Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Graham Reid: Anyone fancy a gunpowder tea?

The most English of traditions is high tea - that peculiar institution whereby adults indulge themselves, child-like but politely of course, in sticky treats at a time of day when Continental Europe is resting up for a night on the town.

Yet high tea - layered platters of sandwiches and cakes, with a pot of tea on the side - is also a charmingly genteel occasion. Which is probably why I have never bothered with it.

But when in England ...

In fact, even when in England recently I still wouldn't have bothered, but one of my sons was working at the recently opened Tea Palace at Westbourne Grove in Notting Hill.

Near the Portobello Rd end of the street, the tasteful and comfortably minimalist Tea Palace enjoys a steady clientele from the famous market, but also from upmarket locals, among whom we note is Damon Albarn from the band Blur, who lives a couple of doors away and often drops in for a cuppa.

My son tells me that since the place opened for lunches and dinners he has served pots of exotic tea to the likes of Oasis' Noel Gallagher, a bevy of pale English actresses with names like Gwyneth, and others you think might be more likely to be sniffing it up with Kate Moss than trying to decide between a fruit infusion or an Oolong.

And then there was us, a party of four which included my wife's parents, who were thrilled at the thought of high tea in London on a Sunday afternoon. It was a cliche come true.

But the Tea Palace does more than serve a cup of tea: its dinner menu features seared tuna, duck breast, lamb and more, and you can also sample champagne with afternoon tea (a glass of rose champagne, finger sandwiches, scones with organic clotted cream and jam plus cakes, from £18 or $51).

It also sells 150 types of tea - from half a dozen Earl Grey blends to exotic mixtures which include mango, coconut, various herbal infusions and teas made with petals, almonds, pineapple, gunpowder and cherry.

And in an intelligent touch, alongside your tea you get a small dish with a sample of the tea in its raw, and frequently fragrant, state. It has proved a good business venture, as we, like many others, bought some packets to take to friends.

High tea at the Tea Palace - the trendiest of all the new tea places in London, according to Easyjet magazine - is an elegantly sophisticated affair.

After a couple of hours of delicious scones with clotted cream and jam, sandwiches so soft they dissolved in the mouth, and cups of aromatic, restorative tea, I think this one English tradition - like a curry and a pint, or Match of the Day on the telly - is well worth enjoying while in England.

* The Tea Palace is at 175 Westbourne Grove, London W11 2SB. Find it on the web at www.teapalace.co.uk

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