Afternoon tea. It’s been such a ‘typically British’ tradition for so long, that its origins are probably as cloudy to most as a long-stewed cup of the amber brew from which my favourite meal of the day takes its name.
Back in the early 1800s, Anna Russell, 7th Duchess of Bedford would often get ‘very melancholy between lunch and supper’ – the first recorded sugar low, perhaps? – so when she was at her summer residence, Woburn Abbey, she began inviting friends to join her in her rooms for an afternoon meal at 5pm. This consisted of small cakes, bread and butter and sandwiches, assorted sweets and the still relatively new drink, tea from the colonies. When she came back up to London she continued the practice, and soon all of London society deemed it right and proper to follow suit. To honour of this auspicious pedigree, the newly refurbished Grosvenor House Hotel has named one of its choices of afternoon teas ‘Anna’s Tea’, so we felt it only right to sample it.
We were shown to our table in the beautifully appointed Park Room, which was opened in 2000. Its calming light greens, deep russet red cushions, soft sofas and delicate framed sketches of birds give the impression you’re sitting in someone’s comfortable front room, while soothing ambient music from the pianist in the corner remind you you’re in a luxurious London hotel. It’s a delicious mix.
Staying with ‘delicious’, our charming waiter (looking very dapper in a green damask waistcoat that echoes the décor), started us off with an amuse-bouche of finely diced mango and melon served in a small glass. It was very refreshing, and prepared our taste buds without swamping them. There is a good selection of teas, and we’re encouraged to choose from either regional or rare teas. I decided to be experimental and pick a Kenya Orthodox, while my guest stayed with his favourite Lapsang Souchong. The honeyed flavour of the Kenya Orthodox was a wonderful companion to our sandwiches, particularly the Hebrides oak-smoked salmon. My friend preferred the Aberdeen Angus beef with horseradish on brown bread with his Lapsang, so we shared the free range egg mayonnaise with cress, York ham and Coleman’s mustard and, of course, cucumber with cream cheese. These were tasty, but the freshly baked raisin and plain buttermilk scones were special. They’re shaped into triangles, slightly crispy on the outside and neither too doughy nor too dry on the inside. The waiter talked us through the conserves, and I thoroughly enjoyed my scones with a sweet Cornish strawberry jam and indulgently thick Devonshire clotted cream.
The pièce de résistance, however, was the selection of cream puffs and French pastries. My companion chose a fragile Mille-Feuilles, which he selfishly wolfed without offering me even a sliver, and then knavishly stole the chocolate from one of my small profiteroles. I politely ignored this, in the spirit of Lady Anna. After an initially slow start, the staff were attentive, charming, and made sure we had plenty of hot water to replenish our tea.
On the way out, en route to a stroll around Hyde Park, we noticed at the bottom of the Park Room’s menu board a small addendum: the Park Room and Library have been recognised by the Tea Guild as being among Britain’s Best Afternoon Tea destinations. We think Lady Anna would have been proud.
Food – 4/5
Venue – 5/5
Value – 4/5
Cuisine type – Traditional English teatime fodder
Anna’s Tea for two – £50/ £66 with Piper-Heidsieck Champagne
Park Room @ Grosvenor House Hotel (A JW Marriott hotel)
London W1K 7TN
020 7499 6363