Tea culture in London: more than dried leaves and hot water for Brits

Columnist Caitlin Weigel offers advice on how to experience a British afternoon tea without leaving Philadelphia.

Columnist Caitlin Weigel offers advice on how to experience a British afternoon tea without leaving Philadelphia.

LONDON – With the exception of that boy wizard, the British are perhaps best known for one thing: tea.

With the knowledge that the heart of British culture is centered on a pot of steaming water and some leaves, I found myself in central London at Bea’s of Bloomsbury. I decided to skip out on the posh high tea served at the Ritz, but longed for something more than a tea bag and a microwaved mug of water, so Bea’s seemed like the ultimate middle ground. It’s small and packed with CaitlinWeigelthe tea-time crowd, but waiting for a table just gave me more time to drool over the extensive pastry display.

I chose Earl Grey tea – I swear if Earl Grey was a dude and not a beverage, we’d be married and raising little royal babies – then followed the hostess to a vacant table to partake in the cornerstone of English social engagements: afternoon tea.

Afternoon tea is generally served between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. and consists of light fare and tea.

In this case, “light fare” translates to a glorious three-tiered pastry tray overflowing with scones, brownies, blondies, glittering cupcakes, meringues and raspberry marshmallows. It’s as if I’ve been transported to Big Rock Candy Mountain, and I can hear my inner 8-year-old weeping for joy. After a long bus ride, the treats supply a welcomed sugar rush, and guests get their own miniature silver teapots to wash it all down.

Upon finishing, I can’t help but feel more in tune with the Brits. I notice the urge to wear gloves, my humor’s swing to the dry side and my pinky’s inclination to jut away from the rest of the fingers.

The social dimension of the event becomes clear as I notice co-workers catching up at surrounding tables, friends swapping stories with their heads together and others simply taking time to enjoy themselves in the middle of an otherwise busy workday.

It’s clear that this mid-afternoon break satisfies more than just hunger.

If you feel like participating in your own tea party but don’t have the time or cash to hop the next flight across the pond, check out the spread at the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia’s Logan Square. For $32, you can enjoy the full afternoon tea experience, complete with pastries, tea assortments and a baby grand piano that tinkles tunes in the background.

If the Four Seasons’ price is too steep, have a DIY-style tea party. You can enjoy your own perfect cup of tea with a little water, a kettle, some tea and a mug. Check out the House of Tea at 720 S. 4th St. in Old City or Premium Steap at 111 S. 18th St. in Rittenhouse for exotic teas and instructions from the pros on how to brew the best cup.

Warm up your teapot beforehand and make sure the water is boiling. Then pop in “Notting Hill,” load up on Tastykakes and enjoy the sugar coma you’re sure to slip into.

Caitlin Weigel can be reached at caitlin.weigel@temple.edu.

1 Comment

  1. Caitlin has a keen sense of how to relate British tradition to the Philly lifestyle. This is a very witty and insightful article! I wish I could meet this young girl who has a knack for making the ordinary seem absolutely dreamy!

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