Sunday, November 23, 2008
My Glaswegian grandmother drank tea by the bucketful. Actually, she drank it by the cupful. But she drank buckets of it. While it never struck me as particularly odd that my mother drank five cups of coffee every morning, my grandmother’s afternoon tea habit seemed bizarrely unnatural. I remember watching her sip cup after cup of the stuff as I sat with eyes wide as the saucer she placed her English Breakfast-filled teacup on, wondering how on earth anyone could drink so much tea.
Then I moved to Britain. In Britain, tea rivals beer as the national drink of choice. The back of a box of PG Tips, a well-loved brand of tea in the UK, informs the drinker that imbibing tea in moderate quantities can be good for the health. Next to the word ‘moderate’ is the parenthetical phrase “(around five cups a day)”. I would hate to know how they define ‘excessive’.
My mother is visiting me in London this week. To celebrate her recent birthday, sate her nearly-insatiable sweet tooth, and honor my grandmother’s memory, today we set out with my boyfriend to experience the British tea obsession firsthand. Our destination: afternoon tea at the Lanesborough hotel. The Lanesborough won the UK Tea Council’s 2008 Best Afternoon Tea in London award and has the first tea sommelier in the country. With those credentials, I figured it was the perfect place to experience the British addiction in style.
I wasn’t mistaken. As soon as we walked into Apsleys, the restaurant in the Lanesborough where tea is served, we knew that we were in for a treat. The newly-refurbished room was set under a glass atrium from which hung two huge circular chandeliers. The white linen tablecloths were flanked by comfortable oversized armchairs, and a live pianist serenaded us while we enjoyed the tea service.
As we sipped Earl Gray Supreme, Huo Mountain Yellow Buds, and Darjeeling, we indulged in a tiered tray of tiny finger sandwiches, small cakes, and miniature pastries. These were followed by blue cheese and onion tartlets and freshly-baked scones with lemon curd, clotted cream, and strawberry jam. It was pretty sweet, both literally and figuratively.
We spent two leisurely hours enjoying our tea and cakes. After our last sip, we became aware of the tremendous spike in our blood sugar levels (is that why they call it “high” tea?), and figured we should end our afternoon tea before our pancreases did so for us. As we floated out of the hotel and back to Hampstead, I started thinking that maybe my grandmother had it right all those years.