I was delighted to spend a leisurely August afternoon with my writing partner Jane Pettigrew at one of the most stylish of all London hotels—Claridges.
On the way, Soho traffic became so snarled that we had to abandon our cab and walk a few blocks. Finally, fifteen minutes late and a bit stressed, we were greeted by the doorman as we entered the hotel’s stylish lobby and immediately felt the cares of the world slip away.
The entrance and staircase at Claridge’s Hotel in Mayfair.
For fans of Art Deco, a visit to Claridge’s is a must. The entrance is magnificent and both the Foyer and the Reading Room, where tea is served, are decorated in 1930s style. Fireplaces, leather columns, richly cushioned chairs, and banquettes—all of it takes you back to the days of chic geometric designs. Even the loos pay homage to the skills of tile craftsmen a century ago.
The Claridge family bought the business in 1854 and attached their name to the long-established and respected hotel. It came into its own after the First World War, when many aristocrats were forced to sell their London houses and take up residence there. Keeping a house in London which one might only use for six months of the year was too expensive. Claridge’s became a favorite society venue for these Londoners. By the mid-1920’s, portions of the hotel were redecorated to reflect the fashion of the day, Art Deco.
Luca Coluccia introduces Jane Pettigrew to the sweets.
In 1996, Claridge’s embarked on a major restoration and the public spaces were completely made over in a modern Art Deco style, and a stunning Dale Chihuly chandelier was hung as the centerpiece of the foyer.
At teatime, everything on the table matches that artistic theme, with Limoges ‘Galerie Royale’ porcelain specially created for Claridge’s, complemented by Deco style creamers, sugar basins, cake stands, and cutlery. During our summertime visit, musicians serenaded us with nostalgic teatime music, adding to the period feel of the room.
All the expected tea sandwiches are offered, including Daylesford organic chicken, lemon and tarragon on granary bread, Dorrington ham with tomato chutney on onion bread, smoked salmon on rye, and cucumber with crème fraîche and rocket on white bread.
Freshly baked scones are accompanied by Rodda’s Cornish clotted cream and Marco Polo gelée infused with bergamot and vanilla. Rodda’s is one of Britain’s richest, and most decadent, clotted creams made in Cornwall. (Please, don’t call it Devonshire cream. That’s from the neighboring county where dairymen are equally proud of their products.)
Scones with Cornish clotted cream.
A selection of exquisite pastries include chocolate gâteau, Mariages Frères crème brûlée, blackcurrant tart, pear with walnut éclair, and apricot with caraway cake.
But it’s always the tea that draws my attention. American tea merchant John Harney was once the tea supplier here. Claridge’s recently switched to a local purveyor, Henrietta Lovell, owner of Rare Tea Company. She has included an assortment of rare teas and bespoke blends which include the traditional Claridge’s Blend and single estate teas from India and Sri Lanka, including a second flush Darjeeling from the Makaibari garden, and a Malawi Antlers white tea.
I did chuckle when I saw the description for Cornish Earl Grey that read “an Earl Grey from Tregothnan, a walled tea garden in Cornwall that has been producing beautiful teas since the 14th century.” That might be a bit of hyperbole since tea didn’t appear in England until around 1657.
Like all of us who respect the craftsmanship in tea, Henrietta became tired of the over steeped teas being served in hotels across the UK where fine teas were allowed to stew in their juices for an hour or so before a server came by on occasion to add more hot water to the pot.
Henrietta said the Claridge’s management team, “was enthusiastic to innovate and improve.“ She set out on a daunting crusade to produce a better tea-making experience.
That education is an on-going process as I witnessed on my recent visit when the server placed tea in the pot, poured hot water over the tea, and immediately decanted the clear liquor into our cups. Jane and I both looked at each other in a moment of disbelief. I’ve often complained about over-steeped tea, but here was an instance in which my tea barely had time to turn loose its color.
We asked the waiter for a longer steep time and pots were re-made to perfection. The staff took it all in good form—especially considering they were serving tea to the lady who teaches tea service at hotels around the world. No pressure there!
“When I die,” the actor Spencer Tracy said, “I don’t want to go to heaven, I want to go to Claridge’s.”
I spoke this week with Henrietta about her Claridge’s experience and her goals. Here’s what she said,
“I couldn’t help but notice that, like most London hotels, Claridge’s was leaving the tea in the pot to over-brew.I explained that some infusing expertise would improve their tea dramatically.They asked me to curate a new list for them and introduce a rather revolutionary methodology.My heart sang.
“They are now infusing the tea at the table—to the customer’s desired strength—and re-infusing the precious handcrafted leaves.The staff has all had three hours training and tasting in the subtle nuances that can be achieved and the wonderful development of flavor that several steeps reveal. They are trained to explain the tea and ask the customer how they like their infusion—45 seconds to 3 minutes or more.
“I share stories of the terroir and craftsmanship which they can, in turn, share with their guests.In this way I firmly believe we can lead people to appreciate tea the way they do wine—for flavor and quality.”
I’ve taken tea in nearly every hotel in London and this is certainly one of the most elegant rooms with tables placed so you enjoy quiet conversation while you remain aware of a joyful buzz filling the opulent space. I didn’t see anyone without a smile on their face.
But, if this is your first London afternoon tea, be ready for sticker shock when the bill arrives. Our tea for two was priced at $185, including service. Still, that’s not enough to diminish the smile I have when I look back on my afternoon tea at Claridge’s.