‘In nothing more is the English genius for domesticity more notably declared than in the institution of this festival – almost one may call it – of afternoon tea… The mere chink of cups and saucers tunes the mind to happy repose.’ (George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft)
Is there anyone in the world who doesn’t have a daily longing for tea and cake? Here at Smith HQ, four o’clock is essentially tea-and-cake o’clock. We’re in Samuel Johnson’s camp; the author declared himself a ‘hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has, for twenty years, diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant; whose kettle has scarcely to cool; who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and, with tea welcomes the morning.’
Samuel’s pen isn’t the only one to shed ink over teatime. Henry James wrote: ‘There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea’ and Alice Walker hit the nail on the head when she pronounced that, ‘tea to the English is really a picnic indoors’. Never one to mince her words, Mrs Beeton provided a helpful ‘best afternoon tea‘ protocol in The Book of Household Management: ‘Afternoon tea should be provided, fresh supplies, with thin bread-and-butter, fancy pastries, cakes, etc, being brought in as other guests arrive.’
The chefs at Dean Street Townhouse in London have clearly been reading up on the ritual, as the hip hotel’s afternoon tea is sublime. I was lucky enough to pop in a few weekends ago, staking out one of the velvet chairs with my Mr Smith in tow. As usual, the bar and restaurant were abuzz with media types, chic families and garrulous gentlemen. We even spied what looked like Arab royalty sporting silks and sunglasses – indoors, I might add.
The arrival of our tea and sandwiches prompted an interesting domestic debate. For my beloved, the savoury elements of the afternoon tea are his raison d’être. For me, they’re merely the support act for the main event: cream-tea-slathered scones and ‘fancy cakes’. Admittedly, I ate the sandwiches with gusto (slender cucumber, ham ’n’ mustard and egg mayonnaise specimens with a salty slick of butter).
The scones – feather light, bursting with raisins and accompanied by honey-yellow clotted cream and berry-laden jam – made me smug, and my partner in crime regret his earlier pronouncements. The cakes were even better, and definitely fancy.
I would say more on the subject, but in the words of Wilkie Collins, ‘My hour for tea is half-past five, and my buttered toast waits for nobody.’ However, should we have whet your appetite for cake and caffeine, see our selection of top places to sip and sample afternoon tea below…
Three teas worth putting on the pounds for…
- Go high luxe at Claridge’s (+44 (0)20 7629 8888).
- High art at the Wallace Collection restaurant (+44 (0)20 7563 9500).
- High fashion at The Berkeley (+44 (0)20 7235 6000) – its ‘Prêt-à-portea’ cakes are modelled on must-have Anya Hindmarch and Marc Jacobs designs, and modishly served on Paul Smith china.