Sunday, March 16, 2008

Afternoon tea at Brown's Hotel

Last week I had afternoon tea at Brown's, one of London's luxury hotels. Traditionally, afternoon tea was an opportunity to sit down with a cup of tea and a light snack around 3:00 PM, but these days it can be taken a bit later in the day, usually at a posh hotel or tea shop, and is a feast of sandwiches, scones and cakes.

For those of you not familiar with this very British tradition, I'm copying shamelessly from

Tea consumption increased dramatically during the early 19th century and it is around this time that Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, is said to have complained of "having that sinking feeling" during the late afternoon. At the time it was usual for people to take only two main meals a day, breakfast, and dinner at around 8 o'clock in the evening. The solution for the Duchess was a pot a tea and a light snack, taken privately in her boudoir during the afternoon.

Later, friends were invited to join her in her rooms at Woburn Abbey and the practice proved so popular that the Duchess continued it when she returned to London, sending cards to her friends asking them to join her for "tea and a walk in the fields." Other social hostesses quickly picked up on the idea and the practice became respectable enough to move it into the drawing room. Before long, all of fashionable society was sipping tea and nibbling sandwiches in the middle of the afternoon.

Occasionally you will see hotels serving a "high tea". Traditionally, the upper classes would serve a "low" or "afternoon" tea around four o'clock, just before the fashionable promenade in Hyde Park. The middle and lower classes would have a more substantial "high" tea later in the day, at five or six o'clock, in place of a late dinner. The names derive from the height of the tables on which the meals are served, high tea being served at the dinner table.

Many visitors from overseas still imagine that we are a nation where, in the words of the well-known song, "at half past three, everything stops for tea". Sadly these days afternoon tea is usually only an occasional luxury for the British; a birthday treat in a country house hotel, or a welcome break from a hectic day's shopping in town.

In our case, the special occasion was my friend Kay's 40th birthday. Rather than go out for a meal we thought we'd do something a little different, so three of us went for afternoon tea instead.

I'd not been to Brown's before, but the hotel (what we saw of it) and the tea room certainly lived up to our expectations. I got there before the other two and had about 20 minutes to take in the elegant and cosy atmosphere of wood-panelled walls, comfy sofas, open fires, low lighting and live piano music. Here is a short video I took to show you what it was like.

Unfortunately the low lighting made taking photos a bit difficult (much to Kay and Sandi's delight, who hate me getting my camera out). Photos taken without flash looked dark and grainy, whereas photos taken with flash were way too bright. I have posted some of the better ones below:

The menus on the table list the teas available. There were 17 to choose from, ranging from the usual Morning Blend, Afternoon Blend, Assam, Darjeeling, Ceylon, to the less common Jasmine Peals, Silver Needle and Blackcurrant & Hibiscus.

This is what our table looked like once the silver tea pots and the tiered stand of sandwiches and cakes had arrived. The bottom tier is for sandwiches (cucumber, egg & cress, smoked salmon, ham etc.), the middle tier is for scones served with clotted cream and strawberry jam, and finally on the top tier there was a selection of cakes.

Here I've attempted a close-up on the cakes. There was a French macaroon, a type of mousse in a little glass, a chocolate cake, a tart with rhubarb (I think) and a blueberry cake. I didn't get a chance to sample all of them, as by the time we got to the top tier we were pretty stuffed and only had the one plate. You can ask for any of the tiers to be replenished and we had three plates of sandwiches before we even started on the scones!

The best part was when a waiter brought out a special mini birthday cake for Kay accompanied by "Happy Birthday To You" on the piano. Everyone clapped, Kay blew out the candle and then had to light it again so I could take this shot. What was great is that it was a surprise for all of us - the waitress who set our table noticed the card and present I had and asked if we were there to celebrate a birthday. I thought she was just being friendly, and then we got this!

We spent a good three hours chatting, drinking tea and eating far too much. It was a very relaxing evening and one I hope we can repeat soon.

Brown's Hotel is in trendy Mayfair, near the world-famous Ritz Hotel. Green Park is the nearest station. Afternoon tea at Brown's will set you back £35 (approx. 46 euros or 70 USD) for a couple of pots of tea and as many sandwiches, scones and cakes as you can manage.


Cheryl said...

I love afternoon tea! My favorite part is still the scone with clotted cream and jam.

Tinsie said...

Mine too :-)

Karen said...

Does the fact that this sounds perfect mean that I'm finally growing up??

Were you tempted to stick the leftover desserts in your bag? :-)

Shionge said...

What a lovely afternoon tea and with great company too :D I always enjoyed that with my girlfriends too.

Brown's Hotel certainly looked like a posh place and an expensive one ya :D

Hey Tinsie, thank you for the birthday wishes pal.

Betty C. said...

This looks lovely but a little pricey.

Oddly,when I have been in London lately, I haven't noticed many tea salons. But there sure are a lot of Starbucks, etc.!

Tinsie said...

@ Karen: It must do ;-)

As for the leftovers, there were only a couple of pieces of cake left at the end of the evening (a small blueberry cake and half a sliver of Victoria Sponge to be exact) and I was so stuffed by then I didn't want to see cake again, let alone take some with me.

@ Shionge: Brown's was very posh indeed. Hope you had a lovely birthday!

@ Betty: £30-35 is pretty much the "going rate" for afternoon tea in London. It's the same as what we'd expect to pay to have dinner at a decent restaurant (albeit with a couple of glasses of wine) so in that respect it's priced OK. London's an expensive city for going out :-(

I don't think there are any stand-alone tea rooms in London. All the ones I know of are in hotels such as Brown's, the Lanesborough, the Dorchester, Claridge's, the Four Seasons, the Ritz etc. A lot of cafes serve cream tea which is tea with scones, clotted cream and jam. That's a lot less pricey, but not as exquisite.

GMG said...

Tea & scones at Brown's; what a treat! I remember staying once there in the seventies, before the £24 million restoration...
Thanks for your comments at Blogtrotter, where I’m back to Crete now!
Have a great week!

Betty C. said...

When I've gone to London, I feel like we've managed to eat very well for reasonable prices -- reasonable by big city standards, anyway. I think the situation is better on both fronts -- quality and price -- than it was when I visited in the 1980s!

Tinsie said...

@ GMG: I think I may have to stop visiting your blog. You make me too homesick!

@ Betty: Quality isn't a problem these days, esp. in London, but I can imagine what it must have been like in the 80's! As for price, it depends on where and what you eat. Burger joints, cafes and pubs do cheap lunches, but an evening meal in a restaurant will come to £20 for pizza, £30-35 for a 2 or 3-course meal, more if you go to a more upmarket place or drink more than a glass of (cheap) wine with your meal.

Per Stromsjo said...

Great way to use a video clip, appreciate that.

I can tell you in strict confidence that I'm relying on conventional tea bags tonight although that particular practice would probably rate at the low end of the Tea Civilization scale... ;)

Tinsie said...

Haha I always use tea bags at home - loose leaf tea is such hassle.

Susan Mo said...

I loved afternoon tea on my first trip to London. We took it at Fortnum and Mason, and I thought it was worth every penny. I just love the presentation of the tea and goodies. It was also great fun to wander around the store after tea.

I wanted to go on my second trip to London, but my husband was disgusted by the phrase "clotted cream". I told him it was wonderful, but he decided to pass.

Tinsie said...

Haha I just read this out to hubby who commented: poor man, he's thinking of his arteries rather than his stomach!

I thought I'd share this with you :-)

Betty C. said...

Well, I was travelling with teenagers, so we weren't looking for anything fancy or three-course. We wanted better than fast food for some of our meals, though.

BTW, since you like French things, we ate in a really nice bistrot in the City called Café Rouge that was reasonably priced and very good and authentic in my book. I think it's a chain so you can probably find them all over.

Tinsie said...

Indeed, I know Cafe Rouge. There's one near where I work, but it's some time since I've been there for lunch or dinner.

Indie said...

That looks absolutely lovely. If I manage to come over I will definitely give it a try. I love tea so I am sure I will enjoy the experience.

Tinsie said...

You buy the ticket, mate - the rest can be arranged ;-)