It’s no secret that the British love their tea. Just the other day, I was chatting with our tiny next door neighbors, Finn and Brody, both in primary school, and they had to dash off because their mum was calling them in for tea.
Typically, “tea” is a small snack or pre-meal served between 4 and 6 in the afternoon. Credit goes to Anna Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, for creating this mid-afternoon break in the 1840s because she was getting too “peckish” to wait for dinner in the late evening. Jeff and I are early-bird diners, so we completely understand the finger-drumming anxiousness that comes with supper at 8 or 9 in the evening.
Quickly, the practice of this additional meal took off and spread among the wealthy classes. In fact, it was so popular with the lower classes started to adopt it and brought “tea time” into their own homes. Traditionally, the serving of “tea” still stands, but it is more recognized as a special occasion by going to fancy hotels or restaurants that serve “high” or “afternoon” tea complete with finger sandwiches and pastries.
Since living in London, I have done a proper “high tea” twice. Once was at The Ritz, (which you can read about here), and the other was at the venerable Harrods. What made the girls’ day out even better was that Harrods offers gluten free high tea. I was over the moon! When Jeff and I dined at The Ritz, I suffered for the luxury, but this time, I could fully enjoy myself with every morsel of delectable treat.
My friend, Elizabeth, chose a black tea which smelled divine, but I decided to go off the reservation and indulged in a fine white tea. With Frank Sinatra on the stereo, we sipped our beverages out of lovely tea cups and nibbled on the most perfect looking tea sandwiches. We had choices between smoked salmon, ham, egg, and cucumber, all with their crusts removed. It wasn’t long after we cleared the plates that the pastries came out.
I had perfect petifores and chocolates with scones to boot. I don’t remember much about the strawberry jam or clotted cream, but the rose jelly was out of this world. But it would not be high tea at Harrods without a tour of the gift shop, and it was full of celebratory dishes commemorating Princess Charlotte’s birth.
But if you’re in London looking for tea, don’t fret. You do not have to make reservations or dress up to enjoy some really fantastic and hip tea cafes. One such cafe I recently discovered in the heart of Soho in between Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus: Yumchaa. Not only is the location ideal for meetings and solitary reading, but the staff are incredibly knowledgeable and helpful.
I walked in and was shocked with the full display of teas in tiny cups for you to smell. Their list was in front of me, and I scanned quickly hoping something would jump out and grab me. I’m a big fan of the word “wanderlust,” so when I saw it as the name of a Chinese green tea with apples, almonds, cinnamon, and vanilla, it was an easy choice. I fell so in love with it that I took a bag home. As I made my purchase, the barista said, “Do you know how to get the bitter taste out of green tea?”
I shook my head in astonishment that he seemed to read my mind. “First, cover the leaves in cold water for a few seconds before covering with boiling water. Then remove the leaves after 3-5 minutes.” You know what? I did just that and have not had a bitter cup since.
After several months, I went back to Yumchaa and indulged in the Wild Rose tea complete with rose petals, mint, and white tea. Paired with a delicious gluten-free brownie, and you are in pure bliss on Berwick Street.
But let’s say, you’re in London looking for a place to enjoy a nice cuppa, but you want something a little different, even odd. In our first year in London, a friend of mine told me about a cat cafe opening in the Shoreditch and Bethnal Green area of East London. If you know me at all, you know that I love cats and have a perfect princess named Tenis Racket waiting for me back home. I found it and immediately booked an appointment. Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium already had a waiting list two months long.
But when I got there, it was so worth the wait. I was surrounded by playful and sleepy cats while enjoying a perfect gluten-free orange polenta cake with Earl Grey tea. To read more about my own personal Alison’s Wonderland, click here.
Going to the far west, I love the borough of Richmond. It’s prim, proper, wide open, and full of small shops for window shopping. But tucked away in the back side streets is a lovely little restaurant and tea house called The Tea Box. I cannot remember how I found this little gem, but I am so glad I did and have returned many times.
Their tea menu rivals most novellas and their back wall is covered in black tins holding loose leaf teas. They are also not shy about taking advantage of the leaf by infusing it with alcohol and food. On one occasion, I had an Earl Grey Boozie Hot Chocolate with a salad that was topped with tea-stained hard boiled eggs. That’s how ladies should lunch.
Most nights, The Tea Box hosts live jazz in the evenings. I took Jeff one night and listened to the smooth sounds of Emily Saunders while sipping an amaretto black tea concoction. It was the perfect way to start the weekend. But they also have a wide array of gluten-free treats and have just started serving gluten-free bread. Now, for the stomach-challenged, you can indulge in more ways than one at The Tea Box.
So, I’ve told you about my favorite places in East, Central, and West London, but what if you want to buy loose tea leaves. Where is the best place to go? There are dozens upon dozens of locations including the Twinnings store front on Fleet Street, which has dozens of amazing smells and choices for gifts and a regular afternoon tea at home. But my favorite spot to go when I’m looking for tea leaves is a massive store in Covent Garden called The Tea House.
Covering two floors and leaves from all over the world, this shop has it all. The front display is enticing enough with the Chinese designed cups and teapots, but then you’re inundated with over two hundred choices. I was slightly overwhelmed when I walked in, but I took my time and found a few goodies for me to take home and enjoy. It was a perfect place to indulge in some out of this world tea.
My fascination with tea did not begin with our trek to London, but it certainly became amplified with all of the choice. I will have to give credit to The Steeping Room in Austin, Texas for my fascination with tea. Since I first opened their tea bible, I was hooked in finding any and all flavor combinations, and lucky for me, I came to this city with plenty of room to grow and explore.
If you find yourself in London, do yourself a favor and check these places out. Cheers.