Northern Soul

Review: Afternoon Tea, The Victoria and Albert Hotel, Manchester

September 29, 2018 Hotels, Taste Comments Off on Review: Afternoon Tea, The Victoria and Albert Hotel, Manchester

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky received the Nobel prize for economics for showing that people did not necessarily make rational decisions. Well, who knew? Clearly not classical economists who based their theories on the idea of the rational consumer and then failed to predict the 2007 crash, or indeed any other previous economic disaster. Bear with me.

One of their interests was why large-scale projects consistently over-ran on costs, like the Scottish Parliament building which was projected at £40 million and finally cost £414 million. They identified two main culprits, optimism and a failure to benchmark. Nobody ever went to look at what other over-budget projects had done or failed to do. 1

These are the sort of thoughts that run through your reviewer’s head when he is eating his second afternoon tea in a month, at a venue not half a mile from where he ate his first, in what could only be considered the competition.

Afternoon Tea is now a thing. They are all over the place. My grandmother would have been thrilled. But they’re not cheap. The V&A tea is £22.50, £7 cheaper than the competitor, but enough to bear comparison. As with all Afternoon Teas, the structure is similar – sandwiches, scones, cakes, tea. But there the similarities end.

Like all great cultural forms, there are rules about Afternoon Tea. The sandwiches should be pillowy, crustless slices of white or brown bread with delicious fillings – smoked salmon and cream cheese, beef and horseradish, ham and mustard, something veggie – you get the picture. Here the bread is mostly in the form of a finger roll made from wholemeal flour with a hard carapace that’s likely to prove a challenge to anyone without their own teeth. And the fillings are not up to snuff.

The ham, advertised as honey-roast, is the sort of pressed ham you get in packets in the less expensive supermarkets; the smoked salmon is cut too thick and also of inexpensive provenance (it’s got that slight slitheriness); the ‘slow cooked’ beef looks like the overcooked thin-sliced brown kind you get in those supermarkets, and the horseradish was undetectable. There was a cheese and pickle thing I’ll pass over.

The scones, on the other hand, were much better than the competition. Great texture, slightly too sweet for my taste – I like the bicarb bite – and served with cream and jam, and I munched several. The cakes too were entirely acceptable, although not the summit of the patisserie chef’s art like the competition; maybe that’s where the £7 went. But the tea…the tea…the tea.

When I arrived and was looking at the fairly short list of eight teas, I asked one of the managers where they got their tea, and she told me they had a Starbucks on the premises who supplied it. That sad echoey plop you heard last Thursday at about 1.15 pm was my heart sinking. If you’re going to offer a treat called Afternoon Tea, you cannot skimp on the tea. And there are plenty of excellent teas out there, if you look, which make much better brews than the what-can-we-get-away-with teas from big corporations.

I think the clue to what’s gone wrong here lies in a rather good lemon tart that came with the cakes. Nicely citrusy with a crisp thin pastry crust, it was topped by a twist of raw lemon of the kind you get in a G&T. Why? You can’t eat it, you’re not going to squeeze it, you’re going to discard it. Why not a very thin caramelized slice of lemon, or a slight dredging of icing sugar, which would have balanced the citrus? I think someone was keen to do something different, but hadn’t quite got the budget or the experience.

A message to The Management: it’s not too late. You have cause for optimism. There’s a very good example of an Afternoon Tea just up the road, and you’re ahead of them on the scones already.  Do a bit of benchmarking. And then please ask me back.

By Chris Wallis

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  1. There’s a very good book about Kahneman and Tversky called The Undoing Project. It’s by Michael Lewis who wrote The Big Short, Flash Boys and Moneyball, and who has a very worrying new book out next month about the Trump presidency called The Fifth Risk. You can get Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast And Slow, in all good bookshops. It looks like a self-help book, but it ain’t. It’s much more important than that.
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