No one is quite sure of the origins of afternoon tea, but the credit for making it the social occasion it became belongs to a 19th-century Duchess of Bedford. With the introduction of gaslight in wealthy homes making it possible to dine later in the evening, mid-afternoon hunger became an issue. The Duchess’s solution was a pot of tea and a light snack in the privacy of her rooms. She began inviting friends to join her, and a new social occasion was born.
A traditional afternoon tea includes a selection of fresh ‘finger’ sandwiches, followed by scones with cream and jam, and a selection of cakes. This is accompanied by a pot of tea, or occasionally a small glass of champagne. Today, London offers many distinctive modern takes on the classic, featuring everything from exotic loose-leaf tea flavours to Japanese-influenced gateaux, meaning there’s someone to tempt everyone into an indulgent afternoon treat.
Cake Hole Café
Cake Hole Café is one of London’s best-kept secrets, despite its location on Columbia Road, which plays host to a hugely popular flower market every Sunday. The reason is surely the fact it’s at the back of a boutique, Vintage Heaven, beyond displays of retro teapots and 1950s glassware. Those who do manage to find their way to the intimate café – which, like the shop, is open at weekends only – won’t be able to resist the home-baked cakes, and scones with cream and jam, as well as the excellent coffee and wide range of speciality teas. A must-try is the Elderflower and White tea, decorated with sweet marigold blossoms, or the Earl Grey Bluestar, an exquisite variation on the classic blend.
Cake Hole Café, 82 Columbia Road, London E2 7QB, +44 (0)78433 255012
Tucked away at the back of a courtyard between Clerkenwell Road and Great Sutton Street, J&A Café occupies the ground floor of a former diamond-cutting factory, and its industrial-chic décor of bare brick, metal pendant lights and exposed beams offers a relaxed modern setting for a traditional afternoon tea. It is run by two sisters, whose passion for home cooking translates into a menu of simple, beautifully prepared food made from carefully sourced ingredients. Smoked salmon on freshly baked soda bread, big pots of tea and tempting cakes are among the highlights.
J&A Café, 1-4 Sutton Lane, London EC1M 5PU, +44 (0)20 7490 2992
Drink, Shop & Do
At the weekend, this laidback cocktail bar cum café serves up a proper afternoon tea, a perfect complement to the charming retro décor. A classic selection of sandwiches, including ham hock, parsley and mustard mayo, egg mayonnaise with spring onion and chives, and smoked salmon, cream cheese and chrain (a spicy horseradish sauce) is followed by home-made fruit scones with clotted cream and jams, and a selection of miniature cakes. Those who want to make it even more indulgent can also have a glass of champagne or one of the café’s signature Bellinis.
Drink, Shop & Do, 9 Caledonian Road, London N1 9DX, +44 (0)20 7278 4335
With its traditional French patisserie and fine Ceylon teas, Lanka provides a distinctive take on afternoon tea. The selection of cakes is inspiring; 20 or so different types are baked daily, including the Japanese-influenced green tea chocolate gateau. Other favourites include the green tea strawberry cake, salted caramel tart and the white chocolate gateau with azuki beans. Accompany your slice of cake with one of the café’s loose-leaf teas from Sri Lanka, which includes varieties scented with flower petals.
Lanka, 9 Goldhurst Terrace, London NW6 3HX, +44 (0)20 7625 3366