Questions You've Always Had About Afternoon Tea, Answered by a London Pastry Chef

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

The Milestone Hotel & Residences
Photo: 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 payoff of crumbly, buttery scones with fresh-whipped clotted cream makes the project more than worth it.

On a 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
The Milestone Hotel & Residences

The hotel offers four to six themed teas a year to keep things interesting. To honor Queen Victoria's 200th birthday, for example, Hemery served limited-time tea and bites that the royal would have eaten herself in the 19th century.

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, a cocktail bar created by award-winning bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana right on the Thames, offers a "Spirited Tea," a playful take on a high-end '80s afternoon tea with complicated cocktails, tea, and nostalgic English party foods like deviled eggs and eclairs. Over at Thames Foyer at the Savoy Hotel, guests can now try a vegan version of their classic afternoon tea with creative plant-based options like sandwiches filled with green pea hummus or jackfruit, scones served with vegan cream, and dairy-free (but still decadent) pastries.

The Milestone Hotel & Residences
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 theme. The most traditional format is three courses, though many afternoon teas now serve much more. "There's the savory 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
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 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 kind of a 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 of her favorites, pairs better with French pastries and cakes. The Milestone has a collection of over 25 varieties of tea, most of which are Single Estate Sri Lankan tea.

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