Afternoon tea is the new lunch, at least it is at The Lowry Hotel. In what could be a Brexit-inspired assertion of National Standards, they’ve abolished that continental invention, the two-hour lunch – except on Sundays, of course – and brought back Afternoon Tea. And what a tea it is. What sandwiches! What cakes!! And what tea!!! (I’ve told you, no exclamation marks in the copy. – Ed) (But they’re rhetorical!!) (Watch it. – Ed.)
Along with a dozen or so other liggers dedicated professionals – testing the boundaries of culinary inspiration so you don’t have to – last week I was invited to a prenosh* at the aforesaid hotel, replete with prosecco, linen tablecloths, the works. And I had the good fortune to sit opposite the lovely man who supplied the tea, the nominatively determined Mr James Green. More of him anon.
I’ve eaten a few afternoon teas in my time, from 30 years ago at The Ritz in that London (after a particularly pointless meeting at the Arts Council when we had it as a consolation prize) to the Morecambe Bay Hotel last year. The Ritz was memorable mostly for the soft furnishings and the bill; adjusting for inflation it was about £500 for two. The Morecambe Bay Hotel was memorable for the hotel, a masterpiece of 1930s Art Deco with three original frescoes by Eric Gill, and for its sizeable slice of red velvet cake which Mr Gill could have stood on to paint the ceiling.
There have been others, but none had impressed me with their culinary virtue until last week.
For any foreigners who haven’t left us yet, the traditional afternoon tea is a handful of sandwiches with the crusts cut off, scones with cream and jam, a few cakes – usually served on a tiered silver cake stand – and a pot of tea. Simples, you might think, but you’d be wrong. There’s lots of room for error in these dishes, as a chef might say.
The sandwich is a minefield. In this mode the bread is usually white and, if left on the pass too long, it rapidly becomes unpleasantly dry and tends to curl. And the fillings – smoked salmon and cream cheese, (often in the wrong proportions with poor quality salmon), egg with the cucumber cut too thick and a vegetarian option of uncertain provenance. Then scones that lack that bicarb bite and cakes just too stodgy or unimaginative served with ordinary tea. Thank heavens for the prosecco.
Not so at The Lowry. Delicious pillows of tasty white bread around perfectly judged fillings, although we were completely baffled by the overwhelming umami taste of the veggie option which turned out to be beetroot hummus, goats’ cheese and watercress. The cakes were wonders of the patissier’s art. You can see the craft in the photographs. That chocolate thing is so gooey it didn’t want to come off the plate. The red beast is a choux à la creme with a juicy black cherry inside, the pink is a glitter macaroon that you could wear as a brooch and the rainbow cake is a fine sponge with buttercream. They tasted as good as they looked.
In such illustrious company it’s a pity to moan about the scones. They were a bit bog-standard, and don’t tell me there’s not much you can do with a scone. They should be light, crumbly, held together by the cream and jam and with a slight bicarb bite. These were a bit solid.
Then there was the tea. I like to think of myself as something of a coffee connoisseur and, when I’m in that London, I buy a bag of Brazilian Bourbon or Cuban Turquino Lavado from the Algerian Coffee Stores** in Soho. But my tea, well, that’s usually one of the big brands in their strongest iteration. Not any longer.
The aforesaid Mr Green was a Ghurka and, on being posted to glamorous Hong Kong, he became interested in tea. Now he runs Tea From The Manor, a small wholesale tea company in Denton, which is about as unglamorous as it gets. But his teas are delicious. We were given a box of different teas to nose which included inter alia an Earl Grey that knocked my socks off, a powerful green mint and The Lowry’s own blend. That’s the one I chose, a delicate yellow colour with a slight citrus and camomile fragrance which became stronger as the tea steeped. Delicious, and perfect with the cake. Watch this space for more on Mr Green and his amazing teas.
Apart from its ordinary afternoon tea, which runs throughout the year with seasonal variations, the hotel is creating a different special afternoon tea each month. This particular tea is Pride-themed. The ordinary tea is £22.50. And there will be deals. Are you listening, Mrs May?
*A gustatory preview
** The Algerian Coffee stores in Old Compton Street in Soho is one of the most delightful places on Earth. It always smells like Christmas, and in recent years they’ve put in an espresso machine so you can have a coffee while you wait. It’s a tiny shop with a huge stock of coffees and teas, and if you buy 2.5 kilos of beans in one go, you get them at wholesale. They stock Kopi Lowak, the coffee that’s been through a civet and come out of its bum, and a fantastic Vietnamese coffee that tastes like chocolate and is great for dinner parties. Go now, before the creeping gentrification of Soho turns it into a starbux.