Sandwiches, scones, cakes, all washed down with a cup of creamy Assam in a sumptuous setting. It sounds like an opening scene of Downton, and us plebs have been paying a tidy sum for the privilege of chowing down on plush tea snacks for years.
If you haven't ever indulged in a traditional afternoon tea, it is epic. Not least because it's served in its entirety, so you can start salivating over the cakes before you've taken the first bite of a sandwich.
From the super-tasty sarnies packed with Brit filling duos like ham and mustard and cucumber and cream cheese, to the warm buttery scones and pockets of sweet heaven they call petit fours, arvo tea is a marathon of decadence.
Sadly, it hasn't remained untouched by the clean eating trend, and healthy versions are popping up all over the place. We're not talking a couple of tweaks for those suffering from nut allergies – these are teas transformed for foodies who like their mouthful free from gluten, dairy and refined sugar.
So, how does one of the most indulgent meals fare when it's stripped of sugar and dairy? We played gluten-free guinea pig and put three such teas to the test...
Guiltless Afternoon Tea, Wellington Lounge at Intercontinental Park Lane
This tea kicks off with a delicious rum cocktail, which serves as a hint of how luxurious this apparently guilt-free experience will be. The three-tiered stand is delivered full, with the bottom and middle layer stacked with sandwiches, as our waitress confirms the scones will be served warm when we want them. Perhaps in the knowledge that gluten-free bread is never as fluffy as refined white, only one sandwich is served finger style. The rest are open sandwiches, kind of like a hybrid of a crustini and blini, and the smoked aubergine and roasted pepper is amazing. As promised, warm wholemeal scones follow, with crème fraiche that fills a clotted cream-shaped gap surprisingly well. The stars of the show are the petit fours though, created with agave syrup rather than refined sugar. The blueberry and yoghurt chiffon cake is as delightfully light and fluffy as the flourless choc mint cake is rich and dense. And then there's the giant red velvet cake ball in the centre of the tea plate, filled with cream cheese. If you're anything like us, the teacups will rattle while you fight over which is the biggest half.
Vegan Afternoon Tea, RAW at La Suite West
It's just as well RAW describe their tea as a 'quintessentially contemporary vegan alternative' to the traditional afternoon tea, otherwise we'd have been disappointed the moment we walked in. The restaurant itself is black and minimal, as far away from an elegant tea room as you could get, so there isn't really the opportunity to snuggle down in lavish chairs as you would do at The Ritz. Another twist is that each course is served separately and the sandwiches are served on individual slate slabs, so there's no intimate sharing. That said, the vegan-friendly food wasn't too bad. The scrambled tofu and mustard cress sandwich was tasty with a kick, and the grilled aubergine was served with a killer coleslaw. Their homemade scones were warm and nice enough, but top them with fresh strawberries and RAW's coconut cream and they were a definite competitor for the old favourite. On to the desserts; they looked amazing and didn't disappoint on taste. A chocolate brownie was rich and gooey sans dairy, and the raw coconut and raspberry cheesecake was just the right balance of fresh and indulgent.
Tea-Tox at Brown's Hotel
Queen Victoria used to take tea in The English Tea Room, so we feel pretty snazzy just walking into the newly-renovated place. Best to be honest though, traditionalists won't be having any of this tea, on the basis that they've sacked off the scones. But don't be so hasty, the rest of you, it's worth reading on. Again, to cut the calorie content Brown's have decided to go with open sarnies but it's a good move because they don't skimp on the toppings. There's poached salmon and dill crème fraiche on rye bread as a healthy alternative to the usual cream cheese efforts, and what about their smoked mackerel and soft-boiled quail's egg? It's more exciting than egg and cress, we tell you. The medium tier was filled with fresh fruit skewers served with yoghurt and honey, which despite giving us a little food envy of other tables tucking into warm scones, made us feel pretty smug. It's also worth noting that your waiter is more than happy (and will likely offer) to refresh the two bottom tiers if you're not ready to move on to the top tier just yet. And then come the cakes, made with low-fat dairy and Xylitol as a sweetener. They're actually pretty sizeable, and big on taste too, especially the orange cake with yoghurt topping and flourless chocolate cake. A tip: add a glass of tea-tox champagne, which is low calorie, to make sure you definitely don't suffer tea-related FOMO.
If scones and clotted cream is more your thing, try one of these...