My Complex (and Undying) Love for British Afternoon Tea

April 19, 2017

As someone who tends to see a symbolism and allegory in most things (I'd call myself a neurotic over-thinker), British afternoon tea is a playground for my mind. Take the order of the tiered plates, for example: crustless cucumber or watercress sandwiches on the bottom, scones with clotted cream and jam in the middle, topped off with colorful, finely decorated pastries. The order of plates from bottom to top goes from least labor-intensive to the most, savory to sweet, modest and nutritious to show-offy. And, well, you don't need a chocolate eclair, but who wouldn't want one?

I appreciate how the itty-bitty portions get you full but not opposed to the prospect of dinner. They make it easier for you to talk to your company, too—you know, since you physically spend less time chewing food. There are single-estate teas, fine dishes with saucers—afternoon tea is all about the small details. Nobody understands this better than the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon on the fourth floor of the Fortnum & Mason department store in Piccadilly.

Photo by Fortnum & Mason

Fortnum & Mason was established in 1707 by a royal footman to Queen Anne, William Fortnum, and the man whose house he rented a room in, Hugh Mason. The naturally entrepreneurial Fortnum got the start-up money for his tea business from his lucrative side hustle in the candle industry, where he hawked leftover wax from the royal household, whose members insisted on fresh candles to be lit every evening. He had a firm grasp on what rich people liked; he also had a cousin who worked for the East India Company.

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As Britain's appetite for tea grew more voracious, a taste for the beverage crossed economic class lines. Fortnum & Mason distinguished themselves as the tea house for the moneyed, as these were the people who could afford to care about quality. That commitment to quality is still alive, as evidenced by their extremely precise scale for grading tea, which almost reads like satire. (One grade is referred to as SFTGFOP—Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe.) Another tradition they've kept alive is their elaborate picnic hampers, which sell for up to $1254 at their online shop. (When Charles Dickens saw these at the 1851 Epsom Derby, he said: "I see Fortnum & Mason. All the hampers fly wide open and the green downs burst into a blossom of lobster salad!"

Left: Picture from Fortnum & Mason's Tea Commentary, 5th issue (1924), where a British officer whacks an Indian servant because he wants tea. Right: a screenshot from Fortnum & Mason's current menu.

Born and raised in India, I was reared on a far more rustic version of afternoon tea than the kind you'd find at Fortnum & Mason. There was usually only one option for tea, chai, topped with lily pads of milk fat, in which we dipped dry biscuits and even dryer bread, rusk. My dad used to pour tea into his saucer and drink from it—a habit, weirdly enough, that fell out of fashion amongst British nobility in the 1770s, and can no longer be considered fashionable anywhere on Earth. Sometimes we ate biscuits that came in tins rather than plastic packaging, like Walker’s or Royal Dansk, stuff my Dad bought Duty Free or were given to us as holiday gifts.

I thought these particular teatimes were the best thing ever until I went to Fortnum & Mason's Diamond Jubilee Salon (I think I was 12 years old), where I ordered an individual teapot of Darjeeling tea and ate out of gold-rimmed plates with frilly circumferences. The clotted cream was unlike anything I've ever tasted, somewhere between butter and ice cream. The jam was just as good as the clotted cream, especially the raspberry, with lots of crunch from the seeds and a nudge of tartness. The best part of Fortnum & Mason being a department store is that you can hop down the elevator and buy all kinds of jams, curds, and teas to take home.

The history of tea is not as quaint and charming as my 5x7-inch, eau de Nil–colored 'Tea at Fortnum and Mason' cookbook paints it.

Consider the irony, though, of a person from India buying Darjeeling tea in London and bringing it back to India, pockets significantly less full. To many non-Indians, and many even Indians too, Darjeeling conjures the taste of a luxury commodity, not an actual place. I can't help feel a little guilty for my adoration of Fortnum & Mason. They were made successful by the East India Trading Company, which writer and historian William Dalrymple describes as "history’s most terrifying warning about the potential for the abuse of corporate power—and the insidious means by which the interests of shareholders become those of the state." Dalrymple compares it to Walmart, but worse; at least Walmart does not have armed forces at its disposal.

It's no shock that the word "loot," which is defined as "goods, especially private property, taken from an enemy at war," was one of the first few Hindi words to enter the English language. Journalist Sarah Rose argues that the British looted tea from China and planted it in India in one of the world's first instances of a corporate intellectual property dispute. The history of tea is not as quaint and charming as my tiny, 5x7 inch, eau de Nil–colored Tea at Fortnum and Mason cookbook paints it. (To its credit, it does include a blurb on the Opium Wars... but not how that opium was deployed.)

Photo by Kirthana | Theblurrylime

I'm not arguing that British goods need to be boycotted because history happened; that's absurd. But I am saying that it had become impossible for me, as an Indian woman, to blindly love afternoon tea—the proper way—as I did when I was younger. I have come to realize that the reason I didn't care too much for my Indian afternoon teas, even when they went beyond tin-boxed business to include samosas and bhel puri and brilliantly-colored falooda, was because I had spent so many years ingesting Eurocentric superiority without questioning why it's sheen appealed to me so much. I didn't just love those Walker's or Royal Dank biscuits for their taste; I was drawn to the imagery on their tins, the plaid ribbon surrounding an oval portrait of a soldier kneeling to kiss a woman's hand (even Indian media never portrayed Indian men as that polite), or the idyllic winter landscape. Refinement, even in food packaging, seemed inherently white. As a teenager, I thought myself smarter and cooler to a lot of my Indian friends because I listened to Arctic Monkeys while they listened to Bollywood hits. I wanted to enjoy afternoon tea the way nobility from the 1700s would: guilt-free, unawares of the daily cruelties happening thousands of miles away so I could enjoy my afternoon tea.

I can't just ignore all of this and enjoy my Fortnum & Mason raspberry preserves in peace, though I'd love to. I don't have that privilege because it hits too close to home, so those uncomfortable thoughts, personal and political, happen naturally. Though I can still enjoy my Fortnum & Mason raspberry preserves—and I do—I like to use those moments where I prepare their looseleaf tea or spread their jam on my toast as an opportunity to reflect on the lasting effects of colonialism, or how corporations and the state continue to have way-too-cozy relations, both in India and my adopted home of the United States. It doesn't spoil the experience.

The best thing I ever baked came out of the Tea at Fortnum and Mason cookbook, and it was literally the queen of all British cakes: the Victoria Sponge, except instead of using my beloved F&M raspberry preserves as a filling, I used their recipe for lime-passion fruit curd. It took me a few hours to make, and I had to buy an ingredient I would barely use again—self-rising flour—and a piece of equipment—a food processor—that I would use over and over again. This was not just to make "golden caster sugar," as the recipe called for. I threw in some dark chocolate chips into the filling, just because.

The cake was toasty on the edges and just the right amount of moist throughout, and the sweet-tart tug-of-war between passion fruit and lime was sternly interrupted by dark chocolate, which also broke up the softness of the cake in a way that I liked. My roommate and I ate slices of it for breakfast, with coffee, for a few days. The experience of baking and consuming the cake reminded me of both the casualness family teatime, where heated arguments about politics wax and wane, as well as the languid, luxurious afternoon teas at Fortnum & Mason, in all its unambiguous deliciousness—a little peculiar, but wonderful, too.

Notable Afternoon Teas

At Café Liberty, the afternoon tea rate ($26) is more reasonable than Fortnum & Mason's ($55), but the food and service is truly phenomenal at the latter. The Orangery is a beautiful sun-lit space inside the Kensington Gardens, and the afternoon tea is very proper, almost as good as F&M, at a better price ($34). If you want something really glamorous, opt for The Berkeley's Fashionista Afternoon Tea ($65), where Lanvin is represented by "chocolate mousse draped with a light meringue ruffle."

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Former Associate Editor at Food52; still enjoys + talks about food.


K January 2, 2018
Interesting piece. From the opposite view, I was always drawn to the Asian imagery on tea tins, elephants or Chinese pagodas, and idyllic palm-treed landscapes!
randii May 2, 2017
Sorry to tell you that the tea grading system that you attribute to Fortnum's is actually the standardized tea grading system used all over the world. I had to learn many of them when I sold tea and coffee in San Francisco 25 years ago!
HalfPint April 19, 2017
There's also an Afternoon Tea at the British Museum. I think it was about GBP 25 (but that was about 6 years ago). Lovely tea and scones under that lovely glass roof.