Friday, May 18, 2007

Tea at St. James

Afternoon tea at the St. James in Fortnum and Mason is everything you’d imagine it to be: elegant, refined and civilized with impeccable service by any international standards. The room is decorated in a typically, if not dated, sumptuous British elegance, not unlike the living room of a traditional royal, gold leaf and patterned upholstery and muted blues and greens. The grand piano in the middle of the room went unplayed, however, and we didn’t get a window table but, after all, it was the people watching inside that we came for. At the table next to us was a very proper British businessman and his teenage daughter, she less formal in her demeanor, relaxed in her style but both with etiquette as polished as the heavy silverware. I opted for the Earl Grey Classic tea.

When you serve tea to hundreds of people every day and have been doing so for hundreds of years let’s face it, it’s hard to improve the experience any more. They know their game. Our waiter is impossibly well groomed and manicured in what looks like a bespoke uniform (is there such a thing?) and a smile that, if it wasn’t sincere deserved an actor’s award.

For those who’ve ever tried it when you cut the crusts off a sandwich it must be eaten literally within minutes before it seems to go stale. And a good pastry is the same way. I’d forgotten what a truly fresh scone tasted like, or clotted cream. They are only really fresh for a couple of hours, at most, and best consumed within one hour of cooling. Well, that’s how fresh everything is. It doesn’t get any better. When they set that three tiered pastry caddy down on the table it seems rather daunting. You really don’t think that you’ll finish everything. You will, however, and as you glance about the room you’ll see that everyone else has too.

Yet tea at St. James is more than just the exemplary service, the fine china, the perfectly turned out sandwiches and sweets. It’s the whole experience of tradition. It’s a reverence for the really fine things in life and being cognizant of the fact that you are lucky enough to be enjoying the experience. It’s the muffled laughter, the bits of conversation overheard, the notion that this is somehow life on a different level, safe and tucked away for an hour or two from the grisly and invasive world, reality TV and sensationalist newspapers.

The next day we’d have tea at the Orangery in Kensington Gardens which is very nice, don’t get me wrong. The offerings are all the same quality, or near, and you are still surrounded by beautiful, polite people but it’s just a tad more casual. Give me my St. James. Of course, you’ll be expected to pay for the privilege. The afternoon tea is about twenty-five pounds, more for the champagne tea. Yet, the elegant civility you can’t buy anywhere else. Book well in advance.

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