She would have a pot of tea served in her boudoir with a light snack and invite some friends along to join her. According to afternoontea.co.uk, this social event proved so popular that when the duchess returned to London from Woburn Abbey, she continued the practice and the idea was quickly picked up by other social hostesses. “Before long,” it adds, “all of fashionable society was sipping tea and nibbling sandwiches in the middle of the afternoon.”
As the idea of serving afternoon tea spread around the world, it has been reinvented time and time again. So in honour of national afternoon tea week, which starts on Sunday, we decided to go international and recommend some interesting places – some of them traditional, others eclectic – where you can enjoy afternoon tea in lovely surroundings.
Hotel Café Royal, Regent Street, London, UK
Yes, we thought of recommending the Ritz, time-honoured place to have your cake and eat it, but then we spotted the interesting menu at the Hotel Café Royal which has just won the best traditional category of this year’s Afternoon Tea Awards. This is tradition with a modern twist though, with the summer menu offering among others an amuse bouche of goat's cheese and pickled apple muffin, English cucumber and rose pepper cream cheese sandwiches, strawberry mojito macaroons and apple and Tahitian vanilla caramel tart, all served in the iconic Oscar Wilde bar with its Louis XVI detailing. The price is £42 and £55 if you add a glass of champagne.
Lady Mendl, Irving Place, New York, US
Situated in a brownstone in the heart of Gramercy Park, this “whimsical” tea salon gets its name from Elsie de Wolfe, one time American actress, who is credited with inventing interior decoration. She is reputed to have said, “I am going to make everything around me beautiful. That will be my life.” Tea here is a five-course indulgence which, alongside the more traditional scones with clotted cream and jam, offers an interesting take on sandwiches, including butternut squash and arugula with maple balsamic reduction on crispy baguette, cucumber with mint crème Fraiche on pumpernickel and smoked salmon with crème fraiche on brioche with wasabi caviar. Prices start at $59 plus tax.
Aman Summer Palace, Beijing, China
If anyone really started the afternoon tea tradition, it was probably the Chinese with their daily gongfucha or tea ceremony. Black tea in winter and green tea in summer would be taken with food, incense and flowers to engage the five senses. So where better to join in than on the terrace overlooking the gardens and pond at the Aman Summer Palace. Choose from a selection of four finger sandwiches, nine cakes and sweets and the freshly baked raisin scones with whipped cream and jam. Oh and afterwards, you can walk through a secret door to the 12th century summer palace which is a Unesco world heritage site. The palace classic afternoon tea costs RMB 268.
Windamere Hotel, Observatory Hill, Darjeeling, India
A long-time favourite, this old hotel, a quaint relic of the British Raj, serves the best tea that this writer has ever tasted. We did hesitate to mention it given the problems that the region is having with its tea garden strikes, but hopefully these will be settled in the not too distant future. At the Windamere, the tea, which is usually Castleton from the Goodricke tea estate or Makaibari from Kurseong, is served on the terrace overlooking the precipitous tea gardens against the most stunning background of the Himalayas. Tea comes with sandwiches, biscuits, cakes and scones. The only hitch (or upside, depending which way you look at it) is that you need to be staying at the hotel to sample the tea…
The Fullerton Hotel, Fullerton Square, Singapore
Once home to Singapore’s general post office and the Singapore club, this neoclassical landmark, built in 1928, now houses one of Singapore’s top hotels and, by all accounts, the best afternoon tea on the island. The menu boasts a selection of 10 teas, to be sipped along with such delicacies as smoked salmon mille feuille with avruga caviar, otak-otak (fish cake) and quail egg sandwich with walnut bread and English fruit cake with raspberry financier. This summer it offered a Yayoi Kusama-themed tea in honour of the first major showcase of the Japanese artist’s work at Singapore’s national gallery, including specially crafted sweets featuring the polka dots that are synonymous with her art. Prices start at S$43.
The Palace of Holyroodhouse, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh
Back to the UK and with the meal’s aristocratic roots in mind, how about an award-winning afternoon tea at the Queen’s official residence in Scotland, the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh? When the sun’s shining, tea is served on the terrace in the historic mews courtyard with its stunning views over Arthur’s seat. Sip your tea from specially commissioned chinaware and munch on sandwiches, scones and home-made cakes all made from locally sourced fresh ingredients. It costs £18.95 per person or £27 with a glass of champagne added in.