It’s an interesting quirk of fate that the traditionally British institute that is afternoon tea, came about due to boredom. And due to Anna Russell. (No, not the 1950s’/ 60s’ ‘Crown Princess of Musical Parody). To give her her proper title, I’m referring to Anna Russell, born Lady Anna Maria Stanhope, 7th Duchess of Bedford and Lady-of-the-Bedchamber to Queen Victoria (1841-1847). When at her summer residence, Woburn Abbey, the Duchess would become ‘very melancholy between lunch and supper’ – the first recorded case of a sugar low, perhaps. So 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 after the summer, she continued the practice, and soon all of London society deemed it right and proper to follow suit.
In honour of this auspicious pedigree, the recently refurbished Grosvenor House Hotel has named one of its choices of afternoon teas ‘Anna’s Tea’. However, after an afternoon’s hard work, shopping on Oxford Street a week before Christmas, I decided to ignore history for the moment and try the Christmas Afternoon Tea instead.
We were shown to our table in the beautifully appointed Park Room, which opened in 2000. Its calming light greens, deep russet red cushions, soft sofas and delicate framed sketches of birds give the impression you are sitting in someone’s comfortable front room, while a view of the illuminated Ferris Wheel of the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park and 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 echoed 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 just enough to prepare our taste buds without swamping them. There was a good selection of teas on offer, and we were encouraged to choose from regional teas, rare teas, or the speciality Winter Wonderland (a blend of orange, cinnamon and spices). I decide to be experimental and pick a Kenya Orthodox, while my guest stayed with his favourite Lapsang Souchong. (Being a coffee fan, I thought I was being exotic, but tea is just as important to the Kenyan economy, apparently. I learn later that the east-coast country was, until earlier this year, the world’s number one exporter of black tea). The honeyed flavour of the Kenya Orthodox was a fitting companion to our sandwiches, particularly the Copas turkey and cranberry on white bread. My friend preferred the Aberdeen Angus beef with horseradish on brown bread with his Lapsang, so we shared the Hebrides oak-smoked salmon, free range egg mayonnaise with cress, York ham and Coleman’s mustard and, of course, cucumber with cream cheese. While these were tasty but basic, the freshly baked raisin and plain buttermilk scones were a real treat. Shaped into triangles, slightly crispy on the outside and just right on the inside, they struck the perfect balance without being too doughy or dry. The waiter talked us through the conserves, and I thoroughly enjoy my scones with a sweet strawberry jam and indulgently thick Devonshire clotted cream.
For me, the pièce de résistance of the afternoon was the selection of Christmas Fairytale Delights and the marzipan fruit, the latter forming the apex of a beautifully arranged tea stack. My companion chose a small slice of Stollen, and knavishly stole the icing from the square of Christmas fruitcake. I politely ignored this and inaugurated Christmas properly with my first mince pie (buttery pastry encasing a good portion of sweet filling). We then nearly came to blows over a mini chestnut Yule log, but opted for seasonal goodwill and agreed to share it. It offered enough for a mouthful each, and was delicately flavoured with brandy, making a fitting ‘chaser’ for our early evening treat. After an initially slow start, the staff were attentive, charming, and made sure we had plenty of hot water to replenish our tea. They also gave us a ‘Grover’, the be-monocled, dinner-jacket sporting bulldog soft toy, who arrives on a complimentary basis with the children’s ‘Grover’s Tea Time’ tea choice.
On the way out, en route to a stroll around the Winter Wonderland, 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. Realising what a delectable legacy she left, Lady Anna might almost have been as happy as the moment she first fashioned the concept of afternoon tea.
Christmas Afternoon Tea is available until January 5th 2009, priced at £29 per person/ £37 with Piper-Heidsieck Champagne. Anna’s Tea, £25, and Grover’s Tea Time, £14.50, are available all year round.
Grosvenor House Hotel: Park Lane, London W1K 7TN. Tel: 020 7499 6363.
Reviewer: Bryony Weaver