If you’re a tea aficionado like myself, you won’t want to miss out on an afternoon tea at the Mandarin Oriental’s Rosebery lounge. At £53 per person it’s definitely amongst the more expensive options, but with an added extra £20 you can get the advice, expertise and, most of all, the unrelenting enthusiasm of tea master Ludovic Coco.
Indeed, more than just a job, he sees his position at the Rosebery lounge as an opportunity to increase people’s knowledge and widen their palette in order to improve the overall quality of afternoon tea experiences. He provides a bridge between the oriental and the occidental, between the classic British afternoon tea and the Chinese gongfu cha ceremony, which is what makes the tea experience at the Mandarin Oriental so special.
Delicate finger sandwiches and cakes are served on a two-tier plate, with French pastries, delicious scones and jams (plus clotted cream) on separate plates. The setting is refined but cosy. Families sit at tables nearby, looking out through the big windows onto Harvey Nichols. With its high ceilings, the space feels inviting rather than intimidating. Perhaps this is because plants and nature feature prominently – if not the actual plants (although there are a few), then certainly the idea of it. Plump green armchairs and sculpture branches grace the place with a certain calmness and serenity. This idea of peacefulness is continued through the delicate tea, which is served on a gongfu tea table that comes on a rolling tray and, in partly replicating the Chinese gongfu tea ceremony, is given the time and attention it deserves.
The gongfu tea ceremony involves the ritualized preparation and presentation of tea, “making tea with skill” (as gongfu literally translates to) and allowing for a maximization of taste, especially for a finer tea (such as green or white). For optimal taste, distinctive properties of tea leaves will require specific teaware, a certain ratio of tea to water, an ideal water temperature and a particular length of steeping time. So, for example, a water temperature of 40°C (104°F) to 60°C (140°F) should not be exceeded for white tea, since the leaves tend to float due to air trapped in their small white hairs, requiring a longer steeping time to release their subtle flavour.
The preferred teaware for white or green teas, a Chinese lidded bowl called gaiwan (invented during the Ming dynasty 1368-1644), was used in the preparation for our white and green teas as well. The gaiwan’s porcelain allows for the absorption of heat, thus preventing damage to the tea. These very technical concerns are not intended to make the tea ceremony a rigid one, rather they are meant to enhance and perfect the tea experience by helping the tea achieve its optimal flavour.
As Ludovic emphasized during our session, the practice of having tea in China started out not as a mere pastime, but as a philosophy. While at the very beginning it was viewed and used only as herbal medicine, it was soon to be the almost exclusive domain of Taoist and Buddhist monks who saw tea as a way to show respect for nature, calm the mind and increase awareness. Appreciating the complexity of tea in the ceremonial preparation of tea translates to a focused attention of the mind.
In other words, the multi-layered taste of tea made it the ideal subject of meditation, since we are encouraged to apprehend and appreciate every little nuance in flavour. Additionally, its chemical properties induce a heightened sense of awareness, which is also why tea was (and still is) used in Confucian ancestral rites. In this sense the spiritual roots of the Chinese tea ceremony were already closely linked with the art of tea connoisseurship. It was an easy stretch to make from monasteries to the literati, and finally to the wider population.
Now while Ludovic does not perform a complete gongfu tea ceremony at the Mandarin Oriental tea lounge, the basic and essential elements are there, allowing the tea to become the center of attention. In the Victorian-era afternoon tea ritual, however, the social event itself (the gossip, the manners, the social circle, the foods that came with the drink) was just as important as the tea. A cup of tea at the Rosebery lounge is heightened to a position of prominence unlike at any other afternoon tea place I have been to in London.
The lounge oozes calmness, the tea master meticulously prepares the Nepal Spring White or Organic Dragonwell or whichever other fine tea you may fancy, and tea comes to be viewed in a fresh way. But, looking around, the room bustles with conversation, families and friends having come together for a fine afternoon, enjoying their pastries and chit-chatting away. We are still in London, but the bridge between the occidental and the oriental is there and it is open, for anyone to cross back and forth, to stop in the middle of and marvel at and be inspired by a view that we have to appreciate anew with every passing day.
Area: Knightsbridge, West London
Closest tube: Knightsbridge (Piccadilly line); Hyde Park Corner (Piccadilly line)
Address: Mandarin Oriental
London SW1X 7LA
Benn, J. A. 2015. Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History. USA: University of Hawai’i Press.
Cha, C. 2009. Curiosi-tea. Victoria, Australia: absurd publications.
Luo, J. 2012. The China Tea Book. USA: Earth Aware Editions.