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Friday, November 21, 2014

Tea with the Missus and Me

Gadding About Dept.: Early in 1987, my wife and I learned about a wonderful travel opportunity: fly as a courier to London and you’ll pay only $100 for round-trip airfare. We were interviewed at the Queens-based headquarters of one such service and then booked to travel. We’d get a week in London, but, with only one such flight leaving daily, we had to fly on consecutive days. Which was fine with us. Here’s a piece of mine that came out of that trip.


THAT ELUSIVE FOURTH MEAL OF THE DAY, afternoon tea! What is its appeal, how should it be practiced? For an answer, my wife and I traveled to London with an expectation of traffic stopping and shops closing down at 4 to enable visitors and residents to indulge in this custom.

The Georgian Room at Harrod's
It turns out to be not that dramatic. In fact, we came upon our high tea quite by accident, while visiting the place that’s as much of a tourist attraction as it is a department store: Harrod’s, in the wealthy district of Knightsbridge.

A Rolls-Royce was parked outside. Behind it sat a Daimler-Benz. Several other no doubt pedigreed, hyphenated cars followed. The doorman sported more buttons than an elevator in a high-rise.

Inside was a mixture of British restraint and American let’s-sell-‘em fervor (the sale was to begin in a week: “There’s only one Harrod’s. There’s only one sale” is how ad copy reads).

This is the Crossgates Mall of central London, assuming you stripped Crossgates of its more useless stores, upped the prices, and re-tenanted it such that a Bloomingdale’s was its least-significant anchor. Admittedly, that eliminates most of the existing mall, but you get the idea. Lots of stuff, full retail price.

Lots of unusual stuff, too. You can buy a funeral service there. There’s also, and perhaps this is the wrong paragraph to mention it, a meat market.

And four restaurants on the upper two floors. It was about 3 o’clock when we made this discovery, along with the info that tea was about to served. We made our way through a labyrinth of floors and departments to the very top of the store, where the Georgian Room was a-bustle with the High Tea Crowd.

We missed the luncheon (or, if you’re British, dinner) buffet, where £12 (about $19) buys you a plate for the sprawling board of cold meats and salads – or, at the carvery section, hot roasts and Yorkshire pudding, the best reason I know for cooking roast beef.

Afternoon tea was a mere £5.50 ($8.80), unless you want to sit on the porch with a view of London, and that’s 50P extra. [That works out to about $18 in 2014 currency; Harrod’s afternoon tea is now £39, or about $60.]

Will it shock you to learn that those of our fellow-diners we could overhear were American? Well, why not. Probably the same throng that congregated a few blocks east to witness the changing of the guard that morning, a dead boring affair that only an American tourist would have the perseverance (and muscle power) to endure.

In any event, we were shown to a pink-clothed table in the midst of a huge room with skylights and an ornate ceiling, bounded by large panes of decoratively-frosted glass.

Yes, we said to the waiter’s query, and he brought us a tray of three pots: tea, hot water, and milk. You thin the tea to your taste, you see, but remember, the milk gets poured first. (This was not the waiter talking; this was myself, pontificating, from my boyhood diet of P. G. Wodehouse.)

Then we were turned loose upon the tables of sweets. They were breathtaking. Susan pounced on a pile of buttered scones (pronounced with a short O if you’re British) before noticing the cream-filled confections, a few of which she managed to cram onto the tiny plate.

The English don’t seem to use whipped cream as we know it. If you ask for cream for, say, your trifle, it’s a thick but runny topping. In the confections we ate at Harrod’s, it was whipped just short of butter, flavored with a variety of essence.

Tables were tumbling over with pastries, each a delectable morsel, each a hand-made item. There was fresh fruit as well, presented with breathtaking loveliness, although the two or, to be honest, three trips we took to the table were confined to a sampling of the breads and pastries.

Oh, yes. Bread. Freshly-baked, and a slice of sweet butter making it heaven to the dinner hole.

We were surprised to notice how trim most of the Londoners were – when a fat body emerged from a crowd it usually carried with it the vocal whine of a tourist from New Jersey. Perhaps it’s the avoidance of this sweet-laden afternoon tea that keeps the British in shape. 

The Georgian Restaurant at Harrod’s
, The Brompton Road, Knightsbridge, London SW1, 01-730-1234 ex. 3467. Serving lunch and afternoon tea until 4:40 PM. All major credit cards. [Current hours: Mon-Fri 11:30-8, Sunday noon-6.]

Metroland Magazine, 23 July 1987

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