Monday, 16 February 2009

No More Cakes and Tea?

"Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" Malvolio in Twelfth Night

Whenever I read or hear this quotation from William Shakespeare's Twelfth NIght, I always think tea should replace the word ale. Shakespeare was reputedly a great tea drinker and of course there are few institutions so British as that of afternoon tea. Originally 'afternoon tea' was an entire elaborate meal - course after course of sandwiches, scones and cakes. Nowadays, most British hotels both in England and abroad offer some form of afternoon tea, from the incredible multi-course afternoon tea at the Ritz and other top London hotels to simple tea and cake. But sadly, for most of us these days, afternoon tea is simply a rushed cup of tea. This is why we Brits take any opportunity we can to enjoy a proper afternoon tea when life slows down enough to let us.

One of the times I can do this is when I am traveling. There is nothing like a bit of work or sightseeing to sharpen the appetite, and a cup of tea and a cake can be a great way to bridge the gap between lunch and dinner. And I have to confess, after years of traveling, that England is not the only place where you can enjoy a fantastic afternoon tea.

I am in Paris at the moment and I have to admit the French don’t officially take tea in the afternoon the way the English do, but I can promise you that if you visit a French cafe or restaurant around four o’clock, you will often see people requesting a table for “un petit dessert” which they have with a cup of tea or coffee- in other words, afternoon tea.

One of the best places in Paris to take afternoon tea but still stay true to French ambiance is the wonderful Le Fouquet’s on the Champs Elysées. The 21st Century Husband introduced me to it some time ago, and we try to make at least one visit there every time we are in Paris.

Le Fouquets has been an institution since 1899 and its iconic red awning has welcomed everyone from Churchill and Chaplin to Jackie Onassis and Theodore Roosevelt. Of course, Le Fouquets serves wonderful full meals, but if you arrive at the right time in the afternoon, they will happily serve you coffee or tea and “un petit dessert”.

The selection of “petit desserts” is quite staggering and they are anything but petit in most cases. The most famous of these is their Fouquet’s Millefeuille, a chunky tower of crisp pastry layers sandwiched together with thick layers of creme patisserie and served with a raspberry coulis. As well as tea or coffee, Le Fouquets makes wicked hot chocolate that is really almost like liquid chocolate melted in a cup. As if this were not sinful enough, the Viennese version of this treat even comes with cream! Okay, so it is not strictly tea, but I think with temptation like this you would be allowed this variation on the traditional.

Le Fouquet’s is beautiful, with luxurious red decor and plush red and gold curtains. Photographs of the celebrities and statesmen who have visited line the walls and the atmosphere is one of relaxed and cheerful elegance. Comfortable booths are available, and some of the tables even have sofas for seats. There is a formal dining room on the second floor. Le Fouquet’s is so famous that this thriving restaurant has been designated an official Monument Historique, and it is still popular with celebrities. However, the staff are so discreet and the seating arrangements so intimate you would be hard pressed to spot one of them. Furthermore, in my experience you are treated politely and made to feel special whether your photograph would be welcomed on Le Fouquet’s wall or not. In the fine weather, if you don’t mind being seen, you can even sit at one of their highly coveted tables outside on the Champs Elysées watching the world go by.

Another wonderful place for afternoon tea in Paris is yet another French institution - Ladurée. Where Le Fouquet's is known for its red awnings and decor, Ladurée is noted for its pastels, particularly its iconic pastel green entrance on the Champs Elysées. Even the china they use is in pastel colours. Like Le Fouquet, Ladurée is beautiful. There are several rooms; the tea room facing out on to the Champs Elysées, the amazing new cocktail bar at the back, and several dining rooms upstairs. These are all elegantly and tastefully decorated - and unlike Le Fouquets, even the restrooms at Ladurée are gorgeous.

Ladurée is most famous for its amazing macarons - which come in virtually every flavour imaginable. And no, I have not mis-spelled macaron - these delicacies are as different as they could possibly be from macaroons. Although macaron themselves were brought to France by Catherine de Medici from Italy in the sixteenth century, it was not until 1930 that Ladurée's famous double decker macaron held together with a creamy ganache filling was devised by the grandson of the founder of the restaurant. Ladurées' macaron have a light, crusty exterior which belies their soft, melting middle - they are nothing short of ambrosia. Of course, you can have anything you like at this famous restaurant, from un petite dessert to a three course meal, but it is their macarons - and amongst British tourists and ex-pats living in France- desserts and afternoon tea - they are remembered for.

Ladurée's dessert menu is over three pages long. The choices seem endless - choux pastry is stuffed with cream flavoured with rose water and topped with almonds, extra large macarons are sandwiched together with a fresh apple filling and cakes that in any other restaurant would be known as "death by chocolate" are on offer. This is before mentioning their ice cream dessert menu which also fills a page, and the choice is made even more difficult by the fact that their iconic macaron are available for purchase by the boxful downstairs in their shop so you need not feel you have to eat them in the restaurant. At this point I almost hate to mention that their menu of teas is almost a page long as well - Ladurée is a difficult place for the indecisive! But if you can finally choose, afternoon tea at Ladurée is an experience you will not soon forget.

So yes, even if you are in France, perhaps the least English of any country, there will still be cakes and tea, whether you are virtuous or not!

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