Afternoon tea is such a civilised past-time isn’t it? It’s also a great excuse to gorge yourself on mountains of sweet delights and slurp a dozen cups of tea in posh surroundings, without anyone around you even batting an eyelid.
From a chef’s point of view, it’s also become an extremely creative affair. Waltz into any reputable hotel these days and you’ll probably find an afternoon tea on the menu (priced on a sliding scale of fairly reasonable to downright extortionate), with many treats and savouries unique to that place.
The bees get busy
I recently visited St Ermin’s Hotel in Westminster with a good friend of mine, for an afternoon of sampling what’s probably one of the most locally sourced afternoon teas in London. You see, the honey for the hotel’s Honey Afternoon Tea comes from just a few storeys up – busily produced by their 200,000 resident Buckfast bees.
Earlier we had attended one of the hotel’s new beekeeping workshops (yes we had to don some protective bee suits and masks – very fetching!) which was just so interesting, and I’ll be revealing what we learned from the very talented beekeeper Camilla Goddard in a forthcoming blog post.
St Ermin’s is a charming hotel, with a fascinating history that involves spies and betrayals, covert war meetings and rumours of a secret tunnel to Westminster. Plus it’s very well located – just a short hop from the Houses of Parliament, the Thames and Buckingham Palace.
The approach to the hotel feels quite grand – through wrought iron gates, up a long tree-lined courtyard, past polite doormen and into the lobby, with its elaborate marble staircase and huge chandeliers.
Tea and treats
Afternoon tea is served in the newly-appointed tea lounge on the first floor (it used to be in the library), which overlooks the mezzanine. It was a bright room with a beautifully decorative ceiling and wall friezes. Most people would appreciate the bright lighting – but I have to confess I always lean towards lower-lit surroundings. Had I spotted the dimmer switch somewhere, I might have surreptitiously turned it down a few levels.
Settling into the comfy velvet tub chairs, our afternoon tea began with a selection of miniature scones, served with mini jars of clotted cream and lemon curd.
There were 13 world teas to choose from, including Chinese Lapsang Sounchong, Japanese Green Sencha and South African Rooibos Orange. We were so dazzled by the selection, that my tea companion and I retreated to the safety of St Ermin’s own blend. It was served in a classically decorated china teapot and pretty pink tea cups.
Some honey-themed delights arrived next, this time displayed in a modern, geometric dark wood tower. Each compartment housed an intriguing item – some of them honey-sweet, some intensely savoury.
On the sweet side, the bright yellow chocolate and bee pollen macaron was especially beautiful, while the mango bavaroise was silky smooth and refreshing. On the savoury side, the stand-out morsel was the rich duck liver on honey fig bread (more of that next time please!), closely followed by the cool honey goat’s curd and the mini lobster tart.
My one recommendation to chef would be for some more regular closed sandwiches (there was only cucumber and mint, which was lovely but a tad small) to balance out the fancier offerings. I do think one of the joys of afternoon tea is seeing to what heights the chef can raise the humble sarnie. They’re so clever like that!
In spite of its grand surroundings, we found afternoon tea at St Ermin’s to be a relaxed affair, with attentive but not overly fussy tea service from waiting staff. On this occasion, we didn’t linger for a honey-themed cocktail, but they sounded very appealing, with names like Ginger Hunny (Honey, St Germain, apple juice, rum, soda, ginger liqueur) and G&T for my Honey (Gin, crème de cassis, lime, honey, tonic).
It was lovely to know we were sampling honey that was as pure and locally sourced as could be. Honey bees always fly within a three-mile radius of their hive, meaning St Ermin’s honey is probably partly sourced from the Queen’s back garden.
The honey tea will be replaced by a new Winter Wonderland-themed tea for the winter months, and there’s a Classic tea offered all year round. The hotel has also created InfiniTea, for your budding little superheroes, served on a batman-shaped stand with Superman brownies and Kryptonite strips and an optional kid’s cocktail. This tea runs all summer long and during the school holidays.
As for St Ermin’s history: well, Winston Churchill and his cabinet held meetings and planned war missions from the hotel, British spy Guy Burgess is said to have passed secret papers to the Russian KGB in the hotel bar, and the British Secret Service is said to have used it as a base in the past. Lots of stories abound about the secret tunnel (in fact, a network of secret tunnels in that area), although there are rumours that it was bricked up after 9/11. Not surprisingly there are no confirmations from officialdom about that.
I’m sure a lot of these stories have been augmented in the press over the years, making some of them as embellished as the St Ermin’s central staircase!. All in all, though, St Ermin’s is a wonderful hotel to visit, and you really can’t beat a bit of intrigue and the odd spy story with your afternoon tea!
A version of this Life and Chai article was recently published on The High Tea Society website, which is a great resource for afternoon tea reviews from all over the world.
Life and Chai was a guest of St Ermin’s Hotel
St Ermin’s Hotel, Caxton Street, London SW1H 0QW
Prices: Honey afternoon tea (every Sept-Oct) is £29 pp, honey cocktails £8.50. Classic afternoon tea (all year round) is £29 pp, or £39 with a glass of Champagne. Children’s afternoon tea £12, superhero cocktails £3 (summer and school holidays). Afternoon tea is served daily between 1pm and 5pm.
Bookings: Tel +44 (0)207 227 7777 or email email@example.com