Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2021
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A spot of tea

Three London lairs where you can enjoy a proper cuppa

Before there was oil, there was tea. The original black gold has been the social fuel of the British Empire since the 17th century. It started wars, staved off diseases, calmed nerves and helped generations through exam periods.

London is still a good place to go for the perfectly served afternoon tea (along with Beijing, Tokyo, Taipei, Colombo and Mumbai). The afternoon tea break is a civilized eddy in a turbulent world. But before you sit down and sip, your right pinky gracefully extended, it is worth thinking about how those delicate leaves came to be floating in the bottom of your cup.

In 1610, Dutch traders brought the first commercial shipment of tea to Europe from its traditional home, China. Even though it took cargo ships two years to get to China and two to get back, tea drinking had swept the continent by the end of the century.

In London, two events helped herald the Era of Tea. The plague outbreak of 1665 made people crave a healthy lifestyle — little things, such as sterilized, boiled water (all the better if flavoured with some energizing leaves) and a bit of fresh air. And one of the good side effects of the Great Fire of London (1666) was to create open spaces in the densely populated town. Soon those vacant lots became the new “in” places; leafy, gentle pleasure gardens with names such as the Temple of Flora. As tea caught on, they morphed into tea gardens.

With decadent luxury came taxes. The tea tax applied to all the UK and her colonies. It lasted from 1689 to 1964. The tax was notoriously unpopular in some corners. In 1773, in one of the least bloody episodes leading up to the War of Independence, grumpy Bostonians dumped an entire consignment of tea into the harbour.

And that was not the only war involving the bits of leaves in boiled water. By this time, China was insisting on silver for its tea. The hard cost was making a major dent in British finances. In 1793, Lord Macartney was sent on a very expensive trade mission to try to convince the Chinese to take British goods and scientific instruments instead of cash. He failed.

Soon after, Britain began smuggling opium to China. Coincidentally, the Chinese had to pay for the illegal drug in silver. The situation deteriorated until, in 1839, Chinese authorities destroyed 20,000 chests of British opium. So in 1840, the Brits sent a fleet to force China to open her ports and buy their opium.

While the Opium Wars raged in China, the British were working on their back-up plan and started growing tea in India, Sri Lanka and, later, Africa. It was a huge success. Soon, Victorians were sipping tea from India, served on porcelain from China, sweetened with sugar from the Americas. Good thing globalization had not been invented yet.

By the late 19th century, most of the grand London hotels were serving afternoon teas. And with the popularity of the tango, tea dances were added to the social calendar.

World War II brought the bombing of tea warehouses and rationing. It was downhill from there. Soon — gasp — tea bags were introduced.

But there are still corners of gentility and grace in London where you can eat crustless sandwiches and drink Lapsang Souchong without such distressing thoughts.

Most serve tea between around 1pm and 6pm. It is not cheap, averaging about $60 a person, but usually it is an all-you-can-eat affair. Typically, there are sandwiches (salmon, egg, chicken, ham and the mysterious cucumber), cakes, scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam. Sometimes, when I am feeling indulgent, I will skip lunch and dinner and just have tea for four hours.

Here are three of my favourite spots.


The Dorchester

Park Lane; tel: 011-44-20-7629-8888; .

The Dorchester is a more modern tea, which means that rather than feeling like 1906, it feels more like 1931. The service is fine Wedgwood China, with china pots. They are relative innovators in the tea field because they serve the three traditional courses separately. That means that your scones arrive warm from the oven and your clotted cream is cool from the fridge. The result is sinful. And it won them the Tea Council award for best tea of the year. There is something about a good clotted cream that demands attention.

The room (again live music and sofas you sink into with a woomph) is more an extension of the lobby than a separate area. There are many tourists here, Americans trying to sit straight and Arabs with Harrods’ bags, but the tea is pure English, in the best possible sense. There are no formal sittings, so you can spend all afternoon at the Dorchester, being seduced by scones.


The Ritz

150 Piccadilly; tel: 011-44-20-7493-8181; .

The fabulous Palm Court was purpose built in 1906 for tea drinkers. As with the rest of the hotel, it is in Louis XVI style, all lovingly restored in the last couple of years. The tea is served in heavy silver pots with Limoges china cups. The room is a gilded, leafy winter garden complete with a fountain, cherubs and a glazed roof that lets in natural light. There is a pianist and a dress code.

It is another world, all elegance and attention to detail. A bit of Parisian style coupled with old-fashioned British craftsmanship. An escape not only from the craziness of London, but from this century. The Ritz is the first hotel to be awarded a Royal Warrant. It is just that kind of a place. Unsurprisingly, the sittings book up far in advance, mostly with Londoners.


Bramah Museum of Tea and Coffee

40 Southwark Street; tel: 011-44-20-7403-5650; .

For the purist, it is only the tea that counts. So, for the ultimate cup of dried leaves floating in boiled water, head down to the old tea docks in the east part of London. There, hidden on a small side street, is the Bramah Museum of Tea and Coffee, run by Edward Bramah, teaman extraordinaire.

Over the past 50 years, Mr. Bramah has been a tea planter in Malawi, a tea taster for Lyons and a tea lecturer in Japan. It is in his blood. One of his ancestors, Joseph Bramah, patented a tea-caddie lock in 1784. Another, Sir Joseph Banks, was one of the first to recommend growing tea commercially in Northeast India.

At the unpretentious museum teashop, Mr. Bramah serves a wide range of correctly poured teas (let steep for five minutes – they provide you with a timer, and ALWAYS add milk first). According to Mr. Bramah, “Our raison d’être is to teach people of our tremendous tea heritage. If we don’t, we’ll all be using” — pause for a deep breath — “tea bags!” Heaven forefend.

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