In London, however, tea is much more than a simple steamy cup of brewed leaves in a cloth bag. Once upon a time tea was an event, where people of the middle to upper echelons gossiped about family, friends and lovers. Today, high tea, afternoon tea and cream tea still take place in London.
However, avoiding the typical bag of Twinings is not as easy as the average traveler may think. So I set out on a tea crawl throughout Central London, and here's what I found:
202 Café London
This posh organic restaurant is the perfect place for a work break or shopping break. Conveniently situated along the fashion-clad road of Westbourne Grove in the infamous Notting Hill, this modern cafe-restaurant offers a comfortable scene for chic shoppers and businessmen alike. With its open space, light aquatic color scheme and modern furniture, 202 is the tea haven for locals.
202 offers a decent amount of tea options, ranging from classic chamomile to the more adventurous Pomegranate Oolong herbal tea. The hottest item on the menu is Rooibos Chai, a black caffeine-free herbal tea that purportedly has the ability to soothe the soul of any weary shopper. The chai has a soft red tint to it, created by the mix of rooibos, clove, cinnamon and cardamon. At a rather low £2.60 (about $4), Rooibos Chai makes for a calming break well worth the money.
While the chic 202 Cafe has more of a local feel, the Orangery, which graces the land of the Kensington Palace Gardens, has a more touristy feel. But don't let that discourage you from visiting.
This 300-year-old greenhouse turned tea house has all the allure of dining with royalty. From the high white stone ceilings to the surrounding images of female statues, this more formal tea room makes for a romantic afternoon tea.
The Orangery offers a vast array of teas brought to England from near and far. The Tregothnan Afternoon Tea for example is an English native, whereas the Darjeeling comes from the Indian foothills of the Himalayas. If you want a real English tea experience, this is the place to go. In other words, you won't find bagged teas here.
London Tea Tour
I decided to try three of the teas on the menu. I started off with the traditional house blend and crowd favorite, Tregothnan Afternoon Tea. While light in aroma, color and taste, this blend of Darjeeling and Tregothnan leaves makes for a soothing blend of your classic English tea. Its subtlety in flavor also adds to the flavoring of any afternoon snack you may have with it, like a crumpet, fruit scone or the Orangery's hallmark orange sponge cake. For those who want a bit more richness, adding some milk and sugar cubes will provide that extra thickness.
My next choice was the Darjeeling tea, also known as the "champagne of teas" by hot drink connoisseurs. This tea is very similar to the Afternoon tea but has a very hint of rawness. The Darjeeling tea comes from the Indian foothills of the Himalayas, so one can almost taste the more natural sweetness of this blend.
I ended my visit to the Orangery with a cup of Tulsi Mint, an Indian tea made of tulsi leaf, sunflowers and a hint of aloe vera. This blend of mint tea with a twist is for the more adventurous palates. This Indian blend offers the traditional refreshment of mint tea with a kick of an aloe vera aftertaste. This herbal tea, like many other more exotic blends, is made to drink straight, so I wouldn't suggest adding any milk or honey to the mix.
Each cup of tea at the Orangery ranges from £3.50-3.60 (about $5.50), so while it is a little bit pricier than 202 Cafe, the surrounding scenery of the palace gardens and the unique blends make it worth the visit.
After my safe choices at 202 Cafe and the Orangery, I decided to kick up the excitement a notch at the Wolseley.
This swanky cafe-restaurant shouts glamour and luxury from ceiling to floor. From the gaudy chandeliers to the chic black color scheme, the Wolseley sets the scene for a sophisticated afternoon of English tea.
I started off with a cup of their Afternoon Blend. The liquid's amber hue was very similar to that of the Afternoon blend at the Orangery, although it consisted a wider assortment of ingredients, including Darjeeling, Fancy Fomosa Oolang and china black tea.
Although the Wolseley's house blend had these more unique ingredients, my taste buds were honestly a bit bored with how finely the tea was blended. It was a bit too bland for my liking, so I needed to add a sufficient amount of milk and sugar to make it worth downing. The light flavor, however, would probably do well if accompanied with a refreshing cucumber sandwich or sweet fruit scone with strawberry jam.
After finishing the Afternoon Blend, I moved on to the Assam, an Indian tea made for true tea lovers.
Assam tea is to tea lovers what dark chocolate is to chocolate lovers. The more robust and bold flavor of this darker blend really accentuates what drinking tea is all about. To be honest, it was a bit too strong for my youthful tea tongue, so I added a hint of milk and a cube of sugar to decrease the intensity.
My final cup for the day was Lapsang Souchong tea from China. This Oriental tea is known for its dark red hue and woody flavor. As Laapsang is meant to be drunk straight, this smoky tea is again designed for the more adventurous palates out there.
Although well-dressed businessmen and women make up the Wolseley clientele on a typical weekday, don't let their suits and heels discourage you from having a casual spot of tea. The prices are fairly decent, ranging from £3.50-3.75 range per cup.