I’m quite partial to a bit of posh. I’m convinced that in a previous life (or indeed, lives), I was loaded. To the manor born and all that. I feel remarkably at home in country estates and have little problem at all when it comes to imagining hosting a silver-crystal dinner for thirty of my bestest friends in the long hall in front of a roaring fire. I’ve been known to lose myself as I conjure up visions of horse-drawn carriages, calling cards, butlers, and parlour maids. But that was in a previous life, not the one I have now. And no, I’m not complaining. I’m just saying.
I was treated recently to a champagne afternoon tea at the Shelbourne Hotel on Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green. It’s a local institution that has been serving the hoi polloi of the city and oceans of international travellers since 1824. In fact, it’s founder, one Martin Burke from Tipperary, had exactly this in mind. He envisioned a hotel that would ‘woo genteel customers who wanted solid, comfortable and serviceable accommodation at a fashionable address’. He named the hotel after William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne [Burke added the o], and British Prime Minister from 1782 to 1783. [That I never knew.]
It was here that the country’s first Constitution was drafted back in 1922 and over the years, it’s become a landmark and an institution. In the Horseshoe Bar one night many years ago, I turned with G&T in hand and ran into Nicholas Cage – or rather he ran in to me. That same evening, as I waited outside for a mate to arrive, Martin Sheen stepped out of a taxi and said hello. I’d imagine that a read through the old hotel registers that can be checked out from the hotel’s lobby museum would be an interesting way to pass a wet afternoon.
But I was there for afternoon tea, with champers, in the Lord Mayor’s Lounge. And at €57 per person, I was expecting great things. But times have changed.
We had a 5pm sitting. All that was available. And every seat was taken. I was told on booking that we would have 90 minutes and had this filed away somewhere in the back of my mind, figuring we’d have loads of time.
First up, the champagne, a choice of pink or white. Real stuff, too. Lovely. Then the sambos. One each of a choice of four. While they were tasty, I was surprised at how uninspiring they were. And open, too. I know I spend a lot of time in Hungary, home of the open sandwich, but still, I like my breads to meet. I like a traditional sambo. But they were tasty.
Next up, the three-tiered cake dish with scones, cakes, and desserts (working from the bottom up). It was the scones I’d come for, really. Those and the clotted cream. [It’s the only time I eat jam. And in living memory, no matter how full I have been, I have never turned down a cream tea. Even now I can taste the clotted Cornish cream I had last summer.] I have very fond memories of afternoon teas, including one at the Parsonage in Oxford, or the Ritz in London, or the Empress on Vacouver Island. I’d been salivating since morning at the thoughts of a repeat. But the scones were small and the cream wasn’t clotted. But they were tasty.
The macaroons, those multi-coloured pastel things that took the world by storm a couple of years ago, were very very sweet. All the cakes were very sweet. Too sweet. But they looked amazing. I was particularly taken with the eggshell, its sweet centre and shortbread soldiers for dipping. But it was far too sweet.
All the while we chatted, drank tea, then switched to coffee. We looked around, took in the sights, caught the occasional waft of another conversation as it wound its away around the living room. All very pleasant. It was tipping on 6.30 and our 90 minutes were up, but there were tables vacant and no one waiting to come in. We had just arrived at the top-tier when our waiter came over and asked, politely, if we’d like to box it up and take it home. We were getting the bum’s rush!! This I certainly didn’t expect. Another 10 minutes wouldn’t have killed them. A little put out, we boxed and left.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon and great to see how the other half live. Some of our fellow afternoon-teaers looked like regulars. Must be nice. The decor, the ambiance, the setting all took me back to that previous life when the hotel might have been my home from home in the city. That said, I wonder if the Shelbourne has become a tad complacent? Is it resting a little on its laurels? As posh afternoon teas go, I’ve had better. In my book, substance trumps appearance every time.
Still, I’m grateful that I’ve been able to add another memory to the memory bank of well-spent afternoons. I’m grateful that we got to kick off M’s birthday week in style. And I’m grateful to the inimitable Mr N for treating me to a taste of times past. Lovely. Lovely indeed.