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Birthplace of afternoon tea

Jul 31, 2023

Butterflies melt in the mouth. They flutter on the tongue and glide down the throat. The ones that perch on perfect butter shortbread do anyway.

London’s 1865 Langham Hotel at the end of Regent Street and opposite BBC Broadcasting House at Portland Place is younger than Brown’s Hotel (1837) and Claridge’s (1854) but older than The Savoy (1889) and The Ritz (1906).

London’s first purpose-built grand hotel is on everyone’s bucket list for high tea. Perhaps, at the very top. As its Palm Court was the urban birthplace of the afternoon tea ritual arguably begun by the seventh Duchess of Bedford who, one afternoon at Woburn Abbey, experienced “a sinking feeling”, cured by bone china.

Charles Dickens considered the Langham “the only place one could take a respectable lady”. For over 150 years it has “forcibly appealed” to ladies.

When it opened, catering for everyone from princes to the middle classes and small dogs, The Langham was London’s largest. And boasted many firsts. WCs, lifts (‘rising rooms’), electric lighting, a chiropodist in residence, the ‘Truefitts Tonsurial Establishment’, a pioneering vacuuming service and revolutionary air conditioning units.

Its first PR blurb claimed “exclusive immunity” from mosquitoes.

Now it can claim to serve the world’s most luxurious beef burger and to be the first hotel to offer guests edible Asian butterflies as well a bar which serves drinks in wooden spoons, broken glasses and ashtrays full of synthetic coal.

Once an open courtyard roofed in 1888 and now re-hand-painted with Victorian Art Deco touches, mirrored walls and a spangly high ceiling, the Palm Court was the place to be seen.

When a crustless cucumber sandwich was a status symbol.

Now its sugared butterflies, Kentia fronds and Wedgwood tableware serve as the backdrop to £49-83 three daily classically twee, two-hour sittings, beginning with cherry and cranberry posset (cold set dessert) amuse-bouche.

To the philistines Philippine head waiter Noli demonstrates how to operate sugar tongs and advises ideal nibble-and-beverage pairings. He proposes Chinese silver needle to go with your butterflies and caramel. Mrs McLintock, the Scottish woman who probably invented shortbread, would have thoroughly approved.

You can’t criticise Singaporean executive pastry chef and Bake Off judge Cherish Finden’s handicraft. Apart from wishing for longer wingspans.

After your fill of genus Rhopalcorea, you tuck in your napkin and into truffled duck brioche, smoked salmon with fennel and passionfruit dressing on rye cracker, wild strawberry and pistachio macaroon and a miniaturised rose-motifed lemon Victoria sponge with raspberry and lime jam.

From head to thorax the butterflies are the stars of the three times daily show. Along with their exquisite caraway and cocoa bread.

Respecting your location, you remember to put the milk in first to protect the glaze. To ensure the spout is facing the hostess or pourer. And to heap the jam first onto your well-raisined scone to balance the calorific clotted cream.

The card offers cardio-tonics, anti-inflammatories, relaxants and fever-reducers in the soothing cosmopolitan loose leaf forms of South African vanilla Rooibus, Ceylon Uva, Snow Buds white, Yin Hao Lotus, Master Xu’s Da Hong Pao, Peach and Marigold Petals, Nilgiri Frost, Chun Mee green and South Nigerian ginger. All recommended by the tea sommelier to enhance the chichi, classically kitschy, never soggy or curly and never ever triangular cucumber sandwiches. Laurent-Perrier Champagne – rose or ordinaire – complements fingers too, you are told.

Blackpool-born resident John Watson tinkles away and accepts requests. His repertoire stretches from Dvorak through Cole Porter and Gershwin to Adele.

Michel Roux, son of Albert, runs the Langham’s Roux at the Landau gourmet restaurant which in the halcyon days was called Memories of the Empire. Connecticut-born Chris King is the executive chef. Collared Victorian horse head with boiled withers (equine shoulder blades) has been replaced by aged Buccleuch beef and Oscietra caviar. And a £70 tasting menu.

Perhaps the best dish is the Palm Court ‘Sterling Burger’. Named after the Langham’s £25,000-a-night, six-bedroom penthouse suite, at £34, the Sterling is topped lavishly with foie gras and a black truffle ‘remoulade’ (mustard, caper and egg yolk dressing). It comes branded with the initials ‘LH’ which were set into the hotel’s original 1865 staircase.

Sadly, much is now unoriginal. Much has had to change. Little is preserved except the jam. The old cockfighting pit has also gone.

As the Persian silk tapestries, mosaic floors and white-tiled corridors “wide enough for a coach and horse and ladies in crinolenes”. So has the post office and “Small dogs only” policy. Guide dogs only now. The hotel was hit by a bomb in 1940. And closed. But it survived. Different owners have undertaken different makeovers, the last in 2009. The 380-room hotel was heavily Hiltonised between 1987-91. Now it’s owned by Hong Kong-based Langham Hotels International.

Times may have changed but still “vases of flowers are dotted prettily around”, the droplet chandeliers still glitter, the coupe glasses sparkle and high ceilings shimmer with gold leaf and crystal.

Gargoyles still grin from John Giles’s Suffolk brick Italianate-Gothic façade. The “raffish entertainments” still happen.

The old Chukkah Bar is now The Artesian, celebrating the hotel’s now capped well which once delivered 250,000 gallons of water daily. Bartender Gabon Fodor offers experimental, fantastical £17 cocktails. Edible orange blossom glass shards are also included.

The hotel still attracts the dignitaries, celebrities and the bling. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set two of his Sherlock Holmes novels there. Coward, Wilde, Longfellow, Ouida, Maugham and JB Priestley hung out there. Mrs Wallis Simpson, Lady Di and Lady Gaga too.

Now multi-medium food correspondents, bloggers, sought-after social influencers compose their reviews in the rather antiseptic, ultra-modern third -floor Langham Club Lounge, scoring the MP3 player connectivity, marking the en-suite Nespresso machines and offering vital and authoritative insights into the free bathroom slippers, Blissful Bed mattresses, the Chuan Spa and in-room, body-scrub toiletries created exclusively by Laura Tonnato.

When it comes to nectar, naturally the butterflies receive nothing but rave reviews.

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