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How to plan the perfect menu for afternoon tea

London's top pastry chef on what kind of sandwiches to serve, whether to include Champagne and knowing the right temperature for brewing

Tea, champagne, sandwiches and pastries for a decadent afternoon tea experience. (Photo: Sebastian Coman Photography, Unsplash)
Tea, champagne, sandwiches and pastries for a decadent afternoon tea experience. (Photo: Sebastian Coman Photography, Unsplash)

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The UK’s most famous meal is afternoon tea. And the most celebrated place to have it is Fortnum & Mason.

The upscale grocer’s flagship store is housed in a glorious, six-floor building on Piccadilly in London. The shelves are stocked with the kind of treats that make you feel like you’ve walked into a fairy tale, with whimsical biscuit-filled tins in all shapes and sizes, bottles of Champagne, chocolates galore, as well as honey from bees at Queen Camilla’s garden in Wiltshire. The company holds two royal warrants, one from Queen Elizabeth II and another from the now-King Charles III, designating it as an official merchant to the family. There’s the occasional innovation, like the new Food & Drink studio on the building’s third floor, which includes a demo kitchen designed for classes, and the opportunity for supper clubs.

But what Fortnum & Mason has been best known for through most of its 300-plus-year history is tea. It stocks 150 varieties at the store, in varieties that run the gamut from smoky Earl Grey to elderflower-laced green tea, and a gin-and-tonic variety with juniper and lime. Sales of tea, and those biscuits, were good for the company—part of the reason Fortnum & Mason earned £187 million ($232.8 million) in revenue for the calendar year that ended in July. At the Piccadilly store, sales increased 32% year over year. 

One of the best jobs at F&M belongs to Roger Pizey, the company’s executive pastry chef. He is the guy responsible for all the desserts at the store’s restaurants. But 80% of his job is dedicated to the afternoon tea that’s served at the elegant Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon on the fourth floor that opened in 2012.

The Fortnum & Mason tea service is one of the more popular reservations in London. The restaurant routinely serves between 2,800 to 3,500 afternoon teas a week, Pizey says. They will hit the high number during events like Mother’s Day and the Coronation.

A savory option includes courses like a lobster omelet or Cornish turbot; it goes for £82, not including a glass of Champagne. But the most popular selection is the classic afternoon tea. The towering stand costs £78 per diner. The lineup includes five pristine sandwiches, like cucumber, egg mayo made with yolks that are so bright yellow the filling looks like cheese, and ham with mustard mayo. In the middle, napkin wrapped scones, plain and raisin studded. The top plate features a pastry selection that always includes the pretty pink iced rose eclair. 

If you want to recreate the hosting experience at home, don’t overthink it. “I don’t think you can get afternoon tea wrong,” he says. Nonetheless, he’s an expert and has some suggestions, whether you’re toasting the Coronation of King Charles, or hosting a couple friends.

The Sandwiches
“I look for a nice range of sandwiches: A vegetarian, a fish,” says the chef. The salon has started using smoked trout in place of smoked salmon, because it’s more sustainable. A staple is coronation chicken, based on the curried dish created for Queen Elizabeth II for her own coronation in 1953. (For their fancy Coronation Tea, F&M has replaced the chicken with lobster.) Another thing: Afternoon tea is not the time to show off homemade sourdough. Buy bread and have it thinly sliced by professionals to look neat, Pizey says. “Uniformity is ideal,” he says. The bread can be any flavor—whole wheat, poppy seed, gluten free, all of the above—but for the best presentation, keep those slices thin.

Pay Attention to the Scones
Pizey maintains that scones are one of the easiest things in the world to make. If you don’t have his experience (he’s been a professional chef for 30 years) or his resources (he uses specialized 00 flour which makes them terrifically light and tender; and they’re baked throughout service, so they stay hot) you should buy them from your favorite place the day you’ll serve them.

Pick a Side in the Great Scone Debate
After you cut the scone in half, do you put clotted cream on first, or the jam? People around the UK know this as an ongoing Devon versus Cornwall fight. (Devon puts cream on first, while Cornwall goes with the jam.) It’s about as divisive as the question of whether chili should have beans. Pizey has a preference: “Being a pastry chef, I prefer the jam first and then the cream after. Basically because then you’ve got white scone then the beautiful colored jam and then cream. So aesthetically it looks better.” He adds: “Also, you can get more cream on it.” 

Leave Pastries to the Professionals
The top, sweets level is usually the most fantastical one on an afternoon tea, with shapes that look like they’re auditioning for a place on an Alice in Wonderland table. That’s fine, if you have a good bakery nearby. But don’t get overambitious in your own kitchen or try something you’ve never made before, Pizey says. 

Tea Temperature Counts
If anyone asks, water should be heated to about 95 degrees celsius for dark teas, and 85 degrees celsius for green teas. But most important, for Pizey, is not to reuse kettle water. “You need to have fresh water because you need the water to be aerated as it boils,” he says. “It brings out the flavor of the tea bag.” It’s also important not to stew the tea for too long; three to four minutes is generally a 

Champagne, Yes or No?
Tea might be the most important beverage with the service, but Pizey is a “yes” on serving a glass of something sparkling alongside. “Champagne is great with afternoon tea. A lovely glass with an afternoon tea—it’s fantastic.” Fortnum & Mason sells about 250 glasses of Champagne a day, so don’t be shy.

Also read | The rise of modern Indian tea parties

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