What it's like to make the perfect afternoon tea
It’s a quintessentially English phenomena. Afternoon tea is as English as Trooping the Colour, as strawberries and cream at Wimbledon or as crashing out of the World Cup just as we imagine we might win.
Mark Askew, Chef Director for The Ivy Collection, knows what it’s like to serve the perfect afternoon tea. The top chef will be celebrating Afternoon Tea Week, which runs from August 14 to 20, at The Ivy, in Temple Row, the sister restaurant to the institution that is The Ivy, in London.
Afternoon Tea Week was established to help secure a tradition that has graced British afternoons since the 1840s. In those days, dinner often wasn’t served until 8pm, and lunch wasn’t actually a thing, so what was a hungry person to do? The answer was simple: create a new mini-meal in the middle of the day of course!
Traditionally the meal contains tiny finger sandwiches, scones with jam and clotted cream, and sweet dainties like cakes and pastries to help lift the spirits, bolster energy, and see you through the rest of the day.
The simple afternoon meal grew into a social event, especially for those who spent their lives in the upper echelons of the day’s society. This became even more prominent once Queen Victoria herself took part in this tradition. At that point the concept of the ‘tea reception’ was born, lavish and fancy afternoon repasts that could host anywhere from a close collection of friends to a couple hundred of society’s most important faces.
As the name suggests, tea was a central part of this meal, a tradition started by Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford. She often found herself feeling weary or worn down in the middle of the day, and a pot of tea with a snack just seemed to be the best way to take care of it. She soon invited friends to join her for walks in the field, and the snowball that would become Afternoon Tea began.
Mark says The Ivy celebrates the tradition and keeps things special. “Afternoon tea at The Ivy Temple Row is available every day from 3pm – 5pm, and features both sweet and savoury items. Sandwiches include a truffled chicken brioche roll, marinated cucumber and dill, and smoked salmon on dark rye style bread with cream cheese and chives; whilst sweet options include warm fruited scones, raspberry cheesecake, a chocolate and salted caramel mousse, and crème brûlée doughnuts.
“My personal favourite would have to be the truffled chicken brioche roll – I’m more of a savoury man.”
The afternoon tea menus are reviewed once every three months to make sure customers can enjoy the best of seasonal food.
“We review all our menus, including our afternoon tea menu, on a seasonal basis. This summer, we added a special ‘Ivy Nursery Pot’ addition to our afternoon tea offering. Available until 31 August, the ‘Ivy Nursery Pot’ features lavender cream, edible flowers and a chocolate ‘soil’ topping.”
Tradition is fine, of course, but when it comes to afternoon tea, the most important question is surely this: crusts on or off?
Mark laughs: “Crusts on, although our cucumber sandwiches are delicate and can only be crusts off.”
Back in Queen Victoria’s day, there were no such thing as ‘dietary requirements’. Guests either ate their gluten-heavy ham sandwiches or they didn’t. In 2018, things have moved on.
“It’s important that we cater for all dietary requirements wherever possible. Our sandwiches can be made using gluten-free bread and we have gluten-free scones available. Most of our afternoon tea items are suitable for vegetarians and can easily be adapted on request.”
Some uber-modern restaurants have tried to corrupt the formula by offering concept afternoon teas. That, however, is something that won’t be featuring at The Ivy any time soon. Mr Askew shakes his head at the thought. “Not at the moment. We pride ourselves on offering guests with reliable, delicious, ‘no frills’ food – modern British classics cooked to a high standard with a combination of ingredients that work well together, all served with a smile.”
It’s not all about the food of course, there’s a wide array of tea on offer too. And The Ivy even has its own blend.
“If I had to pick one it would have to be our own blend of tea – The Ivy afternoon tea blend – mellow, elegant and refreshing. For those wanting something a little extra, we have our Champagne afternoon tea offering which is priced at £25.95.”
Happily, guests no longer have to wear a top hat and tails when they’re sitting down for finger sandwiches and scones.
“Absolutely not. We want our guests to feel comfortable and relaxed at all times.”
And finally, the question which divides the nation, should we be putting jam or cream on our scone first?
“Jam then clotted cream! We have cream teas available at The Ivy Temple Row – freshly baked fruited scones, Dorset clotted cream and strawberry preserve, served alongside teas, infusions or coffees and priced at £7.95.”