A glint of late afternoon light streaks the arm of a chamomile-colored couch. The harp plays a gentle tune. A three-tiered silver tray holds dainty sandwiches, tiny pastries. A soft laugh, the sound of a silver teaspoon on delicate porcelain, the enchanting flavor of bergamot.
We’re having afternoon tea at the Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel. Twice a day, the hotel serves tea in the Living Room, the spacious lounging area between the hotel lobby and the adjacent tropical garden. Groups of plump, upholstered sofas and wingback chairs surround low glass-topped tables -- just a few of them; this is exclusive.
But it’s not only ladies taking tea. There, by the fireplace, are two well-dressed couples, hotel guests perhaps; before the window are entertainment industry types in dark suits; in the corner is Hollywood heartthrob Luke Wilson with some serious-looking sorts -- agents? producers? With offices for HBO and Fox nearby and Creative Artists Agency next door, it’s not unusual to spot celebrities.
Tea can be a light snack, or a full-blown experience. Here there are four ways to order.
The Light Tea is simply scones, tea and pastries. The scones are classic: currant or plain, wonderfully warm and crumbly, served with Devonshire cream and raspberry preserves. The china is perfect: delicate, hand-painted Czechoslovakian porcelain cups, plates, saucers and jelly jars.
Order Full Tea, and you’ll also get lovely little sandwiches. A single round of raisin bread is topped with curried chicken salad, while a cucumber “sandwich” is like a mini sculpture: a swirl of pimento-flavored cream cheese, a twist of cucumber, a thin slice of tomato, a sprig of watercress. Charred vegetable sandwiches cut into triangles have layers of pesto, zucchini, yellow squash, carrots and a cheese spread.
Royal Tea is for those who’d like a sip of bubbly; it begins with strawberries and a cloud of whipped cream. Imperial Tea is the nec plus ultra, beginning with Champagne and a mini Russian caviar cake -- a savory cheesecake flavored with shallots and smoked salmon and topped with osetra caviar.
Then come the pastries. Chef Bill Bracken aims to offer an assortment whose flavors harmonize with the tea. Strong citrus, he said, can “clash with the teas.” He always includes something chocolate -- today it’s a napoleon garnished with gold leaf. A vanilla cream puff, a cube of cheesecake decorated with a blueberry and whipped cream, a diminutive chocolate-caramel tart: No wonder tea makes you feel like royalty.
Yet tea -- even formal tea -- is easily put together at home. Bracken’s scones are quick to make; his cucumber-tomato sandwiches are simple and elegant. Jewel-like fresh fruit tarts require a little more attention, but the result is spectacular. In the kitchen at the Peninsula, Bracken uses tiny tart molds; because most mortals don’t own more than a few (if any), we’ve adapted his recipe using a mini-muffin tin. A juicy blackberry, half a blueberry, a slice of kiwi, a sliver of kumquat and whatever other fruit you can conjure at peak season tops the almond-tinged filling.
Of course, everything tastes better with perfectly made tea. Warm a teapot and teacups with hot water; then empty and dry them. Measure one heaping spoonful of fresh, loose-leaf tea (not tea bags) per cup of water, plus one more “for the pot.” Bring cold, fresh water to a rolling boil and immediately pour it over the tea leaves. Top the teapot with a towel or cozy to keep the water hot while the leaves steep for three to five minutes. Pour the brewed tea through a strainer.
Afternoon tea is such a powerful civilizing force that Carmen and Meadow Soprano seem almost genteel as they make their annual trek to tea at the Plaza hotel in New York. If it can do that for them, think what it can do for you.