Wednesday, 12 March 2014
Afternoon Tea at Claridge's, Mayfair
For a long time, I dismissed afternoon tea as a twee, anachronistic routine laid on purely for day-trippers and tourists. I was in no rush to drop half a ton on some cold sandwiches and cakes, and I saw little to recommend spending an afternoon in a stuffy hotel foyer surrounded by loud Texans in ill-fitting house jackets. Real Londoners, I thought, should avoid it in the same way we'd avoid the changing of the guard or Portobello Road on Saturdays - let's leave afternoon tea for the tourists, and cut our own crusts off some Boots Meal Deal sandwiches if we felt so inclined and head down the pub.
In most cases, too, I still think I'm right - there are way too many places doing this kind of thing pretty half-heartedly (think bought-in sandwiches and cakes and packet jams) just so some timid out-of-towners can tick it off their "things to do" list, and none of them are cheap. They all suffer from that depressingly common affliction of anywhere popular with tourists - like Leicester Square restaurants and Madame Tussaud's, if you're going to be full anyway, why bother being good?
So it's all the more impressive that despite all the reverse-snobbery and emotional baggage I took with me to Claridge's of a Sunday afternoon for a friend's birthday, I managed not only to enjoy a few hours of the most wonderful gastronomic theatre, but left with my mind completely changed about the ceremony of afternoon tea itself.
That ceremony begins the moment you step through the handsome revolving door from Brook Street, onto the gleaming black and white marble floor, and up to the twinkly foyer restaurant. It's a building to take your breath away - luxurious, certainly, but refined and elegant in a way that nowhere else could dream of matching. Not even its closest rivals, the Dorchester or the Connaught or (arguably) the Savoy can manage this kind of effortless, stately glamour; even the odd modernist touches, such as the vast Dale Chihuly glass chandelier coiling out from the middle of the foyer ceiling, only seem to compliment the art deco twirls and flourishes and the floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The word "timeless" almost only tells half the story - Claridge's seems to exist in an entire enchanting, glittering dimension of its own.
In this room, in this hotel, attention to detail is everything. And so, with the arrival of crustless finger sandwiches on a classic Limousin porcelain, anything even slightly out of place would have raised a (polite, gently disapproving) eyebrow. But the sandwiches were seemingly cut with a razor blade and ruler in immaculate rows, accompanied by delicate gougeres which dissolved into cheesy savouriness the second they hit the tongue. Sandwich flavours were traditional, but with the occasional unexpected twist. Smoked salmon, for example, was pressed not next to normal dairy but "shrimp butter" and samphire, adding an extra seafoody dimension, and roast chicken tasted of the highest quality bird and a mysterious note of tarragon.
Once the savouries had disappeared, they were replaced (gracefully, almost invisibly) with mini scones, home made jam and quite honestly the best clotted cream I've ever tasted in my life. Dense without being cloying, tasting of farm-freshness and as bright as the driven snow, it was magical stuff, and we still talk about it. It would almost - no, it would, definitely - be worth going back just for that.
And nothing so simple as "cakes" to follow the scones, either. No, instead here are four examples of the finest French patisserie, including a cherry cake with a handsome flourish of carved chocolate on top, an eclair with a gentle pear flavour, and a kind of blackcurrant medallion with an elaborate topping of soft meringue. Again, not a berry, base or button out of place. Some of us couldn't finish them (not me of course, but I was sure to cast a disapproving glance at those in question), and they were boxed up and tied with ribbons to take home.
Teas are by expert tea-lady Henrietta Lovell, the house champagne is Laurent Perrier (of which we took full advantage), and on the way out you're encouraged to fill your own bags of Victoriana confectionary for the journey home. Everything gleams with care and attention; you can't - you literally are unable to - fault any of it, from start to finish.
Well, almost everything. For as much fun and joy as afternoon tea at Claridge's undoubtedly is, blimey do you pay for it. The advertised £50 a head is just the start - with service, champagne and God knows what else (I don't think they even include tax as part of the inital £50 but I could be wrong, annoyingly I forgot to take a picture of the bill) you'll probably not get away with much less than £80 per person. And I'm not so much of a hopeless Claridge's fan to understand that is way, way more than what most people want or are able to spend on tea and cakes.
But what tea and cakes. And yes it's a lot of money but I honestly enjoyed this more than I've enjoyed many £80 dinners at restaurants elsewhere. The cliché about afternoon tea is that the sandwiches and cakes aren't really the point, that it's more about the formalities and traditions and stealing glances at old Mayfair ladies with big hair than the food. This, in many lesser places, is certainly true. But along with all that, serenaded by piano and cello and in the most beautiful dining room in London, at Claridge's you also get food and drink of purest gold. Surely that's worth paying for, once in a while?
Thanks Hannah and Alison for some photos.