Afternoon Tea, The Observatory, Grand Central Hotel, Bedford Street, Belfast. www.grandcentralhotelbelfast.com
Meals at different times of the day are peculiarly well identified. A bowl of cereal or toast with marmalade at teatime feels as wrong as a chicken tikka masala or a plate of spuds at breakfast.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are clearly demarcated. The introduction of brunch from America in the 70s muddied this demarcation by being available most of the day in many restaurants. But your afternoon tea remains as resilient as Rockall island. Nobody can fool around with the unwritten rule that it can only be served between the hours of 2pm and 5pm.
First created by an English aristocrat, Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford in 1840, writer and historian Ben Johnson says the Duchess would become hungry around four o’clock in the afternoon.
“The evening meal in her household was served fashionably late at eight o’clock, thus leaving a long period of time between lunch and dinner,” writes Johnson. “The Duchess asked that a tray of tea, bread and butter (some time earlier, the Earl of Sandwich had had the idea of putting a filling between two slices of bread) and cake be brought to her room during the late afternoon.”
This evolved quickly into a social occasion among the big houses and soon every social climber in the country was at it. These days, you’ll see afternoon teas packed up as picnics for a day at the races or on the beach. While many of these will feature all sorts of foods including pies, salads and buns, the concept of afternoon tea has become recognised as a celebration in this part of the world of tiny sandwiches and tray bakes. While the tea itself remains a central component, you will also now find afternoon tea propositions in hotels including glasses of bubbly and even cocktails.
In Belfast’s Grand Central Hotel, the afternoon tea has set new standards with pastries made by the talented patissiere, Caitlin Lopes. Caitlin Lopes’s buns and cakes are seriously good. There is an array of financiers, little ingot shaped buns made with ground almonds, quality macarons (the blackberry one is unforgettable), a chocolate and honeycomb delice more widely known as a dacquoise in France with super crispy base and unctuous, rich chocolate parfait, and much more.
A bewildering choice of teas from Thompsons to have with your sandwiches and pastries includes one of the best Assams you can get, full of tannins and herby, almost grassy flavour. The Earl Grey has as much punch and while usually pale and unnoticeable, this one’s colours are deep orange and assertive. There are herb teas as well and I counted 17 in all to choose from.
The sandwiches are no wallflowers either. Made with a variety of breads from Irwin’s, crusts trimmed off, naturally, you get a cool egg, shallot and watercress with hint of mayo, a roast chicken with lemon and thyme mayo, smoked salmon from Ewing’s with cucumber and garden herb mayo and a honey glazed ham with Ballymaloe relish. By the time you have worked your way through all this, the initial scepticism spurred on by the £40 price, has melted into benevolent surprise and satisfaction.
Add a tenner to this and you get the pleasure of starting your tea with a Jawbox Jonathan’s Twist cocktail. This features the excellent Jawbox Export Strength Gin, a heavy hitter, not too floral and very much in the tradition of clarity of flavour with that hot afterblast. To this is added elderflower liqueur, fresh lemon juice, star anise sherbet, soda, coriander and rosemary. Some egg white froths up to provide a creamy light head through which you filter this beautifully balanced blend. Even the avowed vodka fans at the table with me were converts to the gin.
An added word of caution. If you order afternoon tea in the Observatory, you can also get a glass of Bollinger for a tenner, normally £18. That afternoon tea may follow in the steps of Duchess Anna, but there won’t be too much nobility around if you do as we did and made the most of the afternoon.