A step back in time for a taste of tradition
Afternoon tea may be an English thing, but as Gary Law finds out, the Slieve Donard Hotel is keeping up the old custom in grand style
Lighthouse Lounge, Slieve Donard Hotel
Address: Downs Road, Newcastle, Co Down
Tel: 4372 1066
Afternoon tea seems to belong to another era. The very words conjure up images of Lord and Lady Trumpington-Smythe delicately dining on cucumber sandwiches and Earl Grey in the Dorchester, chatting politely about the price of household staff and whether or not they'll go to Monte for the season.
The Upstairs Downstairs world of the Trumpington-Smythes may have all but disappeared and their quaint afternoon dining traditions gone from everywhere but the grand hotels of London and the tea houses of Devon, but I'm happy to report that afternoon tea on a grand scale is still alive and well here in Northern Ireland and resident, at least, in Newcastle's Slieve Donard Hotel.
I recently had quite a nice lunch in the hotel's Lighthouse Lounge - part of a new multi-million pound extension and spa complex - and was more than a little intrigued to discover on the menu that they were serving a selection of afternoon teas. They ranged from a modest non-alcoholic spread at £14 per person, through one with strawberries and Pimms (£19) to the deluxe version with champagne and strawberries for £22.
It was too much to resist, so last week my wife and I gave the servants the afternoon off and departed Law Towers for the Slieve Donard Hotel. And since the Belfast Telegraph was paying, we chose the top of the range afternoon tea with champagne.
For what you get, it is, of course, ludicrously expensive, but in many ways that's the whole point of afternoon tea. It's not meant to be a bargain - if you want a cup of tea and a scone you can nip into any cafe in the country and get something pretty decent for a couple of quid. If, however, you want to feel like Lord and Lady Trumpington- Smythe for the afternoon and indulge in some good old-fashioned decadence, then you really want champers, strawberries, a dinky cake-stand full of goodies and elegant surroundings in which to enjoy it at your leisure.
So what exactly did we get? Well, first up comes a glass each of fairly decent champagne, accompanied by a generous bowl of strawberries. It's obviously far too late in the year for anything local in the strawberry line, so they weren't as full- flavoured as you'd get in summer, but not bad for December imports.
Then we were presented with two well-laden, three-tier cake stands and a cafetiere of coffee each (you can choose from a range of coffees and speciality teas). On each cake stand there were about half a dozen freshly-made ham and cheese and tomato sandwiches - no cucumber - and around the same number of tiny little warm tartlets with a variety of fillings such as salmon, egg, cheese and so forth. On deck two of the stand was a plump, warmed scone with butter, jam and fresh rather than clotted cream, while on the top was a selection of small buns and tray bakes plus two slices of cake - advertised on the menu as being Slieve Donard fruit cake, but turning out to be plain old date and walnut cake.
For a late afternoon snack, it was fairly substantial. I don't know how the Trumpington-Smythes ever managed to wolf down a huge dinner later the same evening. But since we didn't really eat for the rest of the day, our afternoon tea acted as a substitute for an evening meal, and suddenly the £22 price tag didn't really seem quite so hefty after all.
While the surroundings for this rather archaic tradition could hardly have been more modern - the Lighthouse Lounge is a welcoming haven of wood and glass, with subtle lighting, deep leather sofas and huge windows offering impressive views of the Mournes and Dundrum Bay - the air of comfortable calm in this new part of the hotel seemed somehow entirely appropriate for the enjoyment of a guilty old-world pleasure.
And now that afternoon tea is firmly back on the agenda, what about a revival of those sumptuous days of Empire breakfasts with kidneys and kedgeree? I'm sure the Trumpington-Smythes would heartily approve.