In Food + Drink

A London Hotel’s Fashionable Take On High Tea

Britain is the undisputed bastion of afternoon tea, and has been since Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, made it ever so fashionable to invite one’s friends for tea and cake in the 1840s.

By the late 1800s afternoon tea was all the rage in Britain, from country town tea rooms to the grand salons of London’s finest hotels. Today, London has a profusion of afternoon tea venues, from the opulent to informal, traditional to cheekily contemporary.

The Berkeley Hotel puts a contemporary spin on afternoon tea with its Prêt-à-Portea, where cakes are inspired by the latest fashion collections from the world’s leading designers.

Situated in Knightsbridge, the five-star Berkeley is one of the city’s foremost luxury hotels. In fact, it’s so upmarket there’s no signage outside the imposing Art Deco building, situated opposite Hyde Park, other than a shiny brass plaque. Stepping into this sophisticated retreat is like stepping into another world.

A popular celebrity hangout – anyone from Leondaro DiCaprio, Madonna and the Beckhams to icons of the fashion world have been spotted here – the hotel is a favourite with connoisseurs of the finer things in life.

The Berkeley’s couture-inspired take on traditional afternoon tea began back in 2005, and since then edible fancies inspired by the creations of 95 designers have appeared on the afternoon tea menu, which changes four times a year with the seasons.

The hotel’s head pastry chef, Mourad Khiat, gathers inspiration for his delicate patisserie at events such as London Fashion Week, where he checks out the season’s latest Prêt-à-Porter (ready-to-wear) designs.

Mourad’s fashionable edibles have included Valentino leopard chestnut crème handbags; Elizabeth Hurley swimwear collection biscuits, and a Dolce & Gabbana chocolate éclair dress.

After being greeted by a hatted doorman, I meet Mourad for tea in the hotel’s elegant Collins Room. The arrival of afternoon tea in the light-filled Collins Room is met by gasps from patrons – including me – the exquisite cakes and pastries are works of art.

“Any competent pastry chef can make pastry to order, but it takes skill and passion to produce pastries that not only look great, but taste great too,” says Mourad.

The Berkeley’s latest season of Prêt-à-Portea showcases couture cakes inspired by designers from Moschino and Emilia Wickstead to Fendi. A raincoat from Italian luxury fashion house Fendi has been reimagined as a lemon sablé biscuit piped with glossy royal icing, to portray a yellow coat from Karl Lagerfeld’s last collection.

Emilia Wickstead’s red velvet gown, inspired by The Godfather, is a red croustillon-covered choux bun, filled with Gianduja crémeux and roasted macadamia nuts, topped with chocolate discs, whipped ganache and a sugar bow.

Mourad has crafted Molly Goddard’s famous “The Killing Eve” pink tulle dress into pink spun sugar encasing a cinnamon financier filled with Pink Lady apple mousse and apple compote, and the equally-renowned Jacquemus “Le Micro Chiquito” bag into an almond and blackcurrant cake with chocolate garnish.

But perhaps the piece de resistance of Mourad’s latest collection is a Richard Quinn floral gown, which has become a pecan chocolate sponge topped with white chocolate and framboise mousse, with a raspberry and ginger confit centre, blue sugar bow and black wafer legs akimbo, and is so finely crafted it feels criminal to bite into it.

“We’re always trying new recipes and techniques,” says Mourad, who with his team works on new creations for at least a month before they appear in the Collins Room. “There’s a lot of brainstorming to come up with the best way to present the latest fashions.”

The brainstorming works – among a string of accolades, The Berkeley was awarded best themed afternoon tea in Britain’s prestigious Afternoon Tea Awards last year.

Along with the sweet fancies, afternoon tea consists of an array of delectable little canapes and sandwiches, which may include home-smoked Scottish salmon and horseradish on dark rye; baked heritage beetroot with goats cheese and pickled walnuts, and roast cornfed chicken and truffle cream on sourdough bread.

Prêt-à-Portea is served at The Berkeley from 1pm to 5:30pm every day and costs £60 per person (around AUD $113), from £70 (around $132) with a glass of Champagne.

The Berkeley Hotel

An expansive selection of teas includes anything from Vintage Cooked Pu Erh, Blackcurrant and Hibiscus Tisane and White Peony to old-fashioned Earl Grey.

“Fashion-inspired treats are a lot of fun,” says Mourad. “They add colour to traditional afternoon tea, which can sometimes be a bit stiff and proper.”

Should you wish to learn some of the tricks of a fashion-themed tea yourself, you can join Mourad and his team for a two-hour masterclasses and learn to make Prêt-à-Portea favourites such as Jason Wu cherry mousse and Moschino sponge handbags.

Masterclasses are held every Wednesday and the first Sunday of the month from 2pm to 4pm and are £230 (approximately $434) per person.

(All images: The Berkeley / supplied)

Published 20 January, 2020