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 the city’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 head bowed, hoping no-one will notice my scuffed sneakers.
As a working-class type, I’ve never quite felt at home among the well-to-do. That discomfort has never felt 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.
The concept of afternoon tea is said to have begun in 1840 courtesy of 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.
She decided to share the idea beyond her private sanctuary by inviting guests to join her at her stately home and soon, afternoon tea was spreading as a ritual among 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 elite 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 about 12c per person. That price is now $AUD85 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 — it tasted delicious and 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.
The sandwiches 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.
And 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 we’ve been performing acts of magic as moments after handing us our scones, he walks passed again 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.
- The Langham Hotel is just past the northern end of the luxury shopping strip of Regent Street, in one of London’s most up-market districts.
- Some 30 tea blends are on offer at the Langham’s afternoon tea, served daily from 12:15pm to 5:30pm. langhamhotels.com.
- Opened in 1865, the Langham was touted as Europe’s first “grand hotel” and was renowned as the most modern and luxurious hotel in London.