Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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This is Day 30 of Veganuary, a 30-day pledge to eat vegan to save te planet. Today focuses exclusively on a vegan twist on the most British tradition, a culinary feast that draws tourists from around the world — afternoon tea in London, at Kettner’s Townhouse. Get ready to sandwich and scones.
With three colleagues from work, I visit Kettner’s Townhouse, formerly known as Kettner’s, a Victorian establishment that’s been remodeled in 2017 to fit modern tastes.
Set in a Georgian building in London’s Soho, I expected Kettner’s to be period posh and plush with Victoriana design elements. It’s a little bit of that, but also steampunk art and wooden floors, club chairs and frou-frou lampshades. It’s more club than anything, a fitting look for an establishment that’s now part of the Soho House constellation, a group of private members’ clubs with locations around the world. At 5pm on a Wednesday, though, all the members are busy elsewhere. As we start our afternoon tea in the restaurant, we are the only table.
According to The Ritz London Book of Afternoon Tea, “In England it is possible to have your cake and eat it without being in turn consumed by guilt. […] Continental and American cakes are made to look positively wicked by comparison. English cakes are respectable.”
Let’s see about that. Bring on the veggies.
At Kettner’s Townhouse, the vegan afternoon tea menu does not exist per se. To be fair, the afternoon tea menu is an afterthought too. It’s possible that Kettner’s had a strong afternoon tea tradition in its former life but as a members’ club, afternoon tea is only a page in the Champagne Bar menu where every page celebrates champagne. Never mind. We have informed Kettner’s that I’ll be having a vegan afternoon tea so they are aware of that, but our waiter is a bit more fuzzy on the practicalities.
“You can look at the afternoon tea menu and see where you would like vegan options,” he announces at first.
Then. Second thoughts. “The chef will come and discuss vegan options with you. It’s how we do things here for special dietary requirements.” Emphasis on special.
Further second thoughts. After checking in with the manager. “In fact, we have a vegan menu for you.” I ask if I can see it.
Well. The chef only scribbled a few notes.
Very sweetly, our waiter copies the vegan menu by hand on a paper and hands it to me. It reads like a shopping list. Hold tight.
Avocado & cucumber.
The least I can say is that the mystery is intact. After reading the vegan menu, I’m still very much in the dark about what I’m going to eat. This is so experimental.
From left to right, here is my best guess for sandwiches:
How does it compare with the regular afternoon tea that my colleagues are having?
My choice of bread is better than theirs, that’s for sure. Instead of plain white or wholewheat square bread, I have bread that actually looks like artisan bread. It’s a bit on the soggy side but overall, the sandwiches hold their shape without fillings spilling out and they taste nice, if a bit bland. These are certainly novel combinations for me and they are intriguing. The pumpkin sandwich is particularly captivating. Who would have thought to pair pumpkin with red pepper?
Initially, my two scones look a bit lonely on a big plate. That’s because my three colleagues have a large afternoon tea tiered tray and six fluffy scones is definitely a bigger crowd than two.
Also, I am a bit suspicious and consider the alternative that my scones might not be dairy-free, that they might be the same scones as the regulars. However, mine are definitely a lighter shade of scone, probably the result of plant milk having a lower fat content.
Next. What to eat with my scones. My colleagues have clotted cream and jam.
Is there a vegan alternative to clotted cream, I ask. The waiter says that he will enquire with the chef, but as he points out, I can always have jam. Right. Yes, I can have jam but why would the vegan afternoon tea have fewer elements than the regular? I’m being picky here but since this is an experiment, I want to be totally honest. It’s not fair.
Twenty minutes and no vegan alternative having landed on the table, I slice away.
The fruit scone is very fluffy and light, a big plus in my book. Never mind the absence of fake clotted cream. I try strawberry jam on the left, a darker berry jam (blueberry?) on the right. They are nice but I’m already getting full and I haven’t even started the cakes.
Take heart. It’s only three small cakes. Right?
My best guesses for the cakes would be:
Out of the three, my favorite is the pineapple cake, even if it looks strangely like bird food. The texture of the base has a nice crunch to it, the pineapple is tasty and the coconut cream not overly sweet. However, the two other sweets fail to pass the test. The ginger cake is bland and sticky, the beetroot chewy and the whole cake not convenient to eat in a single (or two) bite(s). The vanilla cream is very sweet and though the plum is nicely poached (in red wine?), I would have preferred a more seasonal fruit choice. I know. It’s February, what can I expect. Citrus or chocolate, perhaps?
At the end of the three sweets, I’m stuffed and sugared-out. No, seriously. I can’t even consider dinner tonight and welcome to 30-odd minutes of bicycle in the cold to get home.
Compared with other afternoon teas in London, this vegan afternoon tea is very average and could be improved. I think that the portions are slightly too big (smaller sandwiches and scones?), that the tastes are too bland and the sweets too sweet. I know that it’s a tall order to ask from a teatime treat to err on the side of sugary caution but this time, it would really benefit from cutting back.
What would a really good vegan afternoon tea be like? I wonder and I intend to investigate. There’s got to be a decent vegan afternoon tea somewhere, where the vegan selection is as enticing as the non-vegan option. After all, vegan food in public places is largely in its infancy and creative chefs are bound to take the bait, if only to attract hipster millennials (and me).
I appreciate the fact that Kettner’s offers a vegan afternoon tea and that they put some thought into it, but it’s not the fireworks I was hoping for. The place is nice and as we get out, every table at the Champagne Bar is full. Looks like the Soho House members are finally free to converge and drink the evening away. As we wait for our coats, the maitre d’ asks where the rest of the evening will take us. Home, we say shockingly. We’re all heading home. It’s 6pm on a cold Wednesday evening, man, what do you expect?
We pause in the entrance hall where framed scribbled corsets adorn the walls, overlooking a small metal tree where empty Victorian-type lockets hang from branches. Hmm, sometimes the ways of steampunk art are cryptic. As was this vegan afternoon tea.