“What is more English than a good cup of tea?”
Chances are people wouldn’t be able to give you an answer. Tea is as English as their accent, but there isn’t just one way in which they take it. Below are the tales of the first times I had the most common ways of taking tea in England.
Cream Tea (Greenwich)
It was the day of the Thames boat tour. They dropped us off in Greenwich and left us to defend for ourselves. We had grouped together randomly, like bubbles in a bath. Several of the people in my group were still suffering from jet lag (it was the second day we were there), so once we were back on solid ground, caffeine was our first order of business. Based on the map that they gave us, there was a café near Greenwich Park. So in a drowsy haze we walked in that direction.
Everything was still so new to us: People driving on the opposite side of the street, the double decker buses, the winding roads. Despite our general lack of sleep, we were still curious and open to exploring. We found a random alleyway with shops and decided to wander down it.
At the end, was a sign hanging from a second story wall. I can’t quite recall the exact name of the place, but I do remember us being caught by the words “Café The Coffee.” We ambled up to the shop. Another sign outside was advertising “Cream Tea: scone, jam & clotted cream, and tea” for £3.50.
We peered inside. It was a little place. A chrome/laminate counter and register hid the coffee machines, ice cream freezer, and pastries and took up most of the space in the entry way. A man squeezed past us, coming back in from serving the people in the tables out front. A woman stood behind the counter making the coffee and guarding the food. A whiteboard menu hung above them. We could tell it was local, old, real.
We turned to each other and said something like, “This place looks good. The cream tea looks good. Let’s go in.”
I don’t know how many of us were just desperate for caffeine and didn’t really care where we went, but I was genuinely interested in the cream tea. Real English tea and scones in a local café? How could I say no?
The man led us to an upstairs sitting room, which was complete with plain, wooden tables and creaky floorboards. After a quick look at the menus he provided us, we knew what we wanted: one cappuccino with an ice cream cone, one herbal tea, and five cream teas.
When they arrived, we all gasped (either inwardly or outwardly) in eagerness. After the waiter left, we immediately went about eating our scones. We hesitantly put on the cream and jam, only vaguely aware of how we were supposed to eat it. Once everything appeared to be properly spread on my scone, I took a bite and fell in love.
In hindsight, the jam wasn’t the best, and the tea was probably Tetley (the most basic type of bagged tea here). But it was the first cream tea, the first tea and scone I had in England, and it will always remain delicious in my memory.
Afternoon Tea (South Kensington)
I’d been looking for an affordable afternoon tea since I stepped off the plane. Unlike cream tea, I’ve heard about this way of taking tea and was eager to try it. The second week we were there, my friend Zoe spotted an advertisement along Cromwell Road for an afternoon tea for two for £25. Perfect.
A little context before I continue. The Natural Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Harrod’s are all located along the same section of Cromwell Road. As a consequence, the place is crawling with an equal mix of camera-toting tourists and Coach-toting rich.
So really there were only two possibilities as to which kind of place the restaurant could be. I should’ve seen it coming, but it was still new to the area. I was only vaguely aware of the character of the neighborhood. I hadn’t even been down that way on Cromwell Road yet. So I was hopeful and excited.
The restaurant was called Patisserie Valerie and loudly boasted its skills with a front window full of tempting deserts and treats. Inside, the light was golden and the wood paneling was polished. Everything shined. We were quickly seated off to the side at a two-person table. Our waiter had a French accent.
It was midafternoon (just around tea time) and the place was about half full. Looking around, several other tables were also having afternoon tea. There were families, couples, and friends all enjoying a tower of sandwiches, scones, and cakes. Zoe and I looked at each other, eager to get our own.
The tower arrived along with a gleaming pot of tea. I went to pour, but stopped. Lightly amber-colored liquid filled the bottom of my tea cup. I could tell the tea wasn’t ready it. I looked inside the pot. A tea ball floated in the water. I let it alone to steep.
We started on the bottom of the tower with the sandwiches. They were traditional English finger sandwiches, cut thin and long without crust. They were savory, rich, and…a bit stale. I didn’t notice at first, but Zoe pointed it out afterwards.
The tea had been steeping for a good while now, so it was about as done as it was ever going to get. It was still a tad bland though. I’ve been drinking tea for a couple years now and have learnt the finer points of steeping. I knew what was wrong. Tea leaves need room to “breathe” so that the full flavor can come out. The restaurant had simply put too much tea within the tea ball. I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed.
As I sipped on my weaken tea, I looked out at the restaurant again. These people I saw before enjoying their afternoon tea were all tourists. They wore T-shirts and jeans, had cameras on the table, and bore wide-eyed looks to their faces. Zoe and I concluded afterwards that Patisserie Valerie was probably an upper-end chain (like Le Madeline in the US).
So was the thing a complete bust? No. The scones, jam, and clotted cream were wonderful. While the jam was obviously store bought, it was much better than what we had in Greenwich. The cakes, even though we were both pretty full by the time we got to them, tasted rich and satisfying . Add on the fact that it was a relatively cheap and easy way to experience our first afternoon tea, it was overall a pretty good tea time.