Saturday, November 13, 2010

High Time for Tea

I’ve always had this strange obsession with tea parties.  I collected tea sets from ones with cups the size of thimbles to this baby pink plastic monstrosity sturdy enough to survive a child’s less than dainty touch.  And I drank my tea from either sized cup (and by tea I mean sugar with a touch of weak tea added) nearly every day with my stuffed animals as my honorable guests.  And on a rare occasion, my cousins and I held some very interesting tea parties where the fare was a far cry from edible and included mud and pine needle cakes to accompany the mashed grape infused water and a salad of dead leaves.  Yum. 

I really don’t know where the fascination came from, but because of it, the minute I was accepted into the London program, I began my search to find an amazing place to have quintessentially English high tea.  I know I would regret it if I didn’t take part in this experience, one that could not be replicated back at home.  My mind ran wild with images as diverse as Alice and the Mad Hatter at their whimsically chaotic tea party to fine bone china and delicate finger sandwiches existing in London’s fanciest hotels.  But in the end, my mom and I enjoyed high tea at the St. James’s Restaurant in Fortnum and Mason Department Store, and were treated to the most elaborate and lavish of afternoons.

But first, as always, a few background notes. Afternoon tea was not originally invented to be a special event but came about more so out of sheer practicality.  It began in the mid 19thcentury when it was common for people to eat only two meals a day, one in the morning and one in the very late evening, around 8:00.  So when Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford complained about having “a sinking feeling” in the middle of the day, due to lack of food, she started the custom of taking a pot of tea and a little snack in her bedroom every afternoon.  That was all; it was nothing fancier.  However, the duchess soon invited friends to her tea break and this idea of tea parties began to catch on.  From there it escalated to an enormous affair, signifying an upper class life with fine food, treats, and drink.  Today, many have this image that people in England indulge in afternoon tea everyday.  And although most, like the Duchess, do have a cuppa and a snack daily, the elaborate hotel afternoon tea experience is an event only to be rarely enjoyed yet savored.  And this is probably good thing as it is a feast of sweets and savories enough to fill a grown man five times over and put a serious dent on his wallet while he’s at it. 

So anyway, as I walked into the restaurant at Fortnum and Mason, I became filled with elation from the glamorous aura of the setting.  In the large room were squishy couches and soft pillows placed around low tables to create several intimate areas for every group of tea goers.  It was just so comfortable and welcoming after a long day of walking and the pianist in the corner playing airy and uplifting tunes just added to the experience.  We were treated with utmost attention by the wait staff as they patiently waited for us to pore over the menu.  In the end, we both chose high tea, rather than afternoon tea, which opted for a cooked savory dish before the cakes instead of finger sandwiches.

And soon the food started arriving.  The first was the tea (we chose Fortnum and Mason’s special Afternoon Tea Blend) and small canapés to wet our appetites.  Our selection included a slice of a sausage roll, a sort of crab pate on toast, and a mini goat cheese tart, all dainty and delicious.  Next were the savory dishes.  My mom chose the Welsh Rarebit, a dish that, although its origin in Wales is not terribly clear, is still a very English staple for pub grub and high tea alike.  And this marvelous creation of toast topped with fried, melty cheese and a concoction of ale, mustard and Worcestershire sauce was very unique and an extreme upgrade from any American cheesy bread.  For my dish, I had a goat cheese soufflé, a tangy yet extraordinary light an creamy dish that, paired with a red onion marmalade, was a definite treat.

Fully satisfied with our salty yet delicious start to the experience, we were finally ready for the sweet latter half.  Out came the waiter with our three-tiered tray of delights and I couldn’t take my eyes off the tantalizing variety cakes sitting there like little jewels. The varieties were (starting from the front center of the picture and going clockwise) raspberry jam biscuits, ginger parkin cake slices, double chocolate layer cake, raspberry financier, mandarin financier, and passionfruit and vanilla sponge layer cake.  All were so different and very fresh and moist and we immediately split them up for devouring.  The crispy edges of the cookies signified their fresh-baked quality, the ginger cake contained a very strong yet realistic and pleasing spicy ginger flavor, and the passionfruit cake, my favorite, was a very unique and tropical twist to the fall-themed plate.

The tray, of course, also included scones (a plain and raisin one for each of us) with strawberry or raspberry jam and clotted cream.  Now just to be clear, English scones are NOTHING like the overly sweet and stale American varieties sold in the likes of Starbucks.  An English scone is rather like an American biscuit, unsweetened, round in shape, and with a golden crunchy exterior encasing the most fluffy, tender, and moist interior.  And topped with a heaping spoonful of jam and cold, rich clotted cream, these scones were the best I’ve ever had. 

Where I live in America, something like this is so completely nonexistent so upon polishing off our final crumbs of scones and washing it down with the last few sips of tea, we realized just how special it was to have this quintessential tea experience. Although it slightly caters toward tourists, it exceeded my expectations, far surpassing any tea party I’ve every hosted, and it was just so nice to be pampered, even if only for a few hours.

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