In summer the sparrows never tire,
And the oleanders keep their color,
A deeper pink than the mind of man can imagine.
In summer the heat-filled breeze
Enters every tree
And beckons humans to a waking dream.
It is in summer that visions come,
In June dawns
That angels hide in the sky.
On this recent trip, on our way from Honolulu to London, we stopped in California, where Wayne and I both lived for many decades, from late childhood until our retirement. We wanted to visit the only remaining member of the Greatest Generation on either side of our family, Wayne’s one-hundred-year-old aunt, also named Rose Higashi.
We had a reservation for Afternoon Tea at the Savoy Hotel, where we were staying, on the day we arrived. This two-hour respite of perfect food and ethereal tea in a breathtakingly beautiful environment was one of the loveliest tea parties I have ever attended. And it was a welcome reminder that the tea ritual itself is an art form of great beauty.
The Savoy is decorated throughout in understated Georgian elegance with classical and Baroque elements harmoniously arranged in a moss green, cream and gold palette. The Savoy’s tearoom, the Themes Foyer, is in the center of the hotel, just past the lobby and down a set of marble stairs. These stairs lead to an amazing Baroque wonderland with walls lined with Corinthian columns, a central dome decorated with green stained-glass flowers, and a crystal chandelier hanging above a creamy white gazebo with a green marble floor.
Our waiters were two young Asian men in impeccable white jackets with black piping, who turned out to be a perfectly synchronized team. Their name tags identified them as Avatar and Stephane, and their attentive service was worthy of their elegant names. From the long list of teas and tisanes available, we chose for the savory course Chinese Pu-er and an herbal tisane with ginger, lemon and fennel, and for the sweets course Japanese Gyokuro, a green tea, and the Savoy Black Tea Blend. Avatar and Stephane appeared at just the right moment with pots of steaming tea and silver strainers, pouring out tea for us into the floral Wedgwood cups designed exclusively for the Savoy. They returned repeatedly with silver pitchers of hot water, and we never had to fill our own cups.
The sandwiches, on perfectly fresh bread, and not refrigerated because they had just been made, arrived on an oblong sandwich tray of the same lovely floral pattern as the teacups. We enjoyed egg salad on white bread, curried chicken salad with raisins on brown bead, fresh ripe tomato sandwiches with avocado cream, outstanding smoked salmon with cucumbers, and open-faced sandwiches of tiny shrimps on rounds of black bread. A charming little tart of spring peas on pea puree concluded the savory course.
We were offered both raisin and plain scones, served with lemon curd, butter and strawberry jam. They were perfect, and Avatar assured us that we were welcome to have more sandwiches and scones at any time. We declined his generous offer, as the sweets course, on a charming, tiered server, was on its way.
The decor at Claridge’s tearoom evokes the Roaring Twenties, an era from a hundred years ago with Flappers dancing the Charleston, smoking cigarettes in long cigarette holders and drinking Martinis, although none of that behavior actually occurs during afternoon tea. The walls are covered with silvery arched mirrors, and a huge “modern” glass chandelier with undulating snake-like shapes hangs over a central table covered by tall clear glass vases filled with a profusion of white, pink and violet spring flowers.
Unfortunately, the room is much smaller than the Themes Foyer at the Savoy, and loud conversations filled the atmosphere. It was very crowded while we were there; the tables were close together and we felt cramped. Sadly, the service was also utterly neglectful, which was disappointing. There were lots of people working there, maybe even more employees than customers, but busy as they seemed, they were inattentive and careless, and nobody ever offered to pour our tea. Two women who worked at the front desk even dropped a three-tiered server, designed to stand on the floor, onto the back of my chair with a loud crash. Although the food was fresh and well prepared, nothing in our experience at Claridge’s compared to our magical afternoon at the Savoy.
In future blogs I hope to share the wonders of London architecture, including palaces and churches, and describe our adventures in the fabulous British Museum and the fun we had at the Beatrix Potter show at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Meanwhile, if our magical afternoon at the Savoy piqued your interest in the traditional English Afternoon Tea ritual, you are certainly invited to peruse “A Classic British Afternoon Tea” in the “A World of Tea Parties” section of this website. Our menu includes a selection of sandwiches, scones and sweets very similar to the memorable food we ate at the Savoy and Claridge’s.
Afternoon Tea in the British tradition does not rely on innovative, trendy, expensive or complicated recipes. It is old-fashioned, simple food, prepared with meticulous attention to detail and freshness, using seasonal ingredients and focusing on elegant visual presentation. Though Avatar and Stephane might not be there to pour your tea, you can host a tea party for your family and friends in the dignified tradition of the Savoy in your own home or garden. In fact, the “Tea Menu Basics” chapter of “The Tea Book” on this website provides you with free recipes for the sandwiches, scones and lemon curd that we recently enjoyed in Merry Old England. I hope to see you next month at Hampton Court Palace!