An afternoon tea comprises three components that together create a memorable experience. Firstly, there should be a selection of quality teas that reads like a wine list and tempts one into unexplored territory. Secondly, the food must be plentiful but delicate, pretty and creative. Thirdly, the ambience should be comfortable and elegant as befits a time honoured tradition; there should be chairs you sink into with relief as you abandon the world outside for a few hours.
The Rose Lounge at the Sofitel London St James satisfies all three criteria. An internal space lit with large lamps festooned with flowers, the room invites relaxation. Combining French and English influences, it is tastefully decorated in shades of dusky pink with floral prints on the walls interspersed with bookshelves filled with volumes on roses and gardens. Rose filled vases are dotted about while petals are scattered on marble table tops.
I was invited to join Fiona Maclean of London Unattached to sample Le Tea en Rose, a floral-infused selection of teas, cakes and pastries which runs throughout May to coincide with the renowned, annual Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show.
Having had to negotiate one of London’s notorious traffic snarl-ups resulted in my abandoning the bus and performing a half hour power walk to the hotel. Arriving hot and somewhat bothered, I was grateful for the large, deep armchair.
The tea selection showcased Dammann Frères, a Parisian tea company granted the royal privilege in 1692 to sell tea in France. The company invented the first modern scented tea in 1954 and we were able to sample several of these during the afternoon. From the impressive menu I chose the tea of the month, Star Elixir. The description of a blend of meadowsweet, blackcurrant and red vine leaves, elder flower, peppermint and fennel with an aftertaste of mint and star anise was evocative and tempting. The tea menu made for most interesting reading with an assortment of 22 teas with similarly detailed descriptions. The tea was served in small, black Japanese pots.
On the food front we began with the traditional selection of finger sandwiches. Some welcome twists were evident including ham and cheese served on beetroot bread. Roast beef was paired with horseradish and cheddar. Cornish egg and smoked salmon, cream cheese and cucumber rounded off the plate.
A choice of small scones included one with raisins and another with apricots, once again adding a note of individuality. A good quality jam plus a bowl of lemon curd accompanied a voluptuous scoop of clotted cream.
The pièce de la resistance was wheeled tableside to gasps of admiration and anticipation. Displayed like jewels on glass shelves was a glorious array of cakes. As befits the Chelsea Flower Show theme, the colours were as vibrant as an English summer garden. Bright yellows alongside shocking pink cakes accompanied pastel pink macaroons bursting with fresh raspberries. All that was missing was a buzzing bee.
Sadly it was beyond our capacity to eat all of these without suffering a sugar overload but we did our best and then some.
We began with the Hibiscus which was presented in a dinky little glass jar. It was filled with a raspberry marmalade topped with mascarpone cream and hibiscus jelly and garnished with a crystallised rose petal and a stalk of redcurrants. The mascarpone cream was beautifully light, an excellent foil for the sweet raspberry compote and the tart redcurrants. It was just the kind of dessert I would love to serve to guests in my own home if only I knew how!
Next we sampled the rose macaroon – a large, pink, rose flavoured, melt-in-the-mouth delight filled with plump raspberries and rose cream.
Aside from bananas I rarely eat anything yellow so I was not sure what to expect from the neon yellow Mimosa. This cake was a revelation. The vanilla sponge was light as a fairy and the mimosa mousseline was cool and not overly sweet.
This was my favourite cake of the afternoon and one for which I would happily return.
The final cake, called Poppy, was bright pink and consisted of vanilla sponge, a poppy mousseline cream, strawberry compote and a pink chocolate spray. Although it looked quite beautiful it was too sweet for my taste or perhaps I was just too full.
A refreshing white tea restored me – Passion de Fleurs – which combined the flavours of rose, apricot and passion fruit.
This is an afternoon tea to be recommended. Take a friend, take your mum, take your time to savour a well-crafted menu in lovely surroundings.
Spilling out hours later onto London’s busy streets, the sun shone brightly and traffic stress had long been forgotten.
The Rose Lounge, Sofitel London St James