‘There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea,’ wrote Henry James. If you’re planning on heading to the Royal York Hotel for afternoon tea, however, I’d allow a little longer than James’s allotted hour – you’ll certainly want to linger.
Served in a high-ceilinged, opulent lounge (the ‘Garden Room’) decorated in cream and slate grey, with quirky equestrian-themed touches, the Royal York afternoon tea would certainly have impressed Henry James, and will delight even the most sophisticated fans of this decadent meal. The hotel clearly understand that there should be something ceremonial about afternoon tea – although the meal was invented as an ingenious and practical way of filling the hunger gap between lunch and dinner, it has grown into a symbol of luxury and refined British cuisine. This couldn’t be clearer at the Royal York, where your tea arrives in stages on fine china and a towering platter and you are made to feel like minor royalty. The lounge is light and airy and, despite the views of the garden being somewhat marred by the car park, is a fabulous place to while away an hour or two while revelling in the understated luxury of the hotel, set in the heart of beautiful York. The staff are friendly and attentive, and each stage of the meal is an absolute treat.
We began our full afternoon tea with a glass of Lanson Père et Fils Brut NV champagne, a lovely light and refreshing champagne that was perfect for a summer afternoon. Rather than going straight to finger sandwiches, I was delighted to find that the savoury component of this afternoon tea also includes a pretty plate of small bites: smoked salmon mousse topped with hot-smoked salmon and a crispy crouton, Yorkshire ham and leek tart, and a Harrogate blue cheese scone with chive cream cheese and pickled cucumber. The smoked salmon mousse was luscious and creamy, my favourite of the three, although the tart was also meltingly delicious, with perfectly crisp pastry and a soft, warm and deeply savoury filling. The scone was a little flavourless and doughy for my liking, though; I think it needed rather more blue cheese or a more balanced ratio of scone to topping. The savouries were served first, before a towering tea stand arrived brimming with beautifully presented delights. Finger sandwiches are hard to get right, but these fitted the bill very well: the Yorkshire ham and mustard sandwich on brown bread packed a real flavour punch, and the cucumber, mint and cream cheese sandwich didn’t skimp on the butter or cream cheese, giving a lovely contrast with the crisp cucumber. I applaud the variety of savoury items on offer at the Royal York; so much more interesting than simply sandwiches, and a good balance with all the sweetness to follow. As a cake-lover who also has a penchant for cheese, meat and bread, it’s important that the savoury component of afternoon tea is treated with as much care as the desserts.
Now to the litmus test of every afternoon tea. We were presented with two scones: a sultana variety, and a plain. They sported the telltale seam around the middle that is the sign of a good, well-baked scone, so I was optimistic. They also came with a satisfactorily large dollop of silky clotted cream and raspberry jam, which in my eyes is the only jam one should be served at afternoon tea – the bland sweetness of strawberry is insipid and boring compared to the exciting zing of raspberry. The sultana scone was excellent; the plain version a little bland and oddly dense for my liking – but then I am a scone purist/pedant and am obsessed with finding the perfect scone. They were, overall, lovely vehicles for excellent thick cream and tart jam.
The cake selection at the Royal York varies from day to day, but I imagine the Battenberg and chocolate orange éclair are staples – both were good, but not as good as the pretty pink raspberry and white chocolate slice, which was light, airy and fragrant, and the lemon sherbet macaron, which delivered a tongue-tingling burst of lemon curd and came topped with a pretty edible flower. The passionfruit pavlova was also perfectly balanced in terms of its sweet-tart flavours, and the strawberry and Pimms tart a lovely light taste of summer. None were too heavy or too sweet, which again is important when you’ve just consumed what feels like your own body weight in scones and finger sandwiches.
We should talk about the tea itself, as well. Not everyone wants a tannic cup of Earl Grey or breakfast tea with their scone and cake feast, and I was so glad the Royal York seem to appreciate this: their tea menu includes unusual Chinese green tea and a gorgeously aromatic Jasmine silver tip white tea. Once reserved only for the Chinese imperial family, this complex and intensely fragrant tea will transport you to a world of Eastern promise with every sip. It’s perfect with the sugary scones and cakes, providing just enough bitterness to cut through them. The Keemun black tea is also a lovely choice, with a rich golden colour and a slightly smoky flavour. This is a tea menu for tea lovers like myself. Traditionalists can enjoy their English breakfast, Earl Grey and Darjeeling teas too, though, and the Royal York have selected some of the best. You can also opt for coffee or hot chocolate if you’re not a tea fan, or herbal infusions such as Sri Lankan lemongrass, spearmint, peppermint or chamomile, again expertly sourced. The teas, all loose leaf, are served properly in a pot with a strainer, and staff offer refills whenever your tea levels are dangerously low (I definitely had at least three pots of the jasmine tea).
I’ve had a lot of afternoon teas in my life; it’s my favourite ‘meal’ of the day and my ultimate treat, combining my love of aromatic, warming, fortifying tea with the comforting bolster of scones, jam and cream and dainty savouries. The Royal York’s is one of the best, as much for the decadent surroundings as for the quality and attention to detail of the meal itself. Highly recommended for a wonderful afternoon out, and a bargain at £22.95 for the full afternoon tea (£29.50 with champagne).
Disclaimer: I enjoyed afternoon tea courtesy of the Royal York Hotel; all views are my own.