Travel Story Taste of the luxe life with a very English afternoon tea

Afternoon tea at London's luxurious Langham Hotel isn't just a delicious treat — it's also a chance to learn more about this most British of customs.

Beneath giant chandeliers in the dining room of one of London’s most expensive hotels, guests decked out in tailored suits and designer gowns nibble on cakes. I shuffle past them to my corner table with my head bowed, hoping no one will notice my scuffed sneakers.

As a product of working-class Kelmscott, I’ve never quite felt at home among the well-to-do. That discomfort has never been stronger than right now as I curse myself for forgetting to pack my shiny leather loafers. They would have completed my otherwise neat outfit and offered me a tenuous sense of belonging in the magnificent setting of the historic Langham Hotel.

Then my wife, who looks exponentially better than me at all times, pricks my bubble of anxiety. “No one is worrying about your shoes,” she says, “look at the amazing cakes they have,” subtly pointing to a silver tray of impossibly attractive desserts.

As she well knows, if there’s one thing that can distract me from quite literally anything, it is sweet food. And an English afternoon tea in the place of its origin features some of the most delectable sugary treats one could ever hope to gorge on.

The most British of customs, afternoon tea began in 1840 with the seventh Duchess of Bedford. Unsatisfied with the then-standard two main meals a day, she organised for a third to be delivered to her boudoir in the afternoon. Proud of the tradition, she decided to shift it beyond her private sanctuary, inviting guests to join her at her stately abode. Her snack time became afternoon tea as the ritual was adopted by Britain’s upper classes.

The Langham claims a bit of this history for itself as, apparently, the first hotel in London to start serving afternoon tea. For more than 150 years, London’s upper classes have gathered here in the hotel’s stunning Palm Court restaurant to sample a range of fine teas, scones, cakes and pastries. In the early days this cost only about 12c per person. That price has now risen to $85 for the basic afternoon tea, or $110 per person if you also want a glass of Perrier-Jouet Blason Rosé NV champagne.

I can’t claim any great knowledge about champagne, but I know two things — this tastes delicious and it predictably makes my wife’s face turned bright red for several minutes. It’s a fine accompaniment to the light, savoury sandwiches which are our first course. There is Burford Brown egg and marinated artichoke on rosemary bread and the classic English cucumber sandwich with cream cheese and chives.

My favourite is the hearty beef pastrami with watercress and caramelised onion bread, while my wife coos over the smoked salmon, pepper and lemon cream roll. They are only a sideshow, however, with the main event to take place upon arrival of the delicate work of Cherish Finden, the Langham’s renowned executive pastry chef. 

Before the sweets arrive, we select our teas. Unlike the milky, sugary style I grew to know in Australia, these are wonderfully light, refreshing and fruity — mine infused with strawberry, hers with apricot. Suddenly I remember the scones. How have I forgotten the scones? My mother has for decades blessed me with her thick scones, coated in sweet jam or tart marmalade. Yet even she cannot compete with the ever-so-light and fluffy scones served up at the Langham.

The waiter must think a magic trick has been performed when, moments after handing us our scones, he walks back past to find them gone. The tray of chef Finden’s creations meets a similar fate. First the caramelised puff pastry with vanilla-infused mascarpone vanishes. Then the blackcurrant-soaked baba goes missing. Soon after, the pecan choux pastry ceases to exist. And, finally, the astonishingly tasty creamy coconut, liquid raspberry and Manjari mousse meets its maker.

That is the end of my sorcery, and of this magical culinary experience. Plates emptied, we linger to relish the charm of our surroundings. Chandeliers glisten, champagne glasses clink and a pianist sets just the right note. And no one has noticed my scruffy shoes.

Fact File

Disclaimer

Ronan O’Connell was a guest of the Langham Hotel.

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