Chloe Hemery, head pastry chef at The Milestone Hotel in Kensington, explains the fundamentals. 

By Maria Yagoda
Updated June 12, 2019
The Milestone Hotel & Residences
Credit: The Milestone Hotel & Residences

While summer may seem like a strange time to enjoy afternoon tea with a steaming pot of Darjeeling, it's actually quite perfect. What better way to get through a sticky afternoon than by sitting in a cool room with tea, no-cook sandwiches, and pastries? Of course, there's a bit of baking involved, but the pay off of crumbly, buttery scones with fresh-whipped clotted cream makes the project more than worth it.

On a recent visit to London, I stopped by one of the most quintessentially British, cozy-but-posh properties in the city's Kensington neighborhood, The Milestone Hotel & Residences, which also happens to be known for its classic afternoon tea served in the conservatory. Chloe Hemery, head pastry chef at the Milestone, prepares a number of tea services, whether you're looking for a bit of bubbles (with a few Champagne pairings) or something more traditional.

The Milestone Hotel & Residences
Credit: The Milestone Hotel & Residences

This year, Hemery served a limited-time tea honoring Queen Victoria's 200th birthday serving bites that the royal would have eaten herself in the 19th century. (Hemery is now serving a tea to coincide with Wimbledon; she always tries to do around 4 to 6 themed teas a year to keep things interesting.)

Indeed, Queen Victoria might not recognize some of the eclectic afternoon teas now on offer throughout London and beyond, but I think she'd probably enjoy them. Lyaness, the new bar from award-winning Ryan Chetiyawardana right by the Thames, just launched their "Fancy Tea," a playful take on a high-end '80s dinner party with complicated cocktails, tea, and nostalgic English party foods like sausage rolls, deviled eggs, trifles, and eclairs. Over at Thames Foyer at the Savoy Hotel, guests can now try their seasonal new summery tea designed to pair with JING teas, with sophisticated bites like apricot and jasmine religieuse, pistachio madeleines, and lemon brioche filled with oak smoked salmon alongisde chive whipped cream cheese and fennel pollen.

The Milestone Hotel & Residences
Credit: The Milestone Hotel & Residences

But before you get experimental, you have to understand the fundamentals. Below, Hemery answers the questions about afternoon tea you were too afraid to ask.

What's the difference between high tea and afternoon tea?

"Afternoon Tea is made up of three courses of food with a pot of tea," said Hemery. High tea, on the other hand, was traditionally "a working class family evening meal or supper."

How many courses?

All afternoon teas stick to the same general structure, even if they vary in the theme. Three courses is most traditional, though many afternoon teas now serve much more. "There’s the savoury course with tea sandwiches, the scones course served with clotted cream and jam, and, finally, the third course of sweet pastries," said Hemery.

The Milestone Hotel & Residences
Credit: The Milestone Hotel & Residences

When is the best time to serve it?

"I think mid-afternoon, between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. is the best time," said Hemery. "Afternoon tea was supposed to tide one over between lunch and dinner in Victorian times." Of course now, afternoon tea is now its own occasion, and an extravagant one, at that. (You may not be hungry for dinner if you enjoy everything that's brought out, and that's perfectly okay.) You can now book many afternoon teas around 1 p.m. and treat it as a kind of de facto lunch.

What are the best teas?

Hemery recommends the Assam Second Flush, a strong black tea, as a nice pairing for finger sandwiches. She says that the Darjeeling First Flush, another one of her favorites, pairs better with French pastries and cakes. At the Milestone, she works with a collection of over 25 varieties of teas, most of which are Single Estate Sri Lankan tea.

If you feel inspired, check out 18 of our favorite afternoon tea recipes, from scones to sandwiches.