Before I started writing about a proper cup of tea, I thought long and hard about what should be my benchmark cup of tea. There’s really only one place I have returned to again and again and always had a lovely cup of tea and that’s Fortnum and Mason’s. I use their tea at home and I love the delicate perfume of their Earl Grey. I have had afternoon tea upstairs on the top floor, cream teas downstairs in the Fountain, and just a cup of tea in the Gallery Bar/Restaurant. On one unfortunate December Saturday some years ago, I even had a pot of Earl Grey in the ice-cream parlour on the first floor. On a trip to London in June this year, I saw they had taken a full page ad for London Pride in the British Airways magazine “Proud to be the Queens’ Greengrocer” it said. That made me smile. Although I did not find time for a full ceremonial tea experience, I managed to grab half an hour between bacon shopping and leaving for the airport to go and take photographs of the cup of tea against which the others are measured. Or so I thought.
The Fountain restaurant has been refurbished recently and I had taken lunch there last time, so I decided to go to the Gallery and enjoy my tea whilst looking over to tourists buying tea and shortbread. The Gallery was almost empty, nonetheless I waited to be seated. I told the maitre d’ that I just wanted to have a cup of tea. “That will be upstairs on the first floor, madam” he said. I stood firm. “I don’t want to have my tea amongst children throwing ice-cream around” “Going forward, we will be promoting that area for coffee” he said. But I did not want coffee, I wanted tea, and I knew that it is not even on the menu upstairs and that the cups are pastel coloured thick porcelain of the type that best holds cappuccino and not at all suitable for tea. That December Saturday sprung back to life in my head and I remembered 12 nine year old girls there for a birthday celebration of one of their number. I remembered the noise they made. Once I explained to the maitre d’ that I understood very well that he did not want to block prime lunchtime tables with ladies drinking tea, but that he might consider that it was 2pm and the area was almost empty and the likelihood of a last minute rush to occupy the 40 or so empty tables was low, he grudgingly said he would make an exception just for me, and serve me tea.
I chose a Ceylon tea. The tea had a rich colour and was quite delicious. But, when tea is served with a grudge, it is also served without a pot of hot water, and so, my brew soon became a tarry bitter beverage. I was disappointed.
The team on duty was young and international. They were friendly and polite. I do not know if the missing pot of water was due to lack of training or slipping standards. I did not have the energy to ask for the missing water.
Well, it is a mezzanine in a shop and the acoustics are not good, so it does seem like you are sitting in a posh version of BHS cafeteria. The tea cups and pots are fine china and the cutlery and tea strainers are silver. The tables are oak and have some very nice art deco detailing.
There were not many tourists in the restaurant. The tables near me were occupied by Brits who had been shopping or who had been visiting the Royal Academy summer exhibition across the road. When I went upstairs, the ice cream parlour was full of tourists drinking tea and children eating ice cream. Wrong. Just wrong.
My London home from home is just yards away from F&M, so normally I would not bother to use the facilities there, but I think you probably expect at least a photo. The place is not luxurious, but functional and clean enough.
It would be unfair to pronounce based on this one negative experience. I have had a great many fine cups of tea at Fortnum and Mason, and indeed, on that day, when I went upstairs to buy a couple of bits and bobs, the service was outstanding. However, I would welcome suggestions from anyone who can recommend somewhere where a fussy lady might find a cup of tea against which the others are to be measured. Not afternoon tea, mind, just a cup of tea, for it is the tea itself and the service, that so many cannot get right.