I was asked to pen a review of Afternoon Tea for Paramount in London - here it is.
Tea…is a religion of the art of life.
In his long essay ‘The Book of Tea’ in 1906, Okakura Kakuzō wrote in detail about how the tea ceremony can be practised to foster and promote harmony, discipline the mind, quiet the heart, and attain the purity of enlightenment. Teasim he called it. Well, we are not in Japan, and Paramount’s latest offering may not achieve all of the above, but it most certainly makes joyous steps in that direction.
Before I begin, a little history. In spite of its origins in the Orient, there can be few things more pleasing, or considered more quintessentially English, than the pastime of drinking tea. It was first made fashionable in this country during the 17th Century by Catharine of Braganza, Queen and Consort to Charles II, who was actually Portuguese. By the 18th Century tea gardens had became popular throughout society, whereupon ladies and gentlemen would take their tea together outdoors (weather permitting) surrounded by entertainers and arranging all manner of assignations.
But ‘Afternoon Tea’ as we know it today is generally considered to have come into being in the mid 1840’s by the hand (or stomach perhaps) of one Anna Maria Stanhope, the 7th Duchess of Bedford; clearly a Dame of the Empire with an appetite.
With an early light lunch then nothing until dinner at 8.00pm (to this day still the most popular time requested by those dining out) the Duchess complained of a “sinking feeling” by late afternoon. And so she began the indulged small feast of tarts, cakes, scones, and of course, pots of tea. Understandably this seemed a simply splendid idea, the Duchess acclaimed for her forward-thinking, and so the custom swiftly caught on. Now in the 21st Century, whilst perhaps not a daily affair, it has nonetheless become the perfect genteel luxury to indulge in with delight, all cares and woes thrown to the wind.
At last then it has arrived here, at the very pinnacle of the capital, to be supped and savoured at leisure against the backdrop of that unparalleled panorama. To be enjoyed with or without a glass of champagne (for me such an occasion rightly deserves the salute of bubbles), Paramount presents this wonder in all its glory. We chinked our glasses and saluted the day.
Your chosen brew is conjured before you into clear pots (which only added to the delight of my companion’s selection as we watched the Flowering Osmanthus unfurl its sweet blossoms). Myself, I’ve always felt the comfort in the smokiness of Lapsang, as if I’m retiring in my study, and this was poured for us into the crystal cups (with no handle, in a twist on the traditional Chinese style, a modern vacuum design making it cool to the touch), with the advised note of not allowing it to steep for too long else the taste become overbearing with liquorice intensity.
Then to the bites, a feast most certainly! Beautifully laid out for our eyes to dance upon were all manner of treats, graciously laid so temptingly vibrant in contrast to the tiered tray of ebony slate. Open savouries such as generous Smoked Salmon & Fromage Blanc on Rye Pumpernickel, and Egg elevated with Mustard Mayonnaise upon Toasted Brioche, to name but two, no needing of playful fight over in their plenty, and punctuated with a quiche that practically melted upon command. I would have been quite sated here, but… okay, we were most satisfied certainly, but the sweeter half of what was ours would be the proof of those appetites truly sated.
A ballet of sweet and bitter chocolate, Crème de Violet Macarons, as fine no doubt as those made for Catherine de’Medici by her Italian pastry chefs in the 1530′s, tangs of fruit softened with silken soufflé… they seemed unending, yet just, JUST, allowed room for warm bite-size scones with the perfect jam and obligatory decadent cream.
We sat back, marvelling at what we had eaten and with the ever-changing skyscape that cannot be beaten our constant companion, wondering for a moment if perhaps the cranes over the Crossrail site would have to be called into action to send us on our way.
Paramount had done themselves, and the 7th Duchess of Bedford, most proud; to the point we both skipped dinner at 8.
So to paraphrase one T’ien Yiheng when he spoke of tea, climb to the peak, sup for a few hours and just “forget the din of the world.”