the travels & travails of an escaped lab rat

London: Afternoon Tea

Afternoon Tea.

Possibly the single greatest contribution by the British to the culinary world since the invention of the sandwich.

First, let’s get some of the history and technicalities out of the way…

Although she is usually credited with the “invention” of Afternoon Tea, it is probably more accurate to say that Anna, Duchess of Bedford, introduced and popularized the custom rather than originating it outright — most likely adopting it from the French and adapting it to suit British customs.

Prior to the introduction of Afternoon Tea, the typical mid-18th century British family had two main meals a day: breakfast and dinner. Breakfast was taken early in the morning and consisted of ale, bread, and beef. Dinner was a long, massive meal, served at a fashionably late hour at the end of the day. “Taking tea” became a way of sneaking in some sustenance during that large gap between formal meals (no surprise there as to why the custom caught on and became so popular so quickly).

Originally, Afternoon Tea centered around cakes and pastries served between 3 and 5 p.m. in a parlour around a low table. In the latter part of the Victorian era, working families would return home late, often tired and very hungry; the Tea for these families would be served between 5 and 6 p.m. around a dining (high) table and would consist of heartier munchies, including meats, bread, butter, pickles, and cheese.

Thus, there are two basic types of Tea-taking named after the kind of table the tea was served on: Afternoon (or Low) Tea, and High Tea. Many confuse and interchange the two terms, but they refer to two different menus. Contrary to how it sounds, it was the Afternoon — Low — Tea that was enjoyed by the leisure class and the High Tea that was taken by the working class.

Generally, modern establishments serve Afternoon Tea, and they serve it between 3 and 5 p.m.

There are three basic variations on Afternoon Tea: Cream Tea (tea, scones, jam, and cream), Light Tea (tea, scones, and sweets), and Full Tea (tea, savories, scones, jam, cream, sweets, and pastries). Usually, the courses are served in the following order: savories (light sandwiches or appetizers), scones (with jam or preserves and clotted cream), and pastries (cakes, cookies, shortbread, and sweets) — all accompanied by tea, of course.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way…

There is no shortage of excellent shops in London for loose-leaf tea. I’m a traditionalist; I like to make my purchases from Fortnum and Mason, who’ve been selling tea and accouterments from the same location since 1707. They also serve a decent Afternoon Tea, but I prefer to take my tea in quieter surrounds.

For years, my usual spot was a corner table in the Promenade at the Dorchester. It was, in fact, the site of my very first-ever Afternoon Tea in London. I still frequent the Dorchester, but I’ve found a new favourite at the Lanesborough. I had heard of the Afternoon Tea at the Lanesborough from colleagues for years, but never managed to get around to try it until work started to put me up in the hotel whenever I was in London for business. There’s no getting around the fact that the Afternoon Tea at the Lanesborough is an expensive indulgence, but in my opinion, it’s probably the best Afternoon Tea service in London at present.

As an aside, I shot the photo of the Lanesborough interior back in 2008 when they were doing renovations on their tea room; the renovations have since been completed, and I did have a shot of the new decor but I can’t seem to find the most recent photo.

I just cannot do with out mah cuppa.

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Afternoon Tea - Fortum & Mason - Exterior (2008)++Afternoon Tea - Fortum & Mason - Interior (2008)++Afternoon Tea - Fortum & Mason - Interior (2008)++Afternoon Tea - Fortum & Mason - Interior (2008)++Afternoon Tea -  The Dorchester - Exterior (2008)++Afternoon Tea -  The Dorchester - The Promenade (2008)++Afternoon Tea - The Lanesborough - Exterior (2008)++Afternoon Tea - The Lanesborough - Temporary Tea Room (2008)++

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London: Gastronomy

(or: “Nom, my good chap. Nom.”)

As few as 10 (and most certainly as many as 20) years ago, the words “London” and “gastronomy” had no place being next to each other except on a Scrabble board.

Today that’s all changed.

Londoners, having become more discerning, are demanding — and are getting — better food in shops and restaurants all over the city. Even the quality of typical pub fare seems to have improved by several degrees.

If you’re in search of the best and freshest “raw” ingredients, you can’t do much better than Borough Market. There has been a Borough Market since 1276 (though some claim it’s existed since Roman times), but it has been in its present location only since 1756 (with the current building being raised in 1851 and added to in 1860 and 1931). When Ebenezer sends the boy running to buy the goose at the end of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, it’s from a shop in Borough Market.

Unfortunately, I rarely have the opportunity to cook while in London, and thus rarely get the opportunity to avail myself of the goods on sale (though I do manage to stroll through and browse whenever I find myself in the vicinity). So I usually shop at places that stock prepared and non-perishable foodstuffs that I can take away and send off as presents.

For out-and-out convenience, I find myself relying on the Food Halls at Harrods for my gourmet ingredient forays while in London. While Harrods may be slightly more expensive than some other shops, I do find that I can rely on them for excellent selection and a fairly high level of quality and service (Harrods did start off as a grocery in 1834, after all).

Truth be told, sometimes I do find myself missing the old fish-and-chip stands off the high street.

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Harrods - Entrance (2008)++Harrods - Food Hall (2008)++Harrods - Food Hall (2008)++Harrods - Food Hall (2008)++Harrods - Food Hall (2008)++Harrods - Food Hall (2008)++Harrods - Food Hall (2008)++Harrods - Food Hall (2008)++

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