It is, after all, only afternoon tea. A light repast of crust-less finger sarnies and gooey cakes, timed for an appropriate interval between lunch and dinner. So why the sartorial panic? Why am I rummaging through my wardrobe looking for the perfect afternoon tea ensemble?
Because I have been scarred. Scarred by the experience of taking afternoon tea in Brown's Hotel in London's Mayfair, back in the late 1980s – and the humiliation lingers. There were four of us, two couples, coming from different parts of the home counties to meet in central London for a treat. My husband, one of the four, was dressed in what now bears the slightly derogatory label of 'smart casual' – a nice pair of trousers, a shirt and a tasteful jumper. He was not sporting a Gyles Brandreth 'humorous' knitwear colour clash, nor was it one of Val Doonican's similarly wacky woollens. Just a nice, harmless, grey jumper.
We four strode confidently into Brown's for afternoon tea. Only to be stopped on the threshold. He – we were informed, as the staff member cast an uber-critical eye over my husband – is not dressed appropriately for afternoon tea. The dress code, apparently, was jacket and tie for gentlemen. On a Sunday afternoon? For tea? Bonkers. But it was either conform or go hungry.
Peter, one of the other couple, was a sales rep and happened to have a selection of clothing in his car. So far, so good. But, although my husband is 6' tall, Peter was a good 6'5" and broad-built. The shoulders of his Charles Atlas-sized Prince of Wales check jacket meant that, wearing it, Alan looked like the six-stone weakling about to get sand kicked in his face (like the Val Doonican allusion, you have to be of a certain age to get this reference). The sleeves came way past his fingers. Alan looked like a boy trying on his dad's clothes. The outfit was ridiculous. He was mortified. But, hey, it conformed to their outmoded clothing code, so we were let in, with Alan spending the entire afternoon pushing up his sleeves so he could reach the sandwiches without getting his cuffs in his cuppa.
But afternoon tea at top-notch Perthshire hotel Gleneagles demanded no such sartorial standards. I finally decided on a smart jacket and trousers, but I don't think they'd have batted an eye if I'd turned up in a hoodie. Afternoon tea is served not in a lounge, as I expected, but in the Bar (the capital letter is clearly significant). I had tried to book for 3pm but was told to be there at 2. So, come 3, I was expecting, at the very least, a coach party to turn up to claim all but the three tables then occupied by customers. There was no coach party. In fact not a single extra person turned up at 3, so I have no idea why we had to eat so early…perhaps the staff wanted to get home.
The Bar is a dark-wood-and-dim-lights paean to art deco and has been offering afternoon tea since 1924. There are lots of small tables, with two or three club chairs snuggled around each of them. It is a very attractive room. But it didn't hit the right 'afternoon tea in winter' note for me. I wanted chintz and slouchy sofas and a roaring fire. I wanted a cocoon of comfort, not to be stuck in a slightly draughty corner, looking onto a dreich driveway where a posse of 20 or so ruddy-cheeked chaps were returning from a clay pigeon shoot, all macho and jocular. (I had naively assumed that the concept of corporate team building exercises had died out in the late 1990s – probably about the same time as the use of the word 'macho').
But if the ambience was a tad lacking, the menu more than made up for it. It begins with a quote by Bernard-Paul Heroux (I Googled him – a 19th-century Basque philosopher, apparently): 'There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be diminished by a nice cup of tea.' The hotel has omitted the original quote's 'much' before diminished, which is, I feel, a proper qualification, but no matter. I can't find any other quotes attributed to M Heroux so can only assume he was too preoccupied with tea drinking to have further profound thoughts. And teas there are many: black tea (five varieties), white tea, green tea, puerh, oolong, flowering, imperial and rare collection and tisanes – a selection of 18 in all, most of which I had never heard of. Playing very safe, we ordered Earl Grey.
Then to choose the feast. The Gleneagles Cream Tea, at £18.50, offering 'warm scones and French pastries' seemed rather tame, while the Champagne tea, at £45, was a non-starter in our new 'don't even have a sniff of booze if you're thinking about driving in the next three weeks' Scotland. The Classic, however, hit all the right notes. At £30 a pop just reading what was on offer was mouth-watering. The finger sandwiches (no crusts, natch) included chicken with banana chutney, roast beef with roquette pesto and Hebridean crab with red chard. There were delicate mini sausage rolls, smoked salmon blinis, a miniscule Cheddar and leek quiche, choux buns bursting with goat’s cheese.
When it arrived, three tiers of goodies on pristine white bone china, it did not disappoint. There were two of everything – any arguments neatly avoided – and we were told that, when we had finished the sandwiches and savouries, before we moved on to the bottom tier of 'fancies' (and we fancied every single one of them), we would be served warm scones. But you don’t have to finish everything, of course, said our charming waitress. There’s no question that we won’t, we responded, in unison.
The miniature scones were moist and warm – cinnamon, sultana and plain, accompanied by raspberry jam, clotted cream and lemon curd. And, all the while, our tea cups were constantly replenished. M Heroux was right – our great and grave concerns, such as they were, were diminished with each sip.
We have Anna Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedfordshire, to thank for the custom of afternoon tea. Anna, a lifelong friend of Queen Victoria, was visiting the 5th Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle in the mid-1840s when, unable any longer to bear the long hours between an insubstantial luncheon and a late dinner, she suggested that a light meal of tea, cakes and sandwiches be inserted into the day. She quickly found that taking an afternoon snack was such a perfect refreshment she began inviting friends to join her – and the practice was soon established in middle and upper class households.
Having easily cleared two tiers of the stand, plus scones, we eyed the cakes. All tiny, each containing a squillion calories, every one exquisite, none owing homage to Mr Kipling: delicate chocolate confections dotted with pistachio, oozy custard tarts with a passion fruit glaze, a shot glass filled with a sharp rhubarb and ginger trifle, a chocolate éclair, decorated with edible gold flakes, a creamy mille-feuille. We demolished them resolutely. But our pace was slowing.
After almost two hours of nibbling and sipping, oohing and aahing, we were replete – each delectable short-crust pastry crumb was becoming more of an effort to swallow. So, with half a dozen cakes left to go, we called a reluctant halt. Just a temporary one, however. The remaining cakes were whisked away, divided between two 'doggy bags' and returned. There were still several hours of evening ahead, and we pledged fully to honour the gastronomic memory of the pioneering duchess.
This article was first published in SR in 2015