Ah, afternoon tea! Could there be a more quintessentially British concept? I seriously doubt it. This kind of experience has been bringing smiles to the faces of the beleaguered citizens of the UK for a very long time indeed. And now, more than ever, we really need those smiles!
Actually, I have to confess that the prospect of cakes and coffee isn’t one that particularly floats my gastronomic boat, but on this occasion I am outnumbered three-to-one, and since this is a belated Christmas treat for members of the family, I can hardly suggest a plate of cheeky noodles instead – so along we go and even I have to admit that there can be few settings quite as perfect for the occasion as Norton House. Situated ten miles or so outside of Edinburgh, it sits amidst fifty-five acres of impeccably tended gardens and on this sunny, late January day, it all looks absolutely splendid. I have to reflect that life can be hard sometimes, but hey, today really isn’t so bad.
The dining room is delightfully quaint and I’m happy to note, well-attended, so there’s a convivial bustle about the place (the last time we tried one of these things, we were the only people in the dining room, which tends to dampen the spirits somewhat). We get off to an excellent start with the perfect appetiser, a glass of chilled champagne, which gives us that delightfully muzzy feeling (luckily neither of us is the designated driver!). There are unlimited quantities of tea or coffee and it’s elegantly served in proper china cups and saucers. And then the food arrives. Wow. What you can see in the picture serves two people, so we certainly weren’t complaining about the portions.
There are four kinds of finger sandwiches – smoked salmon, cream cheese and capers; honey roast ham with English mustard; egg and cress mayonnaise; and cucumber and mint – all freshly prepared and quite delicious. Of course there are scones and (nice touch this), for those of us who greet the presence of dried fruit with the same enthusiasm we might reserve for a portion of freshly grilled bluebottles, there are also some plain ones on offer, with lashings of clotted cream and raspberry jam. The latter is a little on the runny side, but frankly, if this is the only criticism we can find, it’s not so bad. The scones are brilliant examples of their kind: light, fluffy and hard to resist – but you need to try because there are still the puds.
Ah, the puds! Each one is more delightful than the last, but in amongst the feeding frenzy I manage to note that there’s a passion fruit tart that melts in the mouth, a lemon polenta cake that has a delightful coconut texture, a vanilla panna cotta that’s to die for, a chocolate cake that really ought to be stodgy but is as light as you like, and even some little bright green macarons for those who adore that kind of thing.
Now, don’t get me wrong, we can eat like nobody’s business, but even we have to admit defeat before we’ve quite cleared everything off the display; but it’s no bother. The friendly waitress points out that whatever we can’t finish can be packaged up in a cardboard box, so we can take it home and have another run at it once we’ve recovered our appetites – which, to be honest, isn’t till the following day.
Look, let’s be clear. Afternoon tea still isn’t my favourite thing, but I’d be a very hard man to please if I didn’t acknowledge that, if this kind of thing is your pleasure (as it is my companions’), then you should make a beeline for Norton House at your earliest opportunity. Because, when it comes to the great British cream tea, this is pretty much as good as it gets.