Photo: Afternoon tea in Brown's Hotel

Tea service at Brown's Hotel.

Photograph by Horst Friedrichs, Anzenberger/Redux

By Raphael Kadushin

The classic English afternoon tea is more than just a meal. It has come to symbolize our romantic image of old-school British tradition. But that doesn’t mean tradition can’t evolve. The newest English sport is the race to create the most unique, high-concept specialty tea. Where to start? For couture design outside of London Fashion Week, head to Pret-a-Portea at the Berkeley London Hotel. Taking on a new direction every six months, the tea offerings celebrate top designers. Among the sugary masterpieces: a peach-colored sponge cake torte overlaid with a chocolate crocodile print, modeled after a Victoria Beckham tote, and an orange and lemon mousse styled after a Stella McCartney citrus print sheath.

The Sanderson Hotel serves a Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea that follows Alice straight down the rabbit hole. The Lewis Carroll homage includes rainbow-colored finger sandwiches, a Queen of Heart’s strawberry and cream mousse, and a layer cake with a chocolate rabbit’s clock.

Overlooking Green Park, the Athenaeum Hotel counters with an Evergreen Tea that salutes the English garden, and the property’s own Living Wall—a tapestry of plants and flowers crawling up part of the hotel’s facade. The floral-inspired selection includes orange blossom scones, rose-scented meringues, fruit tarts with lavender jam, and jasmine flower tea.

Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair makes one of the best cases for the beauty of tradition. The hotel’s English Tea Room, a wood-paneled haven warmed by fireplaces, guarantees there are two tea sommeliers to guide you through the 17 teas and scones.

The One Aldwych hotel’s Modern British Afternoon Tea offers a taste of the country’s suddenly serious approach to cuisine. The tea is served in the Lobby Bar, a stylish Covent Garden hangout punctuated by massive flower bouquets. Chef Tony Fleming replaces the usual decadent chocolate tart with a two-bite mouthful and dresses a petite duck egg with English asparagus. In season, the Summer Berry Tea dishes up confit cherry tartlets and provides a whiff of the English midsummer larder if you can’t get out to the shires. That shouldn’t stop you from trying though, especially since a country drive promises its own range of novelty teas. Among the 2011 winners of the Tea Guild awards selected by the U.K. Tea Council is Ashdown Park’s afternoon spread. The East Sussex manor house hotel serves a grown-up tea with Scottish smoked salmon sandwiches and a goofy but endearing Winnie the Pooh tea for kids, which includes hunny sandwiches and a Kanga cupcake. Surrounding the hotel is Ashdown Forest, where A. A. Milne took his son, Christopher Robin, for nature walks. The hotel will pack sandwiches into a picnic hamper to enjoy in a bona fide picture-book setting.

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