You can have your cake and eat it too, at Claridge’s

I don t do tea – the drink or the meal – but just last week I did, my God I did. I m actually still rather full, you know. It s a lovely tradition though, isn t it? English afternoon tea: foreigners can t get enough of it. And in one of London s grand hot

I don't do tea - the drink or the meal - but just last week I did, my God I did. I'm actually still rather full, you know. It's a lovely tradition though, isn't it? English afternoon tea: foreigners can't get enough of it. And in one of London's grand hotels it's always something of a memorable event - but for the month of December only, Claridge's have rather upped the ante by offering not just afternoon tea but festive afternoon tea. Yes - but don't worry - no balloons, ratty kids or drunken uncles: all festivity is confined to the menu, and the rather pretty tinkle of seasonal ditties from the pianist and violinist in the corner.

The room itself is a pastel confection with well spaced and beautifully set tables, each with a silver lamp, one white rose, individual silver strainers and what looks like a (silver again) cigar box but turns out to contain white and brown sugar cubes (with tongs, but of course) and also - for people who don't think like I do - sachets of Splenda. The crockery is mint green and white striped - a little bit Regency, a little bit deco, though somehow still very modern and freshly inviting.

The �45 feast kicks off with a glass of Pierrel rose champagne (festive, see) - poured with expertise and a degree of theatre by the wholly attentive waiter - and then the very welcome onslaught of wonderfully fattening treats and dainties swings into gear. Perfectly cut little sandwiches of smoked salmon, ham, cucumber, egg and tomato ... and turkey with cranberry (festive, see). And when my wife and I had made fairly swift work of them, we were offered more. Very amazingly, I declined - I still can't quite believe that I did, but I did (and it was just as well, as you will see). Then came crumbly and light freshly baked scones - two with raisin, two with apple - and of course great pillows of clotted cream and very smart little jars of strawberry jam. Also something called Marco Polo jelly - a seductive flavour in which I detected rose and raspberry (my wife said she didn't get the rose, and she didn't get the raspberry, so what do I know?). Anyway, it's based on one of their teas. Which brings me to their teas: now look, in the capital's finest hotel, you'd expect a choice, wouldn't you? Of course you would. So how many teas do you think they have on offer? Five? Ten? No more than 10, surely? No no no - 33, that's how many, including - at a �5 supplement - some legendarily rare blends. One was called The Iron Goddess of Mercy, which I found just too perverse and frankly baffling to even think of ordering. Instead I had Chinese Earl Grey - stronger, more scented and silkier than the usual sort of Twinings thing. My wife swooned over L'Opera, a green tea "enhanced with the subtle essence of red berries" (it says here) - not to say "precious spices". Crumbs. Which brings me to the cakes: these are alluringly laid out on rectangular platters - a little coffee �clair with a thin crisp sliver of chocolate atop it (sublime), a fruit tart with French cream, walnut and banana loaf, looking like a dinky little Hovis, and some sort of alcoholic raspberry jelly and coulis affair. And after all that ... God I was full. Couldn't move. Didn't have to, as it turned out, because there was more to come: Stollen and Christmas cake (festive, see). These were excellent - the cake in particular, as rich as you could wish for. They also do an amazing Christmas pudding, and this year for the first time they are selling very beautifully boxed ones for you to smuggle home and scoff in secret. And throughout the whole meal fresh plates and cups are brought to you in seamless succession ... and somehow two whole hours have drifted by in perfect bliss. I actually think that's bargain, you know.

In the fabulous foyer they've got what purports to be a Christmas tree designed by John Galliano, Christian Dior's resident and excitable gnome. It's the whitened trunk and boughs of a regular tree with much pale blue and wispiness in evidence: looks rather more spring-like than Christmassy to my eye, but what can I say? Unlike quite simply everything else here, it's not my cup

of tea.

Joseph Connolly

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