Only when taking afternoon tea would you hear the words “would you like me to explain your sandwiches to you”. Yes please, I would. Finger sandwiches at Claridge’s are a serious matter. They clearly take great pride in serving afternoon tea, and sourcing the finest ingredients to bring you the best sarnies in town – there are Scottish smoked salmon, Norfolk chicken breast, Dorrington ham, Clarence Court duck egg, and of course the classic English cucumber, all elegantly lined up in perfectly ruled rectangles. I like the visual spectacle of seeing a full afternoon tea on a tiered stand, but Claridge’s bring each course separately – presumably to keep it as fresh as possible. On completion of the sandwiches we are asked if we would like them replenished – always a tricky stage in the afternoon tea proceedings. I’d love another Dorrington ham with caramelised apple, calvados and cinnamon butter and red endive on onion bread, but I daren’t risk the stomach filling up before the scones arrive.
So, onwards and upwards. A second plate arrives with two freshly baked scones (one raisin, one plain – I forgot to mention my only dietary requirement was a hatred of the raisin scone) served with Cornish clotted cream and berry gelée , and four pretty patisseries.
The scones are always the highlight of an afternoon tea for me, and these ones are perfect – served warm, golden in colour, small and light, accompanied by Rodda’s clotted cream and a Marco Polo tea-infused gelée . I’ve never had a scone served with this kind of jam – chefs at Claridge’s say it’s one of the finest jams in the world. It doesn’t have the intensity of colour of a vivid red strawberry jam, which always looks so good atop the silky cream base (the Devon way for me), but it’s still a very tasty, delicately sweet aromatic pairing and perfect for the scone situation. The gelée comes from the iconic French tea house Mariage Frères, made from the Mariage family’s nineteenth-century recipe.
On to the patisserie: four hand-made pastries crafted under the guidance of Jérôme Chaucesse. These sweet treats change according to the availability of seasonal ingredients. On the day I went – a rainy day in October – there was an autumnal theme: a Pear Belle Hélène, a Hazelnut Paris-Brest, a cherry plum and bergamot macaron, and a fig tart. I felt I wanted a cake somewhere along the line, but I’m not going to argue with a French pastry chef. My favourite was the Hazelnut Paris-Brest gilded with flakes of gold leaf. So small and light I barely noticed I’d eaten it.
The tea is served in distinctive green and white striped fine bone china and silverware, both made to a unique Claridge’s design. I opted for the in-house Claridge’s blend of tea – perhaps a little boring of me when the menu boasts a selection of 27 different teas, carefully curated by tea connoisseur Henrietta Lovell of the Rare Tea Company and sourced from some of the oldest tea plantations in China, Sri Lanka, Africa and India. If I ever return to Claridge’s I will order the “unspeakably rare” Malawi Antler tea – only a few kilos are produced each year and Claridge’s is one of just two places in the world where you’ll find it served.
Atmosphere and setting always enhance the afternoon tea experience and Claridge’s scores full marks here – the 1930s’ foyer, designed by Thierry Despont, is the heart of the hotel with its Art Deco mirrored walls, striking ceiling Chihuly sculpture, and grand piano music drifting around the room. It is formal but open and inviting and doesn’t feel too stuffy. I was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t a dress code, but most people choose to dress smart/casual. The service was excellent – attentive but not overly so. Dietary requirements are not a problem – I had told them ahead that my companion was a vegan, and they didn’t need reminding on arrival. In fact, the vegan pastries looked just as good as mine. I was also very impressed with the menu, which goes into great detail about every aspect of their tea and displays their clear passion and dedication to upholding the tradition of afternoon tea.
The best place for afternoon tea in London is a coveted spot and Claridge’s is surely up there amongst the top five. (I can’t award a top spot yet until I’ve been to them all!) At £70 it’s one of the most expensive of all the afternoon teas in London, but they do replenish the sandwiches and cakes as much as you want, and you’re even given a doggy bag to take home so that you can feast off cake for days afterwards.
To sum up: One of the best traditional afternoon teas in London: an extensive tea list, impeccable service, attention to detail and a passion for the ceremony and tradition of afternoon tea.
What I wore:
Dress: Anthropologie; earrings: Anthropologie; bag: Aspinal; boots: Bobbies.
Claridge’s serves tea between 2.45pm and 5.30pm – it’s advisable to book early (you can reserve a table for afternoon tea up to 90 days in advance).
Afternoon tea: £70 ; Champagne Afternoon tea: £80
N.B. From 12 November 2019 to 1 January 2020, Claridge’s will be serving a festive menu only; the price increases to a whopping £90 per person Monday to Friday, £95 per person Saturday and Sunday.
Vegan, Vegetarian and Gluten-free options available – notify them at least 24 hours in advance.
Mad Hatters Tea – The Sanderson
The Sanderson have fully embraced the whimsical world of Lewis Carroll for their Alice in Wonderland themed afternoon tea. With a chic theatrical monochrome tea set designed exclusively for The Sanderson by Luna & Curious, and props including a Musical box for sugar and an antique book menu, the stage/table is well set for a Mad Hatters Tea.
I loved the presentation of the tea options on playing cards and mini labelled bottles in the centre of the table. I opted for Alice (of course): a china black tea infused with notes of caramel and bergamot.
I warned you I was a traditionalist when it comes to afternoon tea, so I’m always going to scrutinise themed teas extremely closely. The big risk with teas like this is that they can end up being style over substance, and if you’re paying almost £50 for tea and cakes then it still has to taste good as well as look good. I liked the variety of savoury options on the bottom tier of the stand as a change from the usual row of sandwiches that you get at afternoon tea: a smoked salmon scotch quail’s egg; avocado and crab brioche; cucumber and cream cheese pesto bread sandwich. There was also a stack of King of Hearts ham and parmesan croque monsieur. Now, I love a croque monsieur but I’m not sure it has a place in an afternoon tea; once I’ve had a cheese toastie it takes up valuable eating space in my tummy. And I don’t want to be in a situation where I don’t have room for the sweet treats. There had to be a mini “drink me” bottle somewhere in the proceedings and here we had an exotic fruit potion served with a mini stripy straw to lead you on to the sweet tier. Also brought to the table were a couple of miniature flower pots with ice cream, honeycomb and edible flowers – very cute.
Moving on to the sweet options. These were a little disappointing and I found them all a bit overly sweet. I did, however, like the mocha chessboard gateau, the Tweedle Dee lemon curd financier and the Wonderland marshmallow magic mushrooms. I wanted to like the Queen of Hearts jammy dodgers but they were so light and crumbly I kept dropping mine en route to my mouth. On the third attempt my tea companion was laughing at my dodgy eating etiquette (and he should know, he used to serve tea to The Queen). The scones are always the highlight for me and I couldn’t fault these ones – served wrapped in a chequered napkin to keep them warm. The waiter hadn’t asked for our preference (fruit/plain), so I was relieved to find them sans raisin. I’m the unfussiest of eaters, but anything riddled with raisins is a no go for me. Clotted cream, strawberry jam: all good down the rabbit hole.
I find the setting a really important factor in enhancing the afternoon tea experience and I wasn’t keen on the courtyard setting for this tea. There was repetitive chilled music more suitable for a beach café, and a rather plodding water feature that didn’t aid relaxation. But other people may love this kind of atmosphere; as I said in my intro, I’m a drawing room kinda gal. This tea is also available as a “Tipsy Tea” in the evening served with themed cocktails.
To sum up: Good if you like quirkiness and a more casual atmosphere – maybe for a girls’ group/hen weekend type occasion.
Several US followers on my Instagram page @theladysmaid have asked for my afternoon tea recommendations in London, so I feel it’s my duty to do some proper research. Now, I’m quite a traditionalist when it comes to afternoon tea and I’m a serious sconnoisseur. In recent years themed teas have started popping up around London and I wasn’t initially a fan. However, I’ve lately changed my tune; I admit it was the fashion themed teas that turned me. How could I resist eating a delicate Dior red velvet handbag at the pret a portea at The Berkeley? Then there’s the Lock & Co couture hat themed tea at The Sheraton. Just when you thought afternoon tea cakes couldn’t get any prettier. Other more imaginative afternoon tea experiences I’m keen to try are the Mary Poppins themed tea at the Shard, the Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit tea at Le Meridien and the Mad Hatters Alice in Wonderland themed tea at The Sanderson. Afternoon tea has become more than just scones on a silver stand in a dusty drawing room (although this will always be my natural habitat); it’s evolved into a whole new event, and I’m here for it! So The Lady’s Maid is branching out on a tea tour (time and budget allowing). I hope to visit some of London’s finest tea spots over the next year and share my reviews with you. The first stop on my #TLMteatour is The Mad Hatters Alice in Wonderland themed afternoon tea at The Sanderson.