5 years ago
Sunday, May 9, 2010
Afternoon tea requires good tea, good food, a lovely setting and, ideally, charming company. A cocktail doesn't hurt, either. Last Friday, during my exploration of afternoon teas in London, I hit the bullseye with all five.
The Palm Court of London's Langham Hotel (seriously, are all these rooms called the Palm Court?) claims to be the birthplace of the very tradition of afternoon tea. So you might expect a staid, stuffy and somber affair weighed down by history. Not here. The Langham's Palm Court is a crisp, bright room with unexpectedly modern flourishes, from the understuffed chairs to the pianist slipping in Elton John and Coldplay tunes.
My guest for tea that day was Jane Pettigrew, the name in books about tea, particularly in her native Britain. Together we sampled the Langham's special twist on afternoon tea, the G & Tea.
It's a menu based on the flavors of a gin and tonic, which is what you get first, expertly mixed and in a nice tall glass. Then comes the tea, based on the botanicals of Beefeater 24; it's a green tea base with added juniper berries, coriander, lemon peel and other whole ingredients. The result is a strange but enticing tea, kind of musty and musky, the juniper slightly overpowering the taste of the actual tea. It's very light, and it's tasty with the food.
During our conversation, Pettigrew began a litany that I would hear repeated throughout London, one that accuses most Britons of knowing little about tea — despite how much of it they drink. "If you stop the average person in London, most of them have nothing to say about tea," she said. "If you mention white tea, they think you mean black tea with milk in it. Tea has been ignored and abused in this country for centuries, turned into something unrecognizable from its natural wonders by the big packers, the Tetleys and PG Tips and such." France, Pettigrew says, is the European tea mecca now. "We're very lazy about food and drink, with all the fast food. Marks & Spencer's main business is ready-made meals. We don't cook. In France, people's palates are still important, and more finely tuned. They cook, they take longer with the experience. So now that tea has found them — a country suited to the fine hues of wines — it's really taken hold. And it's a broader palate of teas in Paris. Here, our connection to tea started from the empire in India: black teas. In France, the historic connections are more in Indo-China and Vietnam, so they are open to a greater variety of teas."
The Langham tea menu offers quite a variety, though, including British-grown teas from the Tregothnan estate near Cornwall, as well as a choice yellow tea and a cooked pu-erh. We opted for a second pot of the Jing Ceylon, which was good company for the desserts, including ginger cookies and a far-out Cointreau-orange cream cake with a chocolate dome. One other nice thing about the Langham service: the edibles are presented on the classic three-tiered trays, but these are on floor stands. They meet level to the table, so there's more room on the table surface. Nice touch.
Pettigrew overflows with information and suggestions of other tea spots. One of them turned out to be the best place I visited in all of London. More to come ...
(I also later followed up on an earlier recommendation of hers, from an article in World Tea News: a bustling restaurant called Royal China in Queensway at the NW corner of Hyde Park. Before eating possibly the most tender chicken I've ever had, the waitress asked me what kind of tea I would like: "Jasmine, fine or strong?" Turns out their "fine" tea is a lovely, woody Taiwanese oolong. The "strong" tea is a black tea, though the waitress called it "red.")