A tiny bit of me wonders why afternoon tea is considered so cool. Despite the fact that London is caught up in patisserie frenzy – artisan bakeries all over the place, cupcakes the new Prozac, macaroons sacrosanct as diamonds – there’s something depressingly old-fashioned about the image that afternoon tea conjures up: tablecloths and chintz, china teapots, piddly little sandwiches, pastel-coloured sponge and sickly marzipan. Some of London’s tea-rooms are a hundred years old or more, salons where Victorian ladies whiled away afternoons with cross-stitch and idle tittle-tattle. Their fad for ‘low tea’ was a fresh and exciting culinary experience back then. But compared with today’s exhilarating foodie scene – liquid nitrogen, Mexican market food, hefty slabs of meat with a view of St Paul’s, red-velvet whoopie pies the size of your head – the classic afternoon tea should seem faded, demure and terribly clichéd. Yet, here we are in 2010 and most of London’s iconic tea-rooms have three-month waiting lists. Afternoon tea still oozes cool. (And yes, I’m shaking my head in wonder, but also I’m jumping up and down with glee.)
So why, in a recession, are so many of us queuing up to blow £40 on tea and cake, when we could get a steaming mug of Tetley and a Mr Kipling for a matter of pence? Equipped with two girlfriends, I went to find out.
We booked our tea at short notice, so our venue choice was limited, but luckily the Landmark has a generous capacity and my friend Natalie talked us in with persuasive tactics – something about travelling down especially from the dreary North. (Perhaps they don’t have tea and cakes up there.) Rather than order the classic line-up, we indulged in the Chocolate Afternoon Tea with a glass of champers. What arrived was a chocaholic’s dream. To begin with, they tease you, slowing down progress towards the main event by forcing you to deliberate over an enormous selection of teas. Black, white, green, floral, oriental, blended; it’s a nail-biting moment. Laura, a hesitant tea-drinker, timidly chose Smooth Caramel, expecting it to have a hot-chocolate vibe. Natalie – southerner-turned-northerner – stuck staunchly to English Breakfast, while I sacrificed milk (a futile subconscious attempt to limit the calorific horror about to take place?) and went for White Peony. Bulbous teapots arrived with a plate of sandwiches – tiny, sans crusts – designed to ease you in gently. Chicken and tarragon, egg and cress, Scottish smoked salmon, cucumber. Delicate and diminutive, but don’t be fooled; show the slightest hint that you want more and the plate gets refilled.
Next arrived two modern brown stands, very different in style to the classic cake stand we were expecting, like square tree trunks with squat horizontal branches poking out at intervals. On each squat branch sat a chocolatey, cakey delight. We squealed, in the way only girls can do when faced with a cake extravaganza. Into our cake-holes were plunged Chocolate and orange Madeleine, White chocolate and mint macaroons, Chocolate-dipped strawberries, spoonfuls of Chocolate and raspberry crème brûlee, Baked white chocolate cheesecake, Marbled cupcakes, Milk chocolate and banana pot au chocolat, Dark chocolate and mango dream, Gateaux opera, Chocolate brownie, Vanilla and chocolate choux. Suffice to say, we didn’t quite manage everything. Especially since that wasn’t the end of the goodies. Oh no, what an absolute disaster it is when you can only stomach one warm lemon-peel and chocolate-chip scone. And are thus forced to choose between topping it with traditional jam and clotted cream, or the (obvious) alternative of Nutella. What terrible planning on our part.
We then spent the best part of an hour digesting. It’s entirely necessary. The weight of our stomachs was such that we couldn’t physically move. But the Landmark’s Winter Garden is the perfect space in which to recover, a light and airy indoor atrium soaring eight stories to a glass panelled roof. The hotel rooms look out onto this courtyard, where majestic palm trees tower from plant pots the size of beds. Grand and beautiful. Standing opposite Marylebone station, the hotel was built as a luxurious terminus for passengers of the Great Central Railway. I’m excited to discover that the dining area, now filled with linen, porcelain and well-mannered guests, was turned into a raucous dancefloor during the Roaring Twenties.
So was the answer to my question lingering in that atrium, or perching on that cake-stand? Did The Landmark overthrow the stuffy image I’ve been harbouring towards the afternoon tea? To some extent, yes. There was no chintz, no marzipan, no cross-stitch. £40 bought you endless provisions, plus a touch of indigestion. There’s absolutely nothing demure about stuffing your face with profiteroles. So it’s steep, but it’s generous, and, most of all, it’s delicious and fun. A cliché it may be, but this is one Victorian tradition that doesn’t really need reinventing, as as long as we British continue to love a bit of cake.