By Nathalie Bonney.
Plan to do anything outside in the UK and chances are the weather will be a bitch and quite literally rain on your parade. BBQs cooked under umbrellas, picnics eaten huddled beneath a rug, pub gardens full of shivering drinkers ignoring their goose bumps and persevering with Pimms; all part of the British Summer. No other nation would suffer it but stoicism - or should that be improbable optimism - have groomed Brits to press on with their al fresco plans regardless of whether the sun has got his hat on, hip hip hip hooray, or is zipped up in a Goretex cagoule, uh uh uh uh oh!
Sometimes, though, it's just that little bit too cold or the rain is coming down just a tad bit harder and we accept defeat, heading indoors for a cuppa. I was recently invited to a garden party at The Royal Horseguards. The hotel is right near Embankment tube station and opposite the River Thames. Like most London hotels worth their clotted cream, it offers afternoon tea, but unlike a lot of the others, it boasts outdoor space, a small gated garden that backs onto the larger Whitehall garden. Should the weather permit, diners can then choose to take their tea outside. Oh how very lovely.
The garden party was held to promote Royal Horseguards’ latest limited edition afternoon tea, the 'Garden Par-tea', inspired by the recent Chelsea Flower Show. The outside garden area is more of a patio really but the wrought iron white tables and chairs, huge wicker-style chaise lounge and pots and vases of beautiful blooms all add to the sense of occasion that befits afternoon tea. Tea lights dotted around the terrace made it feel even more like a fairy garden. But, no surprises here, the insistent rain proved too much and we were forced to retreat into the lounge and look at the garden through the French windows.
A bit of the garden was brought inside anyway: the cake stands were decorated with edible chocolate butterflies and leaves and dainty bite size pastries, and delicacies on the top tier were all horticulturally inspired. Faves included: mini elderflower and vanilla cupcakes with piped icing; crystallised violets sprinkled on top of chocolate cupcakes; and raspberry & hibiscus flower jelly tartlettes (the vivid red jelly bursting with flavour and the pastry beneath fine and buttery).
Surprisingly for me the sandwich (neat finger sandwiches looked the part but weren't so exciting filling-wise) and scone tiers (small, light scones served with the requisite clotted cream and jam) didn't take my fancy as much as I expected. Usually, I find the pastry and cake element the least exciting part of afternoon tea. Although they look great they invariably don't taste as good. But the cakes here were fabulous, and that's surely down to resident pastry chef Joanne Paula Todd. She's only been at The Royal Horseguards for a couple of years but has plenty of prior experience and has certainly made her mark. Coming up with different ideas for the various themed afternoon teas - tennis ball shaped truffles for the Wimbledon afternoon tea to pumpkin creations for an autumnal tea and recent mini three-tiered wedding cakes for Kate and Wills' big day - Todd is bursting with creativity.
She even allowed guests to have a go at icing their own daisy shaped shortbreads and cupcakes. My icing efforts were OK, though I was better at sprinkling over the popping candy and crystallised flowers (it may sound easy but a certain panache is required to sprinkle just so).
One last mention should go to the 'Royal cocktails' we were served, which had a lemon meringue pie influence thanks to the whisked egg whites, lemon juice and Vermouth frothy topping. Delicious in a slightly startling 'are they really alcoholic?' way. We may have missed out on an actual garden party but when you have tea, cake and cocktails, who needs the sun anyway?
Priced at £28 per person, the Garden Par-tea runs until 17 July 2011. Book your afternoon tea by following this link or by using the form below.
Looking for more afternoon tea inspiration? Check out the best Afternoon Tea special offers in central London