My list of “Things I Absolutely Have to Do in London” is not very long, but one of them is to have a proper afternoon tea, preferably somewhere really posh. It being my birthday, it seemed the perfect time to check this one off the list. After a little research, my friend Francesca and I decided to try The Wolseley on Piccadilly Street in the West End (can you get any posher?). As soon as we walked through the heavy glass doors, I knew we’d chosen well; we found ourselves in a gorgeous, cavernous Art Deco salon (once an automobile showroom) with soaring ceilings, gleaming black and gold geometric planes, and glittering mirrors. As I looked around, I half expected to see Jay Gatsby and Daisy whispering to each other over one of the black marble tables.
We shared the full Afternoon Tea (£22.50. A simpler option is the traditional “Cream Tea,” which includes tea, scones, clotted cream, and jam for £9.75), with Francesca choosing English breakfast while I opted for jasmine green tea. We each received a generously-sized antique pot with a well-worn wooden handle and a printed tea label. Charming!
Along with the tea pots, we each received a strange silver contraption with a swinging wire basket that was apparently intended for filtering the tea in some manner; we couldn’t figure out exactly which manner. I was about to just drop the thing into my giant tea cup when I spotted the nattily dressed British men at the next table using theirs correctly: Lift by the handle; turn your wrist 90 degrees so that the cup-shaped stand swings to the side; pour tea through the filter basket to catch the loose leaves; flick wrist again so that the cup swivels back into place (neatly catching any drips) and can be used to hold the strainer upright on the table. Got it. (This brilliant apparatus is available for purchase for the trifling sum of £63.00 — http://www.thewolseley.com/tea-strainer.)
Shortly after, our three-tiered tea tower was placed on our table with a flourish. The dapper, freakishly tall waiter carefully explained each of the five finger sandwiches and the three tea cakes in an unidentified foreign accent so thick he might as well have been speaking another language. We managed to identify the sandwiches by color and taste: 1) smoked salmon and butter, 2) cucumber and butter, 3) celery and roasted toe-mah-toe, 4) cold chicken salad with tarragon, and 5) egg and cress. On the second level were the little cakes: a slice of mini Battenberg, a tiny round Victoria sponge, and a beautiful doll-sized raspberry tart. On the top level, nestled under a heavy, elaborate silver dome topped with a tiny pine cone-shaped knob, were two small currant scones.
I went for the scones first since they were still warm from the oven. They were, in a word, heavenly. Tender, moist, light, and buttery on the inside — crisp and browned on the outside. I slathered mine thickly with clotted cream and homemade strawberry jam (both also handily labeled for the uninitiated). The clotted cream was fantastic — it didn’t have the unpleasant sticky consistency of others I’ve tried — instead it was light (If that word can be used to describe a substance that clogs your arteries with a single glance…that’s why it’s called “clotted” cream, right?), smooth, and fluffy. The jam was lovely, too: neither too sweet nor syrupy.
We attacked the sandwiches next. I enjoyed the chicken salad the most — the cool chicken was tender and shredded into generously sized chunks. The other sandwiches were perfectly acceptable, but nothing to write on the Internet about.
And finally: the tea cakes. Battenberg cake is a favorite of mine, so I tried that first. The checked pieces of sponge cake, though alarmingly artificial in color, were moist and pillowy, held together with a thin layer of apricot jam and wrapped in a sheet of dense marzipan that had the same satisfying, firm, fine-grit texture as a bite of Play-Doh. Not that I’ve ever eaten Play-Doh. Next? Victoria sponge. Another favorite! Or should I say, favourite. Although it’s called sponge, this cake does not have the same light, airy texture as a North American sponge cake. It’s sweeter, moister, and denser, a bit closer to what we know as pound cake. The whipped cream that billowed out from between the wee cake layers as we bit into them was absolutely perfect: again, extremely rich cream that somehow tasted ethereal. And all balanced out by a dollop of the homemade strawberry jam. We saved the raspberry tart for last and it turned out to be a wise decision, since it was the best of all — a crisp, buttery tart shell filled with a spoonful of smooth, creamy custard piled high with huge fresh raspberries, velvety-matte under a coating of tiny silvery hairs and bursting with bright red sweet-tartness. “Sono contentissima!” (I’m so happy!) Francesca murmured, and I concurred.
It might all sound too girly for words, but I noticed that the muscular British men seated to our left ordered the exact same thing (wearing pink shirts, no less) and it didn’t seem to threaten their masculinity in the slightest.
We ended with a visit to the ladies’ room, suspecting that it would be as elegant as all the rest, and we were not disappointed: more vast expanses of black marble and mirrors, accented with glimmering gold.
Forget breakfast at Tiffany’s. Tea at the Wolseley is a sure-fire cure for the mean reds, any day.