As a tea enthusiast, few moments are as paramount as the sacred tradition of afternoon tea. From playing tea party as children to watching teatime in just about every British period piece created, afternoon tea conjures images of elegance and regality.
So when planning my trip to London, experiencing afternoon tea was an absolute must. While there is no shortage of locations offering tea in London, one stuck out as very traditional, authentic, and would come with all the bells and whistles: the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon at Fortnum & Mason.
A London fixture since 1707, Fortnum & Mason is a department store in Piccadilly and is the grocer of choice for the Queen herself. If that isn’t an endorsement, I don’t know what is. While it started out as a grocery store, it eventually developed into a seller of luxury goods, including teas, wines, and some of the fanciest picnic baskets and hampers around.
Though Fortnum & Mason itself is over 300 years old, the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon was established in 2012 in honor of the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s ascension to the throne. The Queen officially opened it in March along with the Duchess of Cornwall and Duchess of Cambridge, all of whom got their own personal hampers.
As to be expected from anything with the Queen’s blessing, the menu and service at Fortnum & Mason was far from disappointing. The tea list offered their own Fortnum’s Famous Blends with popular teas offered in their store, such as Jubilee and Wedding Breakfast (a personal favorite created in honor of Will and Kate’s wedding), and some of their rare teas. In a very YOLO mood, I opted to get one of the rare teas, the Honey Orchid Oolong. According to its description in the tea list, Honey Orchid Oolong is “known for its orange liquor, floral aroma and honey-sweet aftertaste, this high-roasted tea from China’s Mt. Wudong is said by locals to boost heath and wellbeing”. While I might not know the exact science behind tea and health, I felt pretty darn good after drinking it. Typical of many Oolong teas, this was very light and fruity with the notes of honey lingering at the end of the sip. With how light the tea was when I poured it, I was afraid that the milk and sugar would overpower it (something I find with many English Breakfast teas). To my pleasant surprise, it enhanced the flavor just enough. While I tend to prefer teas with stronger flavors, the Honey Orchid Oolong was light and refreshing enough for an afternoon meal.
While the tea was just right, my biggest rave has to go to the fact that their vegetarian tea menu was excellent. In many eating establishments, the “vegetarian option” is often cause for concern and involves inexperienced food preparers to toss together a less-than-fulfilling dish of straight vegetables. Not at F&M. While many of the finger sandwiches were veggie-friendly to begin with, some veggie-specific sandwiches were added that didn’t seem to be on the regular menu, like the Celeriac and Apple Remoulade and one (whose name escapes me) that involved a curry filling. They also offer vegan, dairy free, and gluten free menus that, though more limited, will allow those with dietary restrictions to enjoy a traditional British afternoon tea without sacrificing quality and excellent taste. That alone is remarkable.
My favorite was the scones with clotted cream and jam. Our waiter, Josè (who was FABULOUS and super knowledgeable about the history of tea and tea culture) told us that the jam (or curd) was added on top of the clotted cream 1) so that the jam wouldn’t sink into the scone, and 2) because sugar was very expensive at the time. Therefore, sugar and products that used quite a bit of sugar were used sparingly. So rather than spreading an entire scone with expensive jam, the clotted cream served as a base and a dollop of jam provided a touch of flavor and sweetness.
As if this meal wasn’t superb already, they offered refills on whatever was running low (ie, more scones for me) AND there was an additional dessert. At this point, I was (happily) stuffed to capacity, so I opted for the apple cake to go home with the rest of my leftovers. I’d also like to share how appreciative I am that F&M was willing to box up what was left so it could be enjoyed later. I guess there’s a stigma against taking home leftovers in some higher-end restaurants because it suggests that that person would be “cheap”. I just don’t want to waste perfectly good food. And it was enjoyed for many days following.
After a few hours of noshing, a trip to the shops within F&M was in order while all the goodies I packed in my stomach figured out how to digest themselves. Being midday on a Friday, the shops were packed with people and every single tea, coffee, and confectionary imaginable. I liken it to being in a Forever 21; overwhelming, but significantly classier. It was probably for the best that I have limited funds and upper body strength, because there is no humanly way I would have been able to haul everything I wanted back to the US. So I just took some lovely photos
If you’re ever in London and want an amazing afternoon tea experience, Fortnum & Mason will deliver. I have absolutely no complaints about my visits (yes, I went back) and will make a beeline there when I’m in town again. I’ll just have to remember to bring about 2 or 3 extra suitcases to pack enough tea home for the next few years. I’m only partially kidding.