Time for tea: Behind the scenes at Claridge’s

A traditional afternoon tea spread at Claridge's

Savour a behind-the-scenes taste of afternoon tea at Claridge’s, a landmark London hotel and royal favourite 

Preparation begins the night before at about midnight,” explains Martyn Nail, Executive Chef at Claridge’s hotel in Mayfair, which has been concocting exquisite selections of finger sandwiches and sweet pastries for the best part of 150 years. “Our touriers (overnight bakers responsible for the breakfast pastries and bread) are the first link in the chain. They begin by making the dough and allowing it to prove, before baking it in the early hours of the morning,” Martyn continues, as he details the well-oiled machine that is Claridge’s kitchen on a normal working day. 

Jérôme Chaucesse (centre), Claridge’s’ pâtissier-in-residence

“They then hand over to the day-shift pastry chefs, who make the cakes and scones. The sandwich fillings are then prepared mid-morning and the sandwiches themselves are assembled just before service.” The near-military precision of the procedures and personnel busy at work behind the scenes is a prerequisite to the seamless service showcased front of house at Claridge’s.

In the grand Foyer, where afternoon tea is served daily, there is, in contrast to the kitchen, a comforting air of calm. Guests are waited on with the utmost patience and diligence by staff impeccably dressed in white, who glide discreetly between tables. The walls are mirrored, lending both an intimate and expansive feel to the room, the latter aided by sky-high ceilings. Hypnotic melodies emanate from the grand pianist and cellist in the corner.

The cakes and pastries are the most difficult aspect to make

It’s no surprise that the elegance of Claridge’s afternoon tea is now synonymous with royalty and the aristocracy, a reputation first earned by the hotel when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited in 1860. 

This five-star London institution has been advocating the hedonistic consumption of afternoon tea for almost as long as it has existed. Almost all of us can empathise with Anna Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, who has gone down in history as the originator of the English afternoon tea. 

It was around 1840 when she first noticed that she became hungry at around four o’clock each afternoon, in that barren (and possibly slightly boring, if you’re a Duchess) time period between lunch and dinner. So the Duchess requested a tray of tea, cake and some bread and butter to be brought to her room, staving off the hunger pangs that usually arrived during the final few hours before her dinner was served at eight. Initially a solitary habit, the Duchess soon realised it was a great opportunity – or excuse – to invite friends over. 

In fact, her lifelong friendship with Queen Victoria marked the start of the monarch’s own penchant for a late-afternoon bite to eat, which grew so strong that the Queen’s favourite cake, the Victoria Sponge, came to be named after her in the final years of her reign. Thus from pragmatic beginnings, afternoon tea flourished into a national love affair and social ritual, with both indulgence and high society at its core.

Ladies take tea together at Claridge’s in 1938. Credit: Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

Nowadays plain bread and better just wouldn’t
cut the mustard (sorry, Duchess). Dorrington ham with caramelised apple, calvados and red endive on onion bread spread with cinnamon butter sounds more like it. “Our afternoon tea sandwiches are famous and a great deal of love and care goes into making them,” says Executive Head Chef, Martyn. 

Nevertheless, Claridge’s doesn’t rest on its laurels. The team are constantly innovating in the kitchen, reviving traditional flavours and establishing modern classics with the arrival of each season. “Picking different breads to pair with fillings is exciting: there’s rye, malt, granary, brown, onion or plain white,” continues Martyn. 

While experimentation is encouraged, one rule is always honoured on the sandwich stand: “The perfect afternoon tea sandwich should be two-thirds bread and one-third filling,” states Martyn.

Dainty finger sandwiches

The attention to detail employed by Martyn and his team is impressive. Many guests may not even notice some of the techniques responsible for tiny morsels of added value here and there. The bread, for example, is laterally sliced, unlike bread cut for toast, so that it retains its shape better and is more pleasurable to look at and eat.

Read the full feature in the September/October 2020 issue of BRITAIN.