Bath: it’s the home of Jane Austen, the birthplace of the Bath Bun. The city is an El Dorado for tearoom-lovers everywhere. So what better place to complete our whistle-stop tour of the world’s best tea ceremonies than right here in our Pixie community of Bath? Today, we’re discovering the sacred art of the English afternoon tea.
Meandering past fountains and rows of elegant Regency houses along Bath’s Great Pulteney Street you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in the pages of an 18th century novel – and not 21st century Britain. But as you peek through the door into the soaring foyer of No.15, with its quirky chandeliers and stylish modern sculptures, the old and new worlds blend seamlessly into one.
Ionut the restaurant manager of No.15 Great Pulteney, a boutique independent hotel in Bath, shows me through to their Sitting Room. The plush armchairs and thick carpets are a far cry from Costa Coffee. Clearly tea and cake here does not mean a tea bag and a slice of Mr. Kipling. “We take afternoon tea very seriously”, Ionut laughs. “We understand that an afternoon tea is an occasion that means a lot. Most of the people that come for tea here are celebrating an important event or treating a loved one.”
The English tradition of afternoon tea evolved in the 1840s as a means of filling the gap between the two main meals of the day: breakfast and dinner. The Kate Moss of her era, the Duchess of Bedford was teatime’s trend-setter. To stave off hunger she would order tea, cakes, bread and butter to be brought to her room about 4pm. Soon all the fashionable women of England were sitting down for a mid-afternoon cuppa. Inviting guests to enjoy the foreign luxury of tea in your home offered women a way to show off their wealth at a time when only men were to be seen in coffeehouses. Glittering dresses, gloves, and even dancing were added to take tea from being merely a drink to one of the most important occasions in the social calendar. I spy a group of grandmothers laughing and gossiping across their three-tiered silver stand and smile. Some things never change.
As with their elegant yet eclectic decor, No.15 respects the tradition behind afternoon tea while also adding their own contemporary spin. All the classic elements that once satisfied the stomach of the Duchess of Bedford are present – but melt-in-your-mouth caramel and popcorn tarts inject an element of fun into proceedings and deliciously flaky chorizo sausage rolls save the dainty delicacies from any sense of pretentiousness. “Of course we keep all the usual favourites like clotted cream and scones,” Ionut reassures me.
Crusts on or off? Cream then jam or jam then cream? Six or seven minutes brewing time? Every person and place has their own rules and rituals for afternoon tea. But what about the million dollar question: which type of tea? No.15’s recommended accompaniment is their own English Breakfast, a blend specially concocted for the hotel by Bath’s tea gurus at Comins. “They really know their tea – you can taste the quality”, Ionut explains. Subtle yet robust, No.15’s English Breakfast can hold its own against flavoursome savoury snacks without overpowering delicate desserts. But if you’re feeling adventurous you can pair your tasty treats with a wide choice of green, white and herbal teas. “And you can always supplement your tea with a glass of Lenoble champagne or one of our famous house cocktails,” Ionut grins cheekily.
Whether it was stimulating the gossip of aristocratic ladies, warming the stomachs of labourers after a day in the mines, or being used by doctors to cure patients, once it was introduced in the 1600s tea soon captured the hearts (and mugs) of Britain. It quickly became a beverage for all – from haymakers to undertakers – and developed its own proud sense of “Britishness” that united different people and classes.
The ability of tea to bring people of all types together is a beautiful thing – and one you can still witness today at No.15. Their perfect blend of both class and fun means you’re just as likely to spot locals enjoying a cup of Earl Grey with their Labrador as Russian businessmen introducing their diamond-clad wives to the joys of a fruit scone.
During the course of our tea adventures we’ve participated in sacred matcha ceremonies at Comins, discovered the chai wallahs of India at Moo & Two and imagined ourselves nibbling finger sandwiches with the Duchess of Bedford. Wherever you are, respecting local teatime rituals is important. Rock legend Mick Jagger famously admitted: “I got nasty habits; I take tea at three.”