Archive for January, 2009

Afternoon Tea: The Great British Pastime

teaLife in Britain revolves around tea. It’s a national stereotype, but one that’s pretty accurate – just as ‘a coke’ for Americans is a widely understood and often used phrase, ‘a tea’ or even a ‘cuppa’ is certainly the British equivalent national drink – also generic. Just as we say ‘a coke’ to mean a cola type soda/pop beverage that we expect almost all homes, offices, sports facilities, etc. to have on ready supply, British people expect to be able to order ‘a tea’ anywhere and receive afternoon/everyday tea (relatively strong brewed black tea) of some brand or another, from the brand Tetley’s on up (or down, depending on your point of view about Tetley’s tea). ‘A tea’ usually implies with milk, with sugar added upon request, but often if you order a tea in public you’ll be asked whether you want it white or black – white, with milk; black, without. Same for coffee too—note to coffee goers who may frequent the ever supply of coffee café chains.

This type of tea drinking which life in England revolves around, however, is a world apart from specialised, ceremonial tea drinking – a set event unto itself known as ‘afternoon tea’ or ‘high tea’. This is the stereotypical elaborate china spread with dainty sandwiches that many tourists come seeking (All Hail the Cucumber Sandwich!), and which many tourist traps across London are happy to offer naff versions of. Hint: if the place you’re passing loudly advertises AFTERNOON TEA, it’s probably going to be overpriced and inauthentic. (Same goes for pubs, actually: a good rule of thumb to avoid crappy, tourist-trap pubs is to avoid any that blatantly advertise TRADITIONAL PUB. This is like a large blinking neon sign saying: only tourists come here, I have been themed to look like the Disney-version of pub you expect and am nothing like the real experience).

That said, a nice afternoon tea is a wonderful experience, and one of my favorite things to do if I have an afternoon free. It’s called afternoon or high tea because it happens, usually, at ‘tea time’ – roughly between 3pm and 5pm. Many places will only serve their ‘afternoon teas’ between these times (another good sign that the place is authentic). There are multiple levels of types of ‘afternoon teas’. Here’s a quick guide:

Tea and scone – the basic. You should get a china cup and saucer and separate individual little pot of tea – often there are several choices of types of tea – with a fresh-baked scone (kind of like a cross between a muffin and an American biscuit and fruit bread – they come in all kinds of flavors and are really yummy). The scone should come with both jam and clotted/Devonshire cream (this is thick, slightly sweet cream – think of cream cheese consistency, but light and sweet). If you get whipped cream with your scone you’re not getting the real deal!

Cream tea – similar to the above, with tea (china, separate individual tea pot) and scone (clotted/Devonshire cream and jam). The cream in the name comes from the clotted cream that comes with the scone. Cream teas sometimes have little variations, such as a small sandwich or some fruit, and will be ordered off a set menu, as opposed to the tea and scone version which you just order a la carte.

Afternoon tea – the main deal, the most common and widespread version. Proper afternoon tea includes china cup and saucer, separate tea pot and individual milk, and usually a tiered tray with bite-sized sandwiches (common ones are cucumber, salmon, and egg salad), several types of scones (with cream and jam of course) and usually a slice of some sort of cake.

Champagne tea
– same as the afternoon tea, but with a glass of champagne as well. I’m not sure what hotel or restaurant first thought of adding champagne to a tea service, but it has proved so popular as a means to charge about 1.5 times more for a regular afternoon tea that it is now widespread as an option. Not to knock it though – who doesn’t want a glass of champagne with, well, anything? See picture of champagne tea! It is as fabulous as it looks.Champagne tea

High tea – can be used as a synonym for afternoon tea, but traditionally it refers to the super-duper version of afternoon tea served a bit later and much more like a meal, with perhaps some meat dishes or a meat and cheese spread. All sorts of versions abound today in the truly fancy places.

That said, here’s the low-down on the best way to do afternoon tea

The Famous:

Afternoon tea at The Ritz: The real deal, dress-up required and everything, this is the big famous one to go to. However, you have to book 12 weeks in advance or more, and it’ll set you back £37 – £58 per person! It’s also pretty likely that during the summer months, you’ll be having afternoon tea only with other tourists.

On a side note I A (speaking here) has done the champagne tea at the Ritz. My friend and I only got in last minute because they had a cancellation and it was in the early spring very late at night and during the week. It is what you expect from the Ritz, fancy in all its glory with a never ending supply of sandwiches. HOWEVER, only go if you really are okay with spending that much on an afternoon tea experience. It was lovely (and probably the best ‘loo’ I have ever seen) but I do prefer the ambiance of the Orangery and the quality of the tea and food can stand up and even beyond most of the higher-end tea services.

loo at the Ritz

Our recommendation:

Afternoon tea at The Orangery of Kensington Palace: A little known gem (well, to tourists anyway), the Orangery is a true delight. The venue is a lovely old brick building with floor to ceiling windows and great views of Kensington Gardens just off the palace – it used to be a greenhouse for storing the Palace’s citrus trees during the winter months. A full (and delicious) afternoon tea here will only set you back £12 – 13, you can stroll around the gardens afterwards (they’re my favorite green space in London) and though you may have to queue for a few minutes during peak times, they serve you quickly, you’ll be surrounded by posh locals taking a bit of refreshment from walking their dogs or children in the park, and best of all you can sit there and chat and enjoy as long as you want to, minus the haughty Ritz factor. Take the tube to Queensway station (Central line), enter the park at Queensway gate (literally one minute from the station) and the Orangery is the small building on your right just before the palace proper. If you reach the giant statue of Queen Victoria, you’ve gone too far. A’s favourite is the cinnamon black tea—a great change from your standard English Breakfast or Earl Grey.

from the orangery website

from the orangery website

Cheers,
C & A

last cucumber sandwich

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Tier 1 Imports

Welcome to Tier 1 London – a blog by two American ex-study abroad students who will only leave this city under the lock and key of a deportation officer (Dear Border Agency: we are currently legal. Haha. Seriously. Don’t take us.)

We started this blog to capture and share what we have come to love about London. When we studied abroad three years ago, we remember the feeling of being overwhelmed by how much there is to do and how much we could never explore. We hope this blog will give guidance on getting the most out of London living while amusing the newly arrived, temporary, and those who can actually claim the term ‘Londoner’. We’re going to include some entries particularly targeted towards American study-abroad students, since that was our experience. Look out for the tags ‘Don’t get voted off the island,’ ‘The Clash’, and ‘Love sights hate tourists’ for those type entries.

First, a bit about ourselves. For the sake of being international women of mystery we’re going to refer to each other as C and A.

I’m C. I grew up in Florida (no, not Orlando or Miami) and apparently got so tired of sunshine and bright colorful clothes that London was an obvious choice. I did my undergrad in north Florida. I studied abroad in London fall of 2005, on a British Literature program while living in a posh Bloomsbury area, but only because my university bought the building for cheap when Russell Square was the centre of the London crack trade in the 1980s before it became littered with million pound flats today. After returning to the U.S., I found I missed London so much that I returned two years later for grad school. I did a master’s degree in Social Policy at the London School of Economics (and political science! I hate economics!) and have managed to hold on for dear life. I’m the National Trust member, museum-lover, and wilderness/hey look at that tree seeker.

I’m A. I also grew up on the East Coast, but a bit north from Florida in a place that could still be considered the South, Northern Virginia (emphasis on the ‘northern’). I did my undergrad in Vermont where I studied political science and the three S’s: skiing, snowboarding, and sailing. I studied abroad in London in the spring of 2006, living in a flat right across from the Natural History museum in South Kensington. I’m sure I’ll never live in such a posh place again. After returning to the states, I immediately applied to a London grad school, spent my senior spring break in London, and was back on British soil by September 2007. I did a master’s degree in public policy at the London School of Economics and then scraped by through a period of extreme post-grad student poverty before securing a job and visa. I’m the official-unofficial photographer, music-lover, and spontaneous day-tripper.

We met in student housing for LSE, in another posh area we’ll never again see the inside of: Covent Garden. We now live in a dodgy flat in Angel, and we’re loving it. Especially since our grocery store, Sainsbury’s, re-opened this week. Man, that was rough.

About the categories we’ll be using for entries:

Brown Sauce? – Food. All sorts. Tea, chips, crisps, cafes, you get the point. And we still don’t know what brown sauce is, but we’re sure you’ll be asked if you want it at some point. We recommend saying no.

Culture vulture – Museums, arts, books, theatre: a small attempt to catalogue the crazy amount of high quality cultural stuff London has going on ALL THE TIME.

Look at that tree! – This is a corruption of one of our favorite Mitch Hedberg quotes, which we’ll use for parks and open spaces type posts. http://www.entertonement.com/clips/46673/That-Tree-is-Far-Away

Get off your ass – Learn from our experience: 2 pm on a Saturday is not a good time to figure what to do that day. These are the do it now or it’ll pass you by type ephemera London is also really good at cranking out.

Celebrity stalking – Because it sucks to read in the London Paper the next day that famous person x was in your backyard last night. Like that time Matt Damon was beneath A’s window and we missed it and then found the video of it on youtube. Crap.

Best of – I think you get it. Our favorites.

How to – Still obvious.

Love sights, hate tourists – Okay, we admit it, we really like the big London sights, but hate the crowds (C: especially tripping over the infestations of small children. A: That’s a little harsh, isn’t it? C: No.) This is How to See the Important Things the Keep Your Sanity Way™.

The Wilderness – There is life out of Zone 1. We were skeptical but continue to be pleasantly surprised.

Don’t get voted off the island
– These posts are survival guides and practical tips. And once upon a time we loved reality TV. Don’t deny it – you watched season 1 Survivor as well.

Awkward Old England – Curios, randomness, quirkiness: the things that surprise us day in and day out. Like British commercials. No offense, but we like them way better than American commercials. That WTF? factor just can’t be beat.

The Clash – American –British cultural moments. Pants is a dangerous word. Especially in the office. Just trust us.

Werewolves of London – The music guide, because we refuse to use London Calling, Waterloo Sunset, etc. etc. Really do check out that Chinese place mentioned in the song though.

Cheap/free – Because we’re really good at being poor here.

Final note: it’s a two-way street. One of the best things about London is stumbling upon cool stuff yourself, whether down a random side street or through purposeful searching, so please share and comment.


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