Saturday 27 May 2017

Pots of money! Afternoon tea becomes big business in Irish hotels

It's the genteel culinary treat that weathered the recession. Now, Afternoon Tea has become big business for Ireland's hotels, who are finding inventive new ways to boost demand, as our reporter discovers

Culinary treat: Afternon tea
Culinary treat: Afternon tea
Gentleman's afternoon tea at the Morrison hotel
Social bee mobile afternoon teas
Afternoon tea at the Shelbourne hotel inspired by the artwork of Michael Flatley
Garry Hughes, Executive Chef, Shelbourne Hotel.

Chrissie Russell

It's 3pm on a Sunday afternoon. The fires are crackling, someone is expertly (but unobtrusively) tinkling the ivories of a grand piano and every plump arm chair and sofa in The Shelbourne's Lord Mayor's Lounge is filled as Afternoon Tea is served. Guests are feasting on jam-laden freshly baked scones, nibbling on crispy sourdough mini baguettes stuffed with mouth-watering Waterford ham and munching on lightly spiced turmeric bread laden with creamy goats cheese and plump vine tomatoes.

There's a clink of china and gentle hum of animated conversation as staff glide between the tables, refreshing near empty tea cups, placing crisp linen napkins on knees and delivering the three-tiered cake-stands of delights to enraptured, waiting guests. Then, of course there are the pastries. Salted caramel mousses with raspberry compote, expertly encased in sumptuous dark chocolate glaze, melt-in-the-mouth strawberry macaroons, rich caramelised éclairs, pretty little delicate almond frangipane tartlets that look too good to eat… almost.

Is your mouth watering? Wish you were here? Of course you do. But good luck getting booked on a Sunday - they're filled up months in advance.

Afternoon Tea is having a moment. At The Shelbourne (shelbournedining.ie) they're serving some 800 Afternoon Teas every week, with 150 people at weekend sittings. Even on a Monday, a 'quiet' day, there could be between 80 and 90 customers requesting the €49pp three-tier service, or €64 to throw in a glass of champers.

Garry Hughes, Executive Chef, Shelbourne Hotel.
Garry Hughes, Executive Chef, Shelbourne Hotel.

"We've the busiest Afternoon Tea in Ireland and I'm very proud of that," beams executive chef Garry Hughes, who has a dedicated team of two permanently working on afternoon teas. "I get a great kick of going out and checking the books."

It's a similar tale at The Merrion (merrionhotel.com), where they're serving up to 270 Afternoon Teas a week. "It's rare for us not to be at or near capacity," says Caroline Kennedy, whose PR firm represents the five-star Dublin hotel. Tea (at €45pp or €57.50 for the champagne option) is served in the cosy, fire-lit drawing room and private dining rooms, or lucky guests staying in the hotel can be especially decadent and order it to their rooms.

Of course in a thriving market it's important to find your own niche. The Merrion's Art Tea features playful and expertly crafted gateaux and pastries take inspiration from the hotel's exquisite art collection, and is a permanent fixture on the menu. It's their unique selling point, a continuous fixture that keeps customers coming back.

On January 28 the hotel will see the arrival of the Prêt-à-Portea - the famous afternoon tea from London's five-star Berkley hotel, which changes every six months to reflect the season's biggest fashion trends. To mark its 10th year, the menu will feature some of its most popular pieces from the previous decade, including ginger biscuit Manolos and a Simone Rocha-inspired vanilla éclair. For its week-long stay at The Merrion (two sittings daily at €45pp or €58 including a commemortaive book) pastry chef Mourad Khiat will be creating two additional cakes inspired by the designs of Louise Kennedy and Orla Kiely.

At The Shelbourne, chef Garry Hughes reckons it's constant reinvention that makes their menus so enticing to diners. Every quarter, himself and executive pastry chef Katie McLoughlin devise a new 'themed' tea. At the moment, after seven months in the making, it's a selection inspired by the art works of Michael Flatley, whose extraordinary canvasses - his abstract pieces are created by dancing in paint - currently adorn the walls of the five star hotel.

In recent years, The Shelbourne has also added an Alice in Wonderland-themed Afternoon Tea, exclusively aimed at children. For €22 a head, youngsters can sup on hot chocolate with marshmallows, dine on ham, cheese and Nutella sandwiches and enjoy Wonderland-inspired sweet treats like Queen of Hearts strawberry shortbread biscuits and Cheshire Cat blackberry strawberry mousse. It's been a hit - they're now serving between 15 and 20 children's afternoon teas every week.

Gentleman's afternoon tea at the Morrison hotel
Gentleman's afternoon tea at the Morrison hotel

"They're our guests of the future so we have to look after them," explains Garry. "It frustrates me when you go to many places and they'll just buy in something or the effort isn't put into the actual tea."

His own love affair with Afternoon Tea started as a child at The Shelbourne. "I remember when I was about seven or eight and my dad brought me in for a little tea and a scone after I'd spent some time in hospital," he recalls. "It was a little pick-me-up and I think that was my first memory of The Shelbourne. Even back then I knew I wanted to be the chef. It had a huge impact on me."

Traditionally, Afternoon Tea aficionados tend to be female but across the Liffey, another rebel sector of the afternoon tea market is booming. In February 2014, The Morrison Hotel decided that the lads deserved a bite of the three-tier action and launched their Gentleman's Afternoon Tea. Eschewing dainty cucumber sandwiches and tiny tartlets, the 'manly' tea serves up beer sliders, steak sarnies, smoked rasher scones and whiskey chocolate truffles, all washed down with pints of Wicklow Wolf. It turns out the men are just as hungry for an avo tea as the ladies - with bookings increasing 250 percent in the last two years.

"It's become very popular with groups of men for sporting events like the Six Nations who combine the Gentleman's Tea experience with watching the match on the big screen in the Halo room," reveals Christina Torsney from Presence PR, who represent the hotel. "More recently it's become increasingly popular for birthdays and stags," she adds. "But it's not just for the gentlemen - we believe it also appeals to ladies looking for an alternative to the traditional Afternoon Tea."

Other variants are emerging all the time. Lactose intolerant? Try a dairy free option, like those available at Celbridge Manor's Afternoon Tea (celbridgemanorhotel.ie). The Westin (thewestindublin.com) is just one of several hotels offering gluten-free avo tees. If you fancy something completely different, you can even settle down to an Italian Tapas Afternoon Tea at Dublin's Bach 16 (bach16.com). They've kept the three-tier cake stand, but forget finger sandwiches, scones and sweets - this is a feast of stuffed peppers, hummus and dipping breads, pate, bruschetta and oozy cheeses washed down with prosecco or wine. At around €25 a head, the restaurant serves two or three groups afternoon teas every week and recommends booking ahead.

Just last month saw the launch of Vintage Tea Tours (vintageteatours.ie) in Dublin. You can now board a 1961 Routemaster bus (called Pauline) and traverse the city with a hot cup of tea in hand, three tiers of scrumptious treats in front of you. The fayre for your bus fare (tickets start at €40) includes some pretty dainties, including vanilla panna cottas with forest berry compote and mouth-watering Guinness brownies, all freshly prepared by Italian chef Donato Romano. Pauline's now running three times a day with bookings pouring in from all over the world.

Afternoon tea at the Shelbourne hotel inspired by the artwork of Michael Flatley
Afternoon tea at the Shelbourne hotel inspired by the artwork of Michael Flatley

If you don't fancy leaving the comfort of your own home, then the afternoon tea party can come to you. Melissa Curley, founder of Social Bee came up with the idea for her mobile Afternoon Tea Service (socialbee.ie) because she wanted to create a "quirky way of socialising and gathering people around tables together that didn't revolve around alcohol or the pub".

For €32/pp (or €18 for business Cream Teas) Melissa's team will descend on your shabby sitting room (or any venue) and turn it into an Afternoon Tea haven, complete with beautiful table clothes, vintage china place settings, tea ladies in traditional tea dress and even a retro record player for Louis Armstrong to croon on in the background. The food includes a selection of finger sandwiches, award-winning scones, jam and cream, cakes and tarts and bottomless teapots of loose leaf speciality teas.

Melissa reckons tea in the home offers a more convenient, relaxed and warm atmosphere to hotel offerings. It also makes it perfect for larger parties. "Hen parties have been a steady booking stream from the beginnings but as trends filter through from America, we're now seeing huge increases in Baby Shower bookings," she reveals. "We're still a new and niche business. But I would say that, month on month, from January, we have been consistently growing in our bookings and averaging six to eight bookings a month. Which isn't too shabby given that the mainstay of bookings are weekends. We've also a growing corporate market - which is weekday work - and in fact we just recently agreed our first corporate partnership which means an agreed number of events each year."

What's particularly interesting about the return to at-home afternoon teas is that this was where the tradition began. In 1840, Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, found herself experiencing a 'sinking feeling' around 4pm. Having last dined at breakfast (lunch wasn't common at the time) and facing a long wait until dinner, usually served at 8pm, the duchess, a close friend of Queen Victoria, developed a habit of ordering bread and butter to her room, served with a pot of tea. Later she extended the invitation for friends to join her in the drawing room. Soon all of fashionable society was nibbling on sandwiches sometime betwixt and between 2pm and 5pm.

Given that few of us are blessed with living the pampered existence of a duchess, one might have expected an antiquated practice like Afternoon Tea to have dropped off the modern menu. It is, after all, essentially useless. No-one needs three tiers of baked goods to get them from lunch through to dinner. Who needs tea-leaves and strainers and napkins and delicate china cups when you can buy a big box of Barry's and have a brew in a mug with a biscuit at home or in the office?

But to ask such questions is to totally miss the point of Afternoon Tea. It has nothing whatsoever to do with need. "It's a treat," says Garry. "It's not something people are going to do all the time but it's two hours when you can come in and forget the hustle and bustle of the city."

Caroline agrees: "I've never known anyone to say 'damn, I have to go to an Afternoon Tea'!" she laughs. "Life can be so frenetic and Afternoon Tea offers an oasis of peace and quiet and civility. I think a little bit of it is tied in with our appetite at the moment for period dramas like Downton Abbey and Victoria. There's a real desire to hark back to a different time, a longing for elegance and a slower pace of life. There's an element of fantasy involved in afternoon tea."

Our love affair with Afternoon Tea might not be based in a physical need, but it does reflect a different need - to feel cherished, to relax and spend time with loved ones. It's a mindful meal - mobile phones get put away - and in many ways it represents a back-lash to coffee-chain culture, slurping on a latte with a laptop on your knee.

"Afternoon Tea satisfies that most basic of needs; breaking bread together," says Melissa from SocialBee. "When we come together around a table to share food, we do so much more than eat. We talk, we share what's going on in our lives and reconnect. The recession in Ireland focused minds on what the truly important things in their lives are, and they are your family, your friends and your health."

"The crash came so suddenly that it made people re-examine all sorts of things, like how they were spending their leisure time and whether there was any value in it," agrees Caroline. "Afternoon Tea is an easy way of engaging with other people. The tea itself contributes to conversation and it's very intimate - it's not like a dinner for 20 people - everybody gets to chat."

Interestingly bookings at The Merrion and The Shelbourne remained constant during the economic downturn. "People might not have been able to treat themselves to a weekend break in Spain but they could do Afternoon Tea," says Caroline. "Now, with the recession receding, I think people are even more inclined to treat themselves."

Since capacity in The Merrion's drawing room is limited to around 40, Afternoon Tea is by no means the most lucrative element of the hotel's trade. "There's more business from dinners, bed and breakfast," says Caroline. "But I would say it's importance is more based in sentiment. Afternoon Tea is in the fabric of daily life at The Merrion."

At The Shelbourne, Garry simply says, "it's at the heart of the hotel".

But then Afternoon Tea is all about heart. Your head might be saying 'you don't need to eat three tiers of delicious treats', but the heart... well the heart knows what it wants.

Afternoon Tea: The Rules

Don’t confuse Afternoon Tea with High Tea. The latter is a more hearty affair often including casseroles and intended as an early dinner.

Don’t feel obliged to eat everything. “There’s a lot of eating in an Afternoon Tea and it shouldn’t feel like an episode of Man versus Food,” laughs Shelbourne Executive Chef Garry Hughes. Most hotels (including The Shelbourne and Merrion) operate a boxed take-away service for uneaten pastries.

Do follow tier system and start at the bottom. But don’t get stressed about whether your scone should be slathered in cream or jam first.

Do switch off. “It’s an unwritten rule of afternoon tea that the mobile’s put away,” says Caroline Kennedy. “I think it would be a sin to be sitting scrolling through your Twitter or emails instead of enjoying the ceremony in front of you.”

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