It’s Afternoon Tea Week 2019 – a celebration of everything from scones to finger sandwiches, macarons and, of course, tea – running from 12-18 August.
“Coming into fashion throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, afternoon tea was a luxury social occasion for the British upper class. Today, the fashion for afternoon tea hasn’t lost any of its steam,” says Jeremy Gilboy, founder of St Pierre Groupe.
The occasion is steeped in tradition, but in order to keep it alive and kicking, restaurants, cafés, bakers and hotels across the country have mixed things up.
“Customers are looking for afternoon teas that are Instagrammable, meaning more venues are putting an increased effort into aesthetics and theme to attract custom.
“This also means that afternoon tea is attracting a younger audience than before, so venues are having to become more innovative with what they provide and create.”
Here’s what you need to know about the trends affecting afternoon tea:
Around the world in an afternoon
Afternoon tea is a quintessentially British experience, but that doesn’t mean everything on the menu has to be inspired by these fair shores.
“With different world flavours proving popular among consumers, it’s clear that the concept of afternoon tea is immensely versatile,” says Stéphanie Brillouet, marketing director for the UK, Northern Europe and North America at Délifrance.
“Operators such as hotels and restaurants are evolving their businesses with the concept, creating new offerings of fun and diverse bakes and experiences, for anyone.”
For example, Délifrance notes the Spanish tapas tea with Ametsa at Como The Halkin in Belgravia, which features a selection of savoury tapas, including Iberico ham croquettes, as well as Daawat’s Indian afternoon tea in Covent Garden. Daawat’s menu includes lamb samosas, paneer pakora and a Bombay burger on the savoury side and chocolate samosas and mango burfi for sweet.
London hotel The Academy recently unveiled an Asian-inspired afternoon tea (pictured) as part of the Mr Ma’s Afternoon Tea service, inspired by the historic novel Mr Ma and Son.
“The real crowd-pleaser of our Mr Ma’s Afternoon Tea experience at The Academy Hotel is our beautifully presented Chinese egg tarts and Sesame Jian Dui Dough Balls,” explains Andrew Jordan, vice-president, YTL Hotels, whose portfolio includes The Academy Hotel.
Fortnum & Mason even got in on the action for Chinese New Year with a limited-edition afternoon tea, themed around the event. While the finger sandwiches lived up to British expectations, the sweets included a kumquat cheesecake, rose choux bun and sesame & Jivaro milk chocolate mousse.
London-based Mediterranean foods supplier Dina Foods, meanwhile, believes there is an opportunity for pittas and flatbreads to replace some finger sandwiches. Cocktail-pittas might be filled with a traditional salmon and cream cheese, or perhaps one of Dina Foods’ best-selling sweet potato falafel, thinly sliced on a bed of its hummous or baba ganoush, it suggests.
Quality is everything
Sub-par scones just won’t cut it. Consumers won’t accept anything less than the best when it comes to afternoon tea, particularly if they’re splashing the cash.
“Afternoon tea is famous for being about quality food and drink,” says Mahmoud Haidari from Dina Foods.
While this isn’t new, consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the quality of ingredients used in producing scones, their accompanying jams and fellow bakery items.
“Awareness of the quality of ingredients has become much more prominent, so governs much of the modern trends,” says Scottish patissier and chocolatier William Curley.
Take, for example, the Mary Poppins Afternoon Tea at London’s Aquashard, where the provenance or supplier of many of the ingredients is listed. There’s the Dingley Deli honey roast ham, mustard mayonnaise & Norfolk rocket cress sandwich, as well as the Cackleberry egg & black truffle sandwich.
The war on sugar hits afternoon tea
The inevitable sugar crash following afternoon tea is just part of the experience for some. But it doesn’t have to be, as healthier offerings are on the rise.
“Customers are enquiring more about nutritional ingredients. People are looking beyond sugary offerings and seeking afternoon teas that match their healthy-eating lifestyles,” explains Keith Newton, founder of Afternoon Tea Week.
“It’s quality over quirky for some customers, with ingredient sources being an important part of an afternoon tea. They want their ingredients to be functional and as fulfilling as the theme and experience. We predict a 6% increase in healthy afternoon offerings by 2022.”
Hemsley + Hemsley at Selfridges is one such venue that has tapped this trend. Its afternoon tea includes quinoa scones, seasonal fruit and chia jam. Brown’s Hotel London, meanwhile, offers a Tea-Tox Healthy Champagne Afternoon Tea, which features plum tomato, tofu & peppermint on gluten-free bread, a raw raspberry ‘cheesecake’ with lemon & oat biscuit and an apricot & almond slice.
Curley, who is also an ambassador for Maple from Canada, notes this is leading to alternative sources of sweetness. “There is a health awareness to use less sugar and additives, which is positive as it means chefs are creating dishes that use unrefined sugars such as maple syrup or maple sugar.”
Keep it classic, but with a twist
There’s a difference between keeping things fresh and making them unrecognisable.
“It’s easy to get carried away with experimental creations,” believes Curley. “While it’s nice to offer a couple of unusual pastries or sandwiches – afternoon tea is ultimately about tradition, so a focus should remain with this. Classics done well are timeless for a reason.”
The Water Mill Tearooms in Northamptonshire has found the balance between innovative offerings and the classics that consumers have come to know and love.
“For the sweet element of our afternoon tea, we also make a mojito-style tartlet, which combines homemade lime curd infused with mint leaves and a hint of rum for a true mojito taste,” explains manager Iona Campbell. “We change things seasonally, so when it gets to autumn, we might choose more warming flavours and create berry crumble-style tartlets instead.”
Campbell uses Pidy’s ready-to-use pastry cases for her tarts (pictured), which she says gives her the ability to whip up treats fast while keeping that homemade feel.
The Royal Crescent in Bath is mixing things up with local favourites.
“’Classic flavours with modern touches’ is our modus operandi. A lot of places will do two varieties of scone – a fruit and a plain – but as we are in Bath, you couldn’t have tea here without tasting one of our homemade Bath Buns, topped with nibbed sugar, and with a sugar cube tucked neatly inside, with homemade cinnamon butter to finish it off,” says executive head chef, David Campbell.
Four items coming to an afternoon tea near you:
Crustless white bread had better watch out as brioche is making a play for the afternoon tea scene.
“Consumers are becoming increasingly experimental and creative, and now the time has come for some international favourites, like brioche, to take their place at the table,” says St Pierre Groupe founder Jeremy Gilboy.
“Brioche rolls are perfect for this occasion; the golden and soft buttery bread elevates afternoon tea to a higher level, complementing both sweet and savoury fillings such as crayfish & rocket, rare beef & wasabi and avocado & sweet chilli.”
It’s already present on The Ampersand Hotel’s science afternoon tea menu, filled with roast beef, and the Aquashard’s Mary Poppins menu, with Devon crab, cucumber & coriander.
A great big Cornish Pasty doesn’t exactly scream afternoon tea material, but Scottish patissier and chocolatier William Curley thinks there’s a place for miniature versions on the cake stand.
“Afternoon tea is of course considered quintessentially British and the UK is full of traditional regional foods that could work very well as part of an afternoon tea offering,” he says.
“These include Scotch eggs, mini Cornish pasties, Welsh rarebit, Bakewell tarts, Welsh cakes, Dundee cakes, Eccles cakes, Manchester tart or even a mini haggis.”
“Ditch the macarons and enjoy mini doughnuts,” says Chris Murgatroyd, head chef, De Vere Horwood Estate. A bold statement.
With the trend for themed and internationally-inspired afternoon teas booming, he believes they offer “an American twist on a traditional British afternoon tea that can be fun and different”.
They’re making headway, albeit slowly. Ma’Plucker restaurant in Soho last year embraced them by offering a limited-edition Ma’s Dirty Birds and Doughnuts Afternoon Tea, which featured a trio of fried chicken served in jam-filled, honey-glazed and a smoked paprika-dusted mini doughnuts.
With its layers upon layers of filo pastry and chopped nuts soaked in syrup, baklawa certainly meets the indulgence criteria of an afternoon tea.
Dina Foods, which manufactures baklawa at its factory in Park Royal, north-west London, believes it could make headway.
“Sweet and crunchy baklawa that are traditionally offered to friends and family at times of celebration, are becoming more and more popular with the coffee shop and afternoon tea market,” says Dina Foods general manager Wilda Haddad.
To keep it interesting, it has a range of variants (pictured), including chocolate baklawa, flower-shaped boukage and oval-shaped bourma, which sees whole nuts bound in crunchy shredded wheat and syrup.