An essential London experience, I think, is enjoying a leisurely afternoon tea at one of its many ‘posh’ hotels. Even if you have to use a Groupon deal to afford it. So that’s what we did today, at Tophams Hotel in Belgravia — followed by a walk around one of London’s most expensive areas (the Queen lives there, so it must be).
A luxurious wait
On arriving at Tophams (it was a long walk from the Chelsea Royal Hospital bus stop in heels), we were shown into a plush ‘bar’ (with no actual drinks bar to speak of) filled with big velvet and satin chairs and hefty coffee-table books, including Avedon Fashion 1944-2000 (full of nipples), a heavy book filled with Venice photographs (and enclosed in a box, for some reason) and a Monty Python biography that kept Steve occupied. We immediately grabbed the squidgiest-looking green sofa and waited to be called in. We were waiting there for around 20 minutes (we’d arrived slightly before our booking at midday), presumably for the large family group of eight people who eventually arrived, crying baby in tow. As much as I was surprised anyone would bring a baby to a fancy hotel for afternoon tea, it didn’t matter once we were in the dining room, which was loud enough with chatter to drown out any annoying squeals.
Being the first in, we were given the choice of sitting anywhere we liked. The same could not be said of people who came for later sittings — the small, light room became so tightly packed that it became difficult to escape! Still, far better a buzzing atmosphere than a dead one. We were brought full flutes of some lovely champagne and serviettes folded into fans (well, near enough), over which we chatted for a while until it was time for the tea. Steve had coffee, I had tea (limitless, by the way — I approve!) and the pretty Cath Kidston tiered plate stand held just the right number of delights: 12 crustless finger sandwiches — four brown bread/smoked salmon, four white bread/cucumber and cream cheese, four white bread/ham and cheese — and a few cherry tomatoes on the bottom tier; two slices of a vanilla and cranberry tart, as well as seven tiny assorted petit fours, on the middle tier; and two plain scones with pots of strawberry jam and clotted cream on the top tier.
We began with the sandwiches, Steve picking out the cucumber to make cream cheese sandwiches (he even sliced the tomatoes to insert those in the cucumber’s place — I can’t take him anywhere). They were lovely and soft for the most part (a little dry around some edges) and a good choice of fillings, I thought, for the absence of the disgusting beef and horseradish combo often used in afternoon teas. Somehow, their miniscule proportions made them taste far better than average sandwiches.
Scone to heaven
Up next, the scones were truly scrumptious. The cream was wonderfully thick, but not that disappointing solid yellow mass you sometimes get with scones — this was proper clotted cream, with which even the smallest scraping is luscious (although we piled it on, obviously). The strawberry jam was lick-lippingly juicy and gloopy, the proper stuff. I generally like raisins and especially cherries in my scones, but these were so flavoursome in their plainness that I didn’t miss the fruit (and Steve was certainly glad of their absence — one less healthy thing to pick out). I’ve been served gigantic, floury scones in the past — in contrast, these were perfectly small and fresh-textured.
The vanilla and cranberry slices were a beautiful blend of fruity creaminess, while the petit fours — a variety of choux buns and tiny sponge cakes topped with butter cream — fell perhaps a little short on the taste scale but formed a fun set of sweet nibbles to split and try. Far better these than a stodgy lump of rich fruitcake, which was the equivalent at Browns. Besides, by this point I was getting full and my taste buds a little jaded. I had sufficient sweet things to take me through three cups of tea and lots of nice relaxed chat — we weren’t rushed in the slightest.
Having queued for and used the hotel and restaurants’ ONE ground-floor toilet (in its defence, it was a beautifully decorated one with Molten Brown soap and moisturiser) we left feeling nicely full and happy. We set off towards Buckingham Palace, where, given that we hadn’t been there in around two years, we had to stop and tussle with the real tourists for photos.
After fulfilling Steve’s request to photograph the manically happy lion (see next line above), we walked into Green Park and met some extremely tame squirrels. They must be accustomed to people feeding them, because they came right to us and stood up on their hind legs as if expecting food! We had some fun with them, as well as some piggybacks, then finally walked to the Green Park tube station to make our way home. All I need now is a job reviewing and comparing all the afternoon teas London has to offer, so that I can do this again and again and again.
All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, 2012. All rights reserved.