just about the poshest tea imaginable – at Fortnum & Mason.

Fortnum & Mason is a department store in central London specialising in luxury goods, mostly food.  They apparently invented the Scotch egg (a topic for another GRUB! post some day) but are best known for their wide selection of teas and for their fancy food hampers which are popular as Christmas gifts and at high society events like the Henley Regatta and Ascot. With prices ranging up to £500 each, and filled with fancies like quail’s eggs, smoked salmon, champagne and artisan cheeses, it’s safe to say that I’ve never ordered a hamper from Fortnum’s, though I do make regular visits at Christmas time when the extensive range of posh biscuits, chutneys, chocolates and preserves makes it a great place for yummy treats to take home to the colonies.  If you want a choice of seven different kinds of honey, look no further.  And the Wall o’ Marmalade alone is worth the trip.

A tiny section of Fortnum’s Wall O’ Marmalade.  They have TWENTY ONE kinds.

Fortnum & Mason also have several restaurants at their premises on Piccadilly.  There’s a wine bar in the basement, a combination ice cream parlour and café, a “deluxe brasserie”, and something called The Gallery.  There is also, of course, the recently refurbished and renamed Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon.  And so with friends visiting who wanted to go for a proper afternoon tea, where else could we go, really?  (In fact, we briefly considered using a coupon I had for a hotel somewhere in deepest, darkest west London, which would have been less expensive, but not nearly so perfectly perfect.)  Anyway, Karen declared that it was to be F&M, so menus were perused and reservations were made for a proper afternoon tea on New Year’s Eve.

As Fortnum’s menu so elegantly puts it:

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As you can see, an Afternoon Tea is very much a complete meal, whereas a Cream Tea is only about the scones. (And the clotted cream of course. Never forget the clotted cream.)

There was some worry that a mere tea wouldn’t be enough to fill us up.  Though to be honest, it wasn’t “us” we were worried about it was “Steve”.  So to smooth things over I promised that if he was still hungry when we finished we’d stop for a kebab on the way home.  As it turns out we needn’t have worried.  At all.  More on that later.

On arriving at the tea salon on the top floor, we were first greeted with the sound of a grand piano and then by a gentlemen who took our coats and led us to our table.  Naturally, the table setting was elaborate and immaculate.  And, in keeping with the company colours of F&M, ran heavily to well-polished silver and turquoise.

Posh salt and pepper shakers.

I'm not going to lie to you.  Afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason is, er, not cheap.  The set menu, which included your choice of tea, finger sandwiches, scones with cream and jam, cakes, and selections from the dessert trolley, came in at a whopping £42 per head.  That's not even including the optional "upgrade" to Single Estate Tea (as opposed to Classic Blend). It's not the kind of thing one could do every week, unless one had a trust fund.  Nonetheless, for a special treat it was acceptable.  Karen and I both ordered the classic afternoon tea, but Steve chose the recently introduced "Savoury Tea" option, which featured the same finger sandwiches, but had a ham & cheese scone and a sundried tomato & herb scone and included some really tasty savoury hors d'oeuvres instead of cakes.  The savoury tea is a choice Fortnum's recently devised in order to lure more men into the Tea Room, and I can imagine it working quite well.  Certainly I don't remember Steve having any complaints.

Karen at tea (and the piano guy in the background)

First we ordered our tea from the extensive selection, and which came as loose tea brewed in a proper teapot.  We were also provided with individual tea strainers (and an extra pot of hot water).  It's not a difficult concept, the tea strainer.  Before pouring your tea, you're meant to place the strainer on top of your cup and pour through it to catch any loose leaves.  Easy. Explain to me then, why I managed to repeatedly pour myself a cup full of leaves while my tea strainer sat neglected in its special drip-catching cup?  It's like I have some kind of very specific tea strainer amnesia. I almost had to ask for a fresh cup, so replete with leaves did mine become.  (In fact, we decided that in an extreme Tea Emergency Fortnum's likely had a crack team of tea rescuers who would rappel in from the ceiling wearing morning dress to replace my cup before disappearing back into the shadows, until they're needed again to properly furl an umbrella or polish someone's solid silver nosehair comb.)  In the end I cleverly poured the entire contents of my teacup back into the pot, leaves and all, and refreshed my cup with strainer in place. Luckily I don't take milk.  But really, why was that so hard?  Regardless of my difficulties, the tea was very good, and we drank lashings of it.

Traditionally, the food elements of an afternoon tea are served on a tiered cake stand with each course on it's own plate.  Here's what the classic tea looked like when it arrived:

Tea for two!  Finger sandwiches on the bottom, scones in the middle, cakes on top.  There was even a separate stand for the scone accompaniments - clotted cream, strawberry jam and a brilliantly delicious lemon curd.

It doesn't look like a ton of food for two people does it?  We were all sceptical.  However, we dove in quite happily, starting with the sandwiches, working from the bottom up in the traditional fashion.  Steve favoured the cucumber and mint, but both Karen and I agreed the smoked salmon with creme fraiche was best, with roast beef and horseradish cream not far behind.  Next came the scones, and I have to say that the combination of lemon curd and clotted cream for topping the scones was inspired.  Definitely superior to the jam, though I did try both.

By the time we got through the scones Karen and I were both starting to feel quite full, likely as a result of having drunk 8.7 gallons of tea along with our modest menu.  However, we put our heads down and sampled the cakes on the top tier.  Steve, meanwhile, had completed all three of his tiers and was looking for more.  Luckily, it turns out that the F&M afternoon tea is something of an all-you-can-eat affair, though I'm sure Fortnum's would never phrase it that way.  Earlier we'd noticed that the table next to us had been offered and received an extra plate of sandwiches with their tea.  With the threat of a kebab looming, and with our server offering "more of anything", we decided to take her up on the offer and got a second plate of sandwiches, with no additional charge appearing on the bill.

Me at tea, trying to look vaguely like I belong.  Look, I even had French cuffs!

After those were gone, and even though we were in various states of satiety ranging from unexpectedly-pretty-much-full (Steve) to not-even-another-wafer-thin-mint (me and Karen), we couldn't resist a look at the "Highgrove Cake Carriage" and ended up sharing around a slice of cherry bakewell tart, some kind of walnut torte with buttercream icing, and a piece of unbelievably rich chocolate ganache something-or-other.  It was at this point we reached a level of debauchery not seen since the fall of the Roman Empire, when Steve smeared the remains of the clotted cream onto the remains of his chocolate ganache creating a few mouthfuls of such extreme decadence that it was simultaneously horrifying and yet genius. His comment: “Why didn’t I think of this sooner!”

Steve, The evil genius.

And so our work there was done.  There was nothing left to do up settle the bill (ouch) and waddle down the grand staircase and into the rain.  We had a leisurely walk to Selfridge’s as we came to grips with the idea that we would never eat again.  And then we got back to the house and I had a nice nap. Miraculously, we managed to rouse ourselves later that evening in time for an expedition back into the thronging hordes of central London where we rang in the New Year by watching the fireworks on the Thames from Lambeth Bridge.

NYE Fireworks
Note: this is not one of our photos.  Our vantage point was off to the side and obscured by a large lamppost and a load of cretinous morons videoing the whole thing on iPads held above their heads.  But we were there.

Even more miraculously, we had a bit of dinner before we left.

1 Comment:

Karen said...

Afternoon tea was worth every single penny! What a fun and filling experience.

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