What happens when York’s finest hotel does afternoon tea? A British institution gets a sublime modern makeover, says Savour contributor Anna Mason.
In terms of Britishness, afternoon tea stands side by side with horse racing, cricket and the Queen.
Fittingly, the launch of the new afternoon tea experience at The Grand Hotel & Spa coincided with the first major racing event of the season at York Races.
Several owners and trainers choose to base themselves at this luxurious city stay during the May Dante Festival, and the lobby and bar areas buzz with chatter about form and racing results. Meanwhile, Hudson’s – the hotel’s graceful ground floor restaurant – presented its silver service afternoon tea with equal style.
“Our interpretation is a little different” explains Walter Tassa, the Italian maître d’. “We don’t use a stand; rather we guide guests through a variety of tastes. It is of course a very English tradition, but we have given it an up-to-date, contemporary twist, while respecting its roots.”
This means diners sipping exquisite tea from earthenware cups rather than china, and eat from earthenware plates, crafted in Yorkshire.
Following the Hudson’s philosophy, ingredients are all sourced locally. The egg in your Victorian egg mayonnaise toast sandwich will have come from a happy local hen; the tomato in the chilled consommé starter – intended to freshen the palate before the other courses – picked from a nearby greenhouse.
Forget everything you thought you knew about soggy cucumber sandwiches. The perfectly formed sandwich selection on this menu includes cucumber, but pickled, and paired with delicate dill and crusty sourdough bread it’s wholly reinvented. Succulent, pink sea trout with red onion and chives on soft brioche is equally as good.
What would afternoon tea be without scones? Topped with silky butter and clotted cream, the fluffy cheese and fruit scones at Hudson’s are sent straight from heaven (or the kitchen oven; everything here is expertly homemade).
Now for the best part. Hudson’s cake collection features velvety banana bread, strawberry-topped pistachio cake and, my favourite, a caramel choux bun adorned with gold sprinkles. The effect is reminiscent of a display of colourful dresses on Ladies’ Day.
Such pretty edibles can’t fail to lift the weariest spirit, and this is the reason afternoon tea came about. In the 1800s, Duchess and friend of Queen Victoria, Anna Russell, complained of “having that sinking feeling” during late afternoon.
The Duchess found that tea and something light to eat banished the slump and mild hunger pangs, and the ritual caught on amongst high society. Tea was a pricy commodity, drinking it habitually a mark of affluence. Now most of us cannot face the day without a cup (or several) but there is a certain care to the art of tea we often miss.
Here in the elegant, wood-panelled dining space – overlooking York’s ancient city walls – this artful pride is very much is evidence. Guests are presented with a tea menu from which to select their favourite blends, smelling samples. If wanted, special tea pairing is available for each of the four courses.
Hudson’s use Newby for their teas and tisanes. Aside from the outstanding quality of its multi award-winning teas, this London company wins points for supporting charitable projects and programmes around the world, including education for young Indian women. Choose from such exotic wonders as Milk Oolong and Rooibos Tiramisu or opt for a classic like Earl Grey or English Breakfast. There’s also a unique blend created just for The Grand.
Diners can have as much or as little to eat as they like, so if you happen to feel like devouring several scones, you can – no judgement. If you’re in an extra indulgent mood you can even finish your fine afternoon tea journey with a visit from the cheese trolley.
It’s easy to dismiss this British custom as a somewhat stodgy, stuffy affair but at The Grand, all bets are on for an afternoon tea experience that’s as light and refreshing as your welcome glass of prosecco. Would the Duchess have approved? Definitely, but this is more like tea for Meghan and Harry.
Afternoon Tea by Hudsons is available Friday to Sunday. £35 per person. Call 01904 899636 to book.