I reached for Balengacia’s luxurious black-and-white flouncy dress. Except I wasn’t about to try it on. I was about to bite into it.
There it was reimagined as a moist chocolate cake, layered with white chocolate Grand Marnier mousse. Carefully set on a three-tiered porcelain stand, the runway-inspired dainty was a tiny piece of art. It completed a collection of biscuits and bakes at Prêt-à-Portea, as afternoon tea is called at The Berkeley Hotel’s restaurant, the Collins Room. Iced and shaped carefully, these special sweets were inspired by designers such as Dolce & Gabbana, Miu Miu and Gucci.
Prêt-à-Portea is redefining what an afternoon tea should be, as are many other top restaurants across London. From multicultural influences — think dim sum with tea — to menus expanded creatively beyond pastries and sandwiches, the traditional tea time has entered the 21st century.
A 19th-century tradition
Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford and life-long friend of Queen Victoria, wanted to satisfy the hunger she usually felt before her evening meal. So in 1840, she invented the concept of an afternoon tea. Besides piping hot tea, it included finger sandwiches, pastries, and scones with clotted cream.
Her mini-meal idea spread throughout the upper and middle classes to become one of the most recognizable British food traditions.
While The Berkeley melds the duchess’s daily ritual with the exciting world of haute couture, Flemings Mayfair Hotel brings to it an Indian essence.
From England to Asia, and back to Victorian times
In the Drawing Room of Flemings, panels on the walls are hand-painted with scenes of India. Amid turbaned men riding elephants and leading camels, waiters serve a selection of traditional and exotic teas by The East India Company.
This unique approach to British tea time is actually a nod to the tradition’s roots. The Duchess of Bedford could never have made afternoon tea had The East India Company not introduced tea itself to Britain in the 17th century.
At the Millennium Hotel’s Le Chinois Restaurant, afternoon tea takes on a Chinese flavour. The restaurant combines its specialization in dim sum and regional Cantonese cuisine with British tea culture.
It includes a host of Asian sweets and savouries, from sautéed wasabi prawns and crispy shredded-duck spring rolls to red bean and pandan mochi cake and freshly sliced mango. The afternoon tea includes champagne options and a selection of Chinese teas.
At St. James’s Hotel and Club, bringing back half-forgotten elements of afternoon tea is, ironically, a new approach. It’s called 1840 Afternoon Tea because it revives authentic recipes that were favourites in Victorian times and even specific favourites of Queen Victoria herself.
Executive Chef William Drabble adds some modern twists to the recipes of his 19th-century counterpart, Chef Charles Elmé Francatelli, who worked at St. James’s Club before and after he served as Queen Victoria’s chief cook.
The Club’s sweet offerings include Victoria sponge cakes, lemon drizzle cakes, and tipsy cakes — which are soaked in sherry and served with custard. Also served are finger sandwiches — which include watercress, egg, and cucumber — and Cheshire cheese scones with clotted cream. All are dished up on Victorian-inspired crockery.
At the Royal Albert Hall’s Verdi restaurant, afternoon tea is a vibrantly musical experience. A selection of fine teas, desserts and savouries are served as the U.K.’s best operatic talents perform a few feet away. The menu features crunchy, salted caramel dark-chocolate mousse, a Jivara éclair carrot cupcake with Grand Marnier frosting, as well as finger sandwiches filled with mint-smoked salmon or balsamic caviar egg.
Back at The Berkeley
As I leisurely continued my tea time at The Berkeley, deciphering which biscuits paid homage to which notable designer, I admired Burberry’s sleek white feathered cape. Its edible form was a delectable tonka bean cheesecake with a curvy, white chocolate feather.
The rest of the cookies and cakes would make any fashionista beam — there’s Gianvito Rossi’s red heeled boots recreated as fennel-seed biscuits with burgundy red royal icing, or Bottega Veneta’s daring mustard-coloured suit as an iced speculoos chocolate biscuit, and Gucci’s kimono transformed into a pomegranate and grenadine bavarois topped with a crystallized edible flower and a chocolate parasol.
At that moment, with the daintiest of choices before me, I couldn’t help but think how contemporary creativity can transform some of the oldest and most beloved traditions. In a way only London can inspire, the afternoon tea’s sense of old-fashioned finery has merged with modern influences of culture and style.