- Food & Drink
At 5pm on Saturday I was short a lot of Christmas presents and most of the food for our house’s Christmas party. But instead of weeping in the street, trying to garrote myself with tinsel, I went to Brown’s Hotel, sat in a winged armchair by a roaring gas fire and had afternoon tea with Leonard.
Weeks ago, we’d decided that, by the 19th December, we’d be a mess. The only way to cram sanity back into our lives would be afternoon tea. And we were right. Not only had I’d lost my grip on reality and spent time considering the gifting possibilities of novelty bottle openers and lip balms, I’d also developed a stinking cold. The centre of my face had been replaced by a mass of quivering snot and the combination of mucus, Day Nurse and panic had cast me adrift. I needed a scone lifebelt and I needed it fast.
We’d picked Brown’s because it was the 2009 winner of the Tea Guild’s Top London Tea Place Award. It was also the inspiration for the hotel in Agatha Christie’s At Bertram’s Hotel (which I love) and, importantly, it wasn’t offering a choir singing carols as part of its festive tea.
We ordered the Champagne Afternoon Tea (£45) and immediately felt better with a glass of Tattinger in our hands. I ordered a pot of lemon verbena tea, on the grounds that anything with lemon in its name has to be good for a cold, and Leonard ordered a pot of Earl Grey. We managed two pots of tea each over two hours, and about 100 trips to the loo.
Some places might mess with afternoon tea and offer pastry puns and amusing sandwich fillings, but not at Brown’s. They take tea seriously and a staid 3-tier stand with finger sandwiches, scones and fancy pastries was brought to our table.
The sandwiches were good. Ham, cheese and piccalilli, smoked salmon and cream cheese, turkey and cranberry, cucumber and cream cheese and egg mayonnaise. Sandwiches are my favourite bit of afternoon tea and it’s impossible to cock them up. We had a second round on value for money grounds (definitely not because I’m greedy).
The mini scones came in plain and cranberry and orange flavours. I managed to eat both the plain ones and Leonard had her scones ruined by dried cranberries. They added an astringency that scones really don’t need. On the upside, we were given a vat of cream and a bucket of jam. I’ve been to teas where you’re expected to eke out a tablespoonful of cream between 4. Afternoon tea has no room for parsimony and we were lavish with our preserves.
There were also mini mince pies. Because I’d gorged on sandwiches, I couldn’t manage mine. The combination of a lot of liquid and a lot of wheat was beginning to tell. When the waiter asked if we’d like more scones, we had to say no.
Instead, we moved on to the entirely unnecessary third tier of fancy pastries and cakes. There was a lovely moist lemon cake with bright green frosting masquerading as a Christmas tree; the ubiquitous, crunchy-chewy chocolate macaroon; a pastry cup with chocolate mousse sat in it; a retro, orange-syrup soaked sponge flan; and a weird mulled wine crumble.
The fancy pastry bit of afternoon tea is the worst bit. It’s when you realise, too late, that afternoon tea is a marathon, not a sprint, and regret all the sandwiches and scones. I nibbled all of the pastries and none of them made me want to risk rupturing my stomach to eat the whole thing.
As it’s Christmas, there was a bonus course of Christmas cake or Yule log. I ate a forkful of Christmas cake. It was a standard dark fruit and brandy cake bomb that had been covered with not enough marzipan but, pleasingly, with crunchy royal icing. Leonard had the Yule log, which was laced with a lot of brandy.
In terms of food, Brown’s wasn’t the best afternoon tea I’ve eaten this year. Everything was nice but nothing made me want to fight Leonard for the final spoonful or bite. But, in terms of service, atmosphere and being an escape from the Merry Hell of Christmas, it was perfect.