Afternoon tea. The phrase conjures imagery of elegant estates, fine china, and graceful British ladies enjoying tiny foods and cups of tea with pinkies raised. This long-standing, mid-afternoon ritual of the United Kingdom is now gaining great interest from those of us across the pond who have lately become addicted to BBC shows like Downton Abbey and the Great British Baking Show. Yes, I’m talking about myself here too! There’s just something so refined about “taking tea” that has always sparked my imagination; to me, it seemed like not just warm beverages and food, but like some kind of “experience.”
But what exactly is afternoon tea? According to a popular story from the 1840s, afternoon tea became popular after the Duchess of Bedford began inviting friends to join her for tea and snacks in her private rooms, to combat “that sinking feeling” of hunger between lunch and dinner. Queen Victoria turned it into a fashionable institution, served between 2 and 4 pm, and it was eventually taken up by the middle and lower classes as well. Today, there is still a difference between “afternoon tea” and “high tea” because of this history: Afternoon tea is considered the fancier, upper-class ritual, usually featuring just tea and light foods, whereas “high tea” is like a meal, with more substantial foods and teas for working men and women just returning home from factories and fields. When it comes to proper afternoon tea, you’ll hear about a lot of traditional details. For example, everyone agrees the classic scones for tea must be served with jam and clotted cream, but there are apparently two distinct ways of ordering them – the Devonshire tradition is to split the scone, spread cream and then jam on top, while the Cornish tradition is to do jam first, then cream (the Queen has recently gone on record in favor of the Cornish method, but you’ll find passionate opinions on both sides).
After learning a bit about this backstory and tradition, imagine my excitement to discover afternoon tea I could actually try in Grand Rapids! Through EatGR connections, I learned of the New Hotel Mertens – an historic GR landmark, now a sophisticated restaurant and bakery, just south of Van Andel Arena. The building is actually a part of old GR, dating back to 1914, and reopened in 2017 by avid traveler and food entrepreneur, Anthony Tangorra. “My star to follow,” as he calls his inspiration here, is the old-world charm of the French-style brasserie and the hotel’s own history. NHM certainly has that feeling of “aged elegance,” from the warm wood and leather furniture to the beautiful, original tile flooring. In April 2018, they began offering afternoon tea by appointment on Saturdays for $40 per person, and this Saturday, I was inspired to try it for a special occasion, inviting my mom for a fancy, mother-daughter date, in early honor of her birthday and Mother’s Day.
So here’s how it went: For NHM’s afternoon tea, we learned, you first choose from the tea menu, and your server brings a whole pot to your table so you can refill throughout the time (you can pick other teas to try later as well). We started with the most popular, the black Paris tea, which I can now say is my absolute favorite! The tea foods came out in two “courses” on shiny, 3 tiered servers. First were the tea sandwiches – each no bigger than a post-it note! They were all so light and delicious, but my favorites were the classic cucumber cream and smoked salmon. Later, our server recommended a pot of peppermint tea to go with our dessert course, and we were grateful for a contrast to the rich sweets! On the 3-tiered server this time were chantilly cream tartlets, almond financiers (little yellow cakes with a an almost chewy consistency), another pair of delicate tartlets topped with black cherries, dark chocolate and cherry scones accompanied by a tiny jar of cherry preserves and clotted cream, and finally two bars of a vegan chocolate cake. It felt almost impossible to declare a favorite among all these decadent winners, but I strongly believe that I could have eaten a whole tray of those airy chantilly tartlets, and we did end up stopping by the NHM bakery to buy some more of their amazing scones when we left.
Now, I could say any number of things about the delicious food and classy atmosphere we experienced, but I had to return to my first question: What exactly makes afternoon tea special? Anthony called it “ritualistic,” channeling you to a specific time and place with much cultural attachment. Personally, I felt charmed by the intentionality, slowing down and sizing down, to stop and enjoy little moments and small bites. When I asked my mom, she said this was something that really made the day special and fun for her with me. In the end, I’d say, the distinction doesn’t just come from fancy rules: Afternoon tea gives us a delightful experience simply by highlighting the elegance which is good food and good company together.
Amanda Matthysse is our monthly guest writer/editor, and EatGR Group member in good standing.
New Hotel Mertens Brasserie, New Hotel Mertens, 2017, nhmbrasserie.com/.
Petter, Olivia. “The Queen Settles Scone Debate on Whether Jam or Cream Should Go First.”
Independent, 17 Mar. 2018[London, UK], www.independent.com.uk/life-style/food-and-
Straker, Vicky. Afternoon Tea: A History and Guide to the Great Edwardian Tradition. Amberley