Anyone for Afternoon Tea?
An afternoon tea is great British tradition and there are dozens of fine hotels in London that serve this uniquely British meal, complete with polished silver teapots, cucumber sandwiches, scones, cream and tiers of handmade pastries and cakes. On our post Jubilympics tour of London we experienced this ritual in the kitchen and the lounge of two Red Carnation Hotels. And while everything was calm and refined front of house, we discovered a lot of hard graft and pastry craft behind the scenes.
A morning in The Rubens’ Pastry Kitchen..
Our boys are dressing up. I don’t think I’ve seen Matthew in a costume outside of Halloween since the moment it dawned on him that he wasn’t actually Buzz Lightyear. But he’s happily putting on the whites. He even presses a button on his lapel that lights up a knife and fork. It’s like Big Cook, Little Cook in Vegas. But it’s not just the bling that’s ramping up the excitement. The costume comes with a job description; the kids are going to be pastry chefs. And we are excited because this family, more than any other family, loves cake.
As we troop through the kitchens of The Rubens At The Palace, it’s a rare chance for us all to see behind the scenes of a London hotel and realise the constraints on space that exist with a historic building. In a room not much bigger than my kitchen, Daniel, the Head Chef, cheerfully explains he’ll be prepping dinner for 50-250 people. I wonder where they will even find the space to do their washing up. We swing through more doors, to an even tinier space where they make the cakes, pastries and afternoon tea that this hotel is well known for.
Ready, aim, fire the icing bag
“This is your own cupcake so you can do what you want,” explains Sophie the pastry chef, presenting the children with six cakes and a tray of toppings they can choose from. Big mistake. I am hoping she has a mop and bucket nearby as sprinkles and flumps immediately fly.
“It is a bit hard to pipe,” says her colleague Francesco, not once wincing as Hannah covers his work station in blobs of pink icing. The chefs oversee children as young as two doing this roughly once a week, so I guess they’ve seen worse. Half an hour later, with plenty of mess but no fuss, six cakes are nestling into a box and the kitchen surface is a pink and white Armageddon.
Time to taste test
That was the kids’ treat. Now it’s time for us to enjoy ours. We sit in the military styled Palace Lounge and Cavalry Bar sipping coffee and munching on icing coated in raspberries, chocolate chips, marshmallows, and assorted sprinkles and sweets. We find out that many of the cakes in the Red Carnation chain are personal recipes of the owner Bea Tollman. I don’t think any of them resemble the one I’m eating?
An afternoon in The Milestone’s Park Lounge
A few short hours later and we are wondering whether to dress up again. This time we’re not behind the scenes, but installed in the best seats in the house, in the Park Lounge of the plush Milestone Hotel in Kensington. It’s 5pm and time for our afternoon tea in London. And after a busy afternoon touring Kensington Palace, just across the road, we’re all feeling hungry.
I have a Princess dress in my handbag and I’m unsure whether to take it out. In case you’re wondering, I don’t always carry one. It’s my daughters bridesmaid dress, brought down to London for the Milestone’s Little Prince and Princess afternoon tea. But it strikes me that the dress would look a bit gypsy wedding here, in this elegant wood panelled room. So I leave it in the bag as the tea arrives.
I never thought I’d have tea with Noel Coward
And what a tea. Well, after the glass of chilled champagne served in front of the open fire. But there’s no space on the table for me to put my glass down now. It’s all silver platters of sandwiches, tea, hot chocolate, and a tiered cake stand decorated with fine pastries, chocolate and choux. And as if that’s not enough, it’s followed by another course, of warm scones with cream, butter and jam. And in the Park Lounge of this very English hotel, a very English gentleman looks down on us from the portrait hanging above the fireplace. Noel Coward wrote a line in his song ‘You’re the tops’ after attending a wedding here. And, as well as his portrait, his musical legacy lives on today with a live pianist, who sings and plays while we try to figure out if it’s humanly possible to demonstrate good manners and eat everything we have been served.
We like cake. Did I mention that already? And we like this tea. The experience is as inclusive of the kids as it is the adults. They get their own menu; and their own platter of sandwiches and cakes. We snuggle down together with Noel Coward on the comfy sofas, in front of the fire. By the time the scones arrive I’m already full and ready for a sleep, but it would be a shame not to try one. Hannah asks if its better than the cupcake she made me.
“Of course it isn’t,” I tell her, reaching for another.
Disclosure Note: Thanks to the Red Carnation Group for inviting us into the kitchens at The Rubens Hotel and letting us sample afternoon tea in The Milestone, Kensington. The experience and all views and opinions expressed here are entirely our own.