London - The United Kingdom is known for its tea. Green hills with neatly trimmed hedges, Big Ben in London, and tea. The British have been drinking it for nearly four centuries, and their deep-rooted tea history is as stormy as their weather.
But nowadays, every street corner in the UK is adorned with Starbucks, Costa Coffee and Caffé Nero – and this is especially so in London. Next to those are Caffé Concerto and countless other coffee shops, laughing in the face of tea. People rush around with takeaway coffees, and most of them prefer coffee after supper, not tea.
Coffee has even slipped into people’s daily language. Notice how friends will ask each other to “meet for a coffee”, but never “for a tea”. And if you’re invited back for “a tea” after a date instead of “coming in for a coffee”, you shouldn’t count yourself lucky.
Since the invasion of coffee, tea has lost much of its popularity. Coffee has become morning drug, fast food and after dinner mint.
But if coffee has become the big thing, where does that leave tea? Is it the nerdy one hanging from the flagpole? Are there fewer pots of tea being brewed than rhinos in Africa? Or is it safe to say that tea has transcended coffee to reach a different level?
The latter. While coffee and its tiny machine-friendly cups are threatening to turn Britain into a mug-scarce coffee-drinking nation, tea is still going strong.
For one thing, it plays an important role at home. It’s Britain’s safety blanket. Whatever the trouble, there’s nothing “a nice cup of tea” can’t solve, or at least calm down. Other than this, consuming tea outside of the house has become something close to exclusivity: the high tea.
High tea is that delicate moment where time stands still and all you do is drink teapots full of (leaf) tea and talk to friends or family. To pamper your taste buds, you also eat finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and preserves, and cakes and pastries, all served on silver or vintage cake stands.
The most popular teas are English breakfast tea, Darjeeling and Earl Grey, with Assam as the decaf option. Some venues add a glass of Champagne to make the experience even more festive.
The origin of the typically British tradition of high tea, or afternoon tea, dates back to the 19th century, when tea consumption rocketed. In those days, people only took early breakfasts and late dinners.
Reputedly, the Duchess of Bedford disagreed with the long foodless waits and, alone in her boudoir, she boldly added a little bite to her afternoon tea. Feeling bored, she soon asked friends to join her. London hostesses quickly copied this delightful fashion and invited people over for tea and sandwiches before their Hyde Park promenade. High tea got its name from the height of the table it was served on; the dinner table. The upper classes savoured this new social trend, though they modestly swapped boudoirs for drawing rooms.
Take a look around London today and you will see people enjoying this exquisite experience in cosy tea shops, upmarket lounges and exclusive hotels. Many places offer their own version of high tea, and some will do so with great discounts (see afternoontea.co.uk)
However, if you are going to do something, do it properly, because as much as tea and scones are essential for a great high tea, so is the setting. Luxury hotels and restaurants such as the Ritz, Claridge’s and the Savoy serve high tea with elegance and style, as do Harrods and the Wolseley.
The Rose Lounge offers superb décor: a sophisticated English drawing room with live harp music.
Also, don’t forget to sample high tea at Fortnum and Mason, where royal guests gather and the Queen buys her tea. And if you wish to escape London’s cold afternoons, have your high tea in the colonial Winter Garden at the Landmark Hotel, and clink tea cups under tropical palm trees.
Depending on the venue, you can make it as extensive and expensive as you want. When you compare high tea with dinner, it is quite affordable. In fact, high tea has become so popular that people now have it instead of dinner, especially when they are celebrating or before visiting the theatre.
The amount of food, endless supply of tea and time spent with loved ones in posh surroundings makes high tea good value for money.
So, has coffee won the hot-drink revolution? Tricky. Coffee is still “out-drunk” on a daily basis – an estimated 165 million cups of tea versus 70 million cups of coffee – so you could argue that coffee wins only in terms of general outdoor consumption.
This, however, makes coffee an ordinary order, and tea something rather special. Therefore, when you are next in London, make sure you experience the perfect London high tea.
www.afternoontea.co.uk - Saturday Star