Time I’ve lived in the UK: 5 years, 2 months, 3 weeks. Time it’s taken me to try afternoon tea since I live here: 4 years, 11 months, 4 days.
Four years is a long while to spend waiting for the time to be right, and yet that’s as much as it’s taken me to make up my mind. You’d think a holiday abroad, a car or a new kitchen are purchases that require time and effort; I take afternoon tea no less seriously, as it involves cake, and I have no patience for bad cake. I wanted my first afternoon tea to dazzle me, convince me I’d been a fool to wait all these years, and urge me to repeat the experience; I’ve been known to expect far less from first dates. Also, I wanted scones. I love scones. I couldn’t bear the thought of going for afternoon tea and not having scones. That helped cross a few places off my list, but not quite enough (there aren’t many scone-less afternoon teas out there, thank heavens), and so the pondering went on for much longer than I’d expected.
The Delaunay‘s afternoon tea menu offered both scones and Viennese cakes; a combination of two of my favourites in the dessert world, enough to spur me on to make a booking. Much to my surprise, though, it took me some time to warm up to the food. The elation I expected upon being presented with my first-ever tea tray quickly turned into puzzlement, as I noticed the size of the snacks: nibbles fit for a dollhouse, glorified (and, I began to worry, overpriced) canapés. The portion for two involved three savoury bites per person, a small scone and a mini-gugelhupf each, and a sharing plate of miniature cake servings; there was one of each type, and since my partner and I both wanted to try them all, we had to cut each slice in half. A challenge in itself, as the knife was chunkier than some of them.
Could that really be everything? Was another tray on its way? Would we be offered more snacks, just like we were offered unlimited refills for our large pots of tea? Yes, it was everything – and no, there wasn’t more food coming, not for £23.50 per person. If there’s one thing the experience taught me about afternoon tea, it’s that you can hardly call it a feast. But here’s the other thing I learnt: three savoury nibbles, a tiny scone with cream and jam, a mini-gugelhupf, and six half-servings of the smallest cake slices you can picture can fill you up pretty quickly. Take me out for dinner, and I’ll need three full-on courses to feel as close to food coma.
The savoury snacks weren’t as good a start to my afternoon tea as I’d have wanted; had I known which ones we’d be getting beforehand, I might not have chosen The Delaunay so eagerly. The Viennese Tea menu, though, is vague on the subject: while the regular menu gives away what the range of “assorted savouries” is, the exact combinations they serve for afternoon tea change regularly, and are not set in stone. I got a little too excited about the mention of a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel on the menu, and therefore gutted to realise it wasn’t on offer that day. Smoked salmon came on a thin piece of rye bread, topped with a sort of dill mayonnaise; I’d have liked it more if the taste of the sauce hadn’t been so overpowering. The savoury biscuits tasted and smelled overwhelmingly cheesy, and the cream cheese sandwiched between them was too greasy for my taste. I happily left my mini burger with beef and pickles to my partner; burgers are not my thing, not even full size.
Then again, the savoury section wasn’t the one I had the highest hopes for. The cakes awaited, and brought me the “wow” moment I’d been hoping for all along. My favourite was the coffee and rum cake, creamy and perfectly balanced in flavour. I tried Battenberg for the first time, which will by no means be the last; my love for marzipan cakes knows no limits. The mini raspberry tart with chantilly cream was the kind of good that made me wish I could go for seconds, thirds and fourths, and the pistachio slice – not quite what you’d expect from Viennese tea – also worked like a charm, especially thanks to the tangy, refreshing lemon cream on top. The only off note was the chocolate cake: the layer of mint in the middle felt totally unnecessary, and considering how well known The Delaunay is for its Sachertorte, I still find it hard to believe that they’ve decided to replace it with a far less interesting variation on the original.
By the end of the cake platter, I started to realise I wasn’t going to walk out of The Delaunay with a rumbling stomach, or leave a single crumb behind. The sugar coma peaked halfway through the third plate: the one with the scones and gugelhupfs, the highlights of my afternoon. Gugelhupf was another first for me; its light, fluffy sponge felt like a welcome change from the previo (delightfully) heavy creams and thick textures of the previous plate.
I left the scone for last, and recommend you do the same if you want to end your meal on the highest of highs: the scone itself is soft, crumbly and packed with butter, the cream unmistakably fresh, the strawberry jam sweet enough to balance the taste of dairy. Eating the three together was a pleasure I wished would never end. I quickly got to grips with the “cream first” etiquette – although, as a continental used to layering spreads on biscuits and pieces of toast my first instinct was to go for jam first, and use cream as the topping. You live, you learn.
If you’re new to afternoon tea, starting with The Delaunay will leave you with a positive first impression, without setting you back the fortune you’d have to pay at other equally or more renown London establishments. The presentation of the food might not make you feel you’re getting good value for your £23.50 straight away, but the quality of the offering will, especially as far as the sweet section goes. If you’re on a more limited budget, they also offer a £10.75 cream tea featuring the infamous scones; £9 will buy you a hot drink and an individual (and much larger) cake portion. Again, the range on offer changes regularly, but is unlikely to ever disappoint. I shall return for a slice of real-deal Sachertorte – there are simply not enough places that offer it in London, and I’m glad I found one I have reasons to trust.
London WC2B 4BB
(nearest tube station: Holborn)
Afternoon tea served Monday – Sunday, 15.30 – 18.30