Dining

How to serve a luxury afternoon tea at home, according to the Tea Sommelier of London’s Rosewood Hotel

Afternoon tea is a British institution. 

And when it comes to afternoon tea, no one does it better than London’s 5-star luxury Rosewood Hotel. That’s official: it was voted Best Contemporary Afternoon Tea in the UK in 2017 and 2018. The hotel’s renowned Art Afternoon Tea is served in its opulent Mirror Room dining room, and is inspired by the masterpieces of Pablo Picasso – as such, the colourful collection of desserts and mouth-watering teas are almost too exquisite-looking to eat. Almost. You won’t find any soggy cucumber sandwiches here.

A true expert on the subject is the Mirror Room’s tea sommelier, Shane Cox. (Yes, that is a real job. No, it doesn’t place much value on all of our experience glugging PG Tips.) 

Picasso inspired afternoon tea at the Rosewood London’s Mirror Room ©Patricia Niven

The Luxe Review spoke to Shane about the underrated tea you should stock up on,  how to pair teas with desserts in the same way you would pair wine with food, and the definitive answer as to the correct order in which to layer your scone toppings (extremely divisive!). 

Whether you want to celebrate what has got to be one of the most luxe international holidays of the year, inspire your future London travel plans, or use this as inspiration for the perfect stay-home celebration this summer (birthdays in lockdown just got a lot more fabulous), here are the secrets to enjoying the perfect, modern afternoon tea at home, according to the award-winning Mirror Room tea sommelier…

The Luxe Review: What makes a truly great afternoon tea?

Shane Cox: There are a considerable amount of factors that need to be in place in order to host a successful afternoon tea. From the details of the table setup, creating a relaxing ambience and of course having warm, fluffy scones, I believe what truly separates the good from the great is having a passionate team behind the product, executing your concept with pride and offering suggestions to the guest throughout. This is where the memorable experiences are made and brings guests back time and time again.  

It’s like food and wine, it’s important to find the best match with each course throughout

TLR: How do you pair teas with desserts, and which flavours compliment each other best?

SC: Teas are so versatile in terms of flavour, which opens the opportunity for plenty of pairing options. In fact, we offer a seasonal tea pairing menu with our afternoon tea. You can find a lot of underlying sweet, citrus & floral notes in different teas – all common flavours found in tea cakes. The best way to offer a pairing? Taste! It’s like food and wine, it’s important to find the best match with each course throughout. It is our responsibility to know the product so we can guide our guests on the path to finding their favourites. 

TLR: Which types of tea do you like to pair with which foods?

SC: To begin with, I love a strong, full-bodied black tea to accompany the sandwiches. Usually my favourites are from Sri Lanka, their black teas are so versatile as they grow all over the country across different altitudes, and always offer different flavours. The subtle hints of malt and chocolate don’t interrupt the filling of the sandwich. High quality white teas are usually produced using just buds from the tea plant, they offer sweet and fresh floral notes. If you have cakes with flavours like bergamot and elderflower, this is a perfect match. Rooibos tea pairs perfectly with scones – the flavours of red berries & fruits work beautifully with the jam and cream. 

Picasso inspired afternoon tea at the Rosewood London’s Mirror Room ©Patricia Niven

TLR: Could you recommend us an underrated type of tea we should stock up on?  

SC: For me, it has to be Oolong tea. It is by far the most versatile type of tea, so there is plenty of room to explore. You can find fully oxidised oolongs which are dark and rich in flavour, and at the other end of the spectrum, there are very lightly oxidised balled oolongs, which can be smooth in texture with gentle, fresh, floral notes. Different countries will always produce different styles of the same tea, which is really interesting to note – my favourite Oolongs are from Taiwan. 

Rooibos tea pairs perfectly with scones – the flavours of red berries & fruits work beautifully with the jam and cream

TLR: In your opinion, what is the best everyday type of tea to have at home?

SC: Everyone has their own taste – personally I drink a strong Assam tea at home with no milk or sugar. On the hotter days you can shake it over ice with some sweetener & a slice of lemon, it’s very refreshing. 

TLR: The Rosewood’s pastries and desserts for Afternoon Tea are (literal) works of art. Could you give us a tip for making our home baking look more delicate and Rosewood-inspired? 

SC: The first key for a good pastry is the ingredients. Use high quality chocolate, organic fruit and lots of creativity. Find a recipe you feel you can follow and develop your skills. With a good base knowledge you can build up decorative skills, like using a scrunched acetate paper & creating interesting garnishes. Our main focus is always based on an artist. Find inspiration from an artist or any other passion you have. Amazing shapes, colours and designs will come to life. 

Cut the sandwiches into identical sizes – presentation is key. We eat with our eyes. 

TLR: Could you share an afternoon tea hosting trick that is impressive, but actually easy to execute?

SC: I think our guests are always particularly impressed with the length and detail that the team give in terms of menu and product description. Each cake has a story, and every sandwich has a link to the artist or genre. Guests are usually blown away with all these finer details & the passion the team has in delivering the product. 

The award-winning Art Afternoon Tea at the Rosewood London’s Mirror Room

TLR: How can we jazz up our sandwiches and make them more refined than a limp egg salad?

SC: Stay seasonal. It’s a nice touch to use ingredients which are at their best for only a short period of time. Egg & truffle in the winter is a winner for me. Introduce new breads, if you can get your hands on different coloured breads it looks amazing, as the spectrum jumps right off the plate. Take time in cutting the sandwiches into identical sizes – presentation is key. We eat with our eyes. 

The most disappointing moment possible at an afternoon tea is when you are told that a venue does not serve scones. Personally, warm, fluffy scones are a must.

TLR: Even if we might not be able to perfect the cooking part, how can we create a Mirror Room-style ambience at home?’

SC: Take pride in your table set up, first impressions are everything. Use the best china that may only make it out of the cupboard once a year. Ensure your guests are comfortable. Cushions and light music is a good start to make anyone feel right at home. 

TLR: What’s one element no afternoon tea should be without?

SC: As a customer, I think the most disappointing moment is when you are told that a venue does not serve scones. Everyone has a certain expectation before they arrive, and I think warm fluffy scones is one of them. Personally, they are a must if you are serving afternoon tea. 

Picasso inspired afternoon tea at the Rosewood London’s Mirror Room ©Patricia Niven

TLR: OK, it’s time for the big question: what is the correct scone etiquette? Do you go jam or cream first? 

SC: This is a dilemma we can always hear being discussed at the table, in terms of jam or cream first. The Devonshire method states cream, then jam and the Cornish method is jam and then cream. There are really no hard or fast rules, and it really is up to the guest on what they prefer – I find cream then jam works best. In terms of my favourite jam, strawberry and elderflower jam wins everyday. 

Find more details on the Rosewood London’s Art Afternoon Tea here.

Bex April May is an experienced entertainment, travel and lifestyle journalist based in London, writing for The Guardian, Metro, Cosmopolitan, MTV, Shortlist and more. Follow her adventures on Twitter @bexlectric and on Instagram @bexaprilmay

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