Major cities throughout the world each have their own ‘Grande Dame’ hotels. New York has the Plaza and Waldorf=Astoria; London the Ritz, Savoy and Claridge’s; Singapore has Raffles, whilst Paris has too many to mention. Manchester’s is undoubtedly The Midland Hotel.
Built in 1903, the Grade II* listed building is perhaps most well known as the place where Mr. Rolls met Mr. Royce and decided to make motor cars. Perhaps less know, Wikipedia also informs that the hotel was ‘allegedly coveted by Adolf Hitler as a possible Nazi headquarters in Britain.’
Equally renowned the impressive number of guests who have stayed or dined there, the hotel is as infamous for those that have reputedly been turned away – including The Beatles for being "inappropriately dressed" and artist David Hockney for wearing odd socks - over the years standards have obviously lowered because they recently let me in for afternoon tea.
Originating in England in the 1840s the quaint custom of afternoon tea is one that quickly spread throughout the British Empire. Whilst the once Michelin starred French Restaurant at The Midland is the more celebrated, it’s the magnificently Moorish Octagon Lounge at The Midland that serves the hotel’s Afternoon Tea.
It’s usual too book ahead for afternoon tea at The Midland but I called in on the off chance. I chose to be seated in the grandeur of the Octagon Lounge (or Court) as opposed to the people watching vantage point overlooking the grand entrance hall and reception area.
Whilst the Midland has modernised over the years, there is still a sense of being transported to another time. The glass dome that once topped the octagonal light well has gone but the grand Moorish lantern (suspended on a chain for setting at different heights) still impresses.
The British Empire has gone, the dome has gone and sadly so too has a good measure of the hotel’s former opulence. The Radisson at the converted Free Trade Hall is now the city centre’s only 5 star hotel (with the Lowry over Irwell in Salford).
I’m certain it is uncouth for one to say one is having afternoon tea; it’s much more proper like to say that one ‘partakes’ of afternoon tea – usually with one’s little finger poking out.
The table freshly set with fine linen and teaware, I was presented with a complementary glass of Marsala wine – a nice touch. I had selected a Green Leaf Tea, which soon followed. The tea was good quality, light made from young, good-sized leaves (no fannings).
Presented on a traditional three-tiered stand: the bottom tier was composed of sandwiches traditionally cut into delicate fingers; the middle tier gave a sultana scone with cream and preserves, whilst the top was regally crowed with delicious looking cakes.
The sandwiches featured mostly classic combinations; some with subtle twists, such as the: Apricot, Cucumber & Cream Cheese and, my favourite of the tea, Salmon Symphony on Pumpernickel Bread.
The Chicken with a Tarragon Mayonnaise was also nicely done with generous slices of chicken. Less impressive were the Sliced Ham with Seeded Mustard & Honey and Egg Mayonnaise with Cress.
Moving to tier two and the Freshly Baked Sultana Scone. It seems too long since I’ve had a scone; I think that there needs to be some sort of scone revival à la macarons and cupcakes.
Served with Cornish Clotted Cream and jam, in this case, Organic Strawberry Preserve and Fruits of the Forest Compote there is little finer – what’s more, they are quick, easy and delicious. Thanks Midland for reminding me of the joy of scones.
The crowing glory of any afternoon tea is the cakes, whilst not as visually impressive as some fanciful creations you can get these days, for the most part these were good.
Having made many a visit to the three shops in Bakewell (The Bakewell Tart Shop & Coffee House, The Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop and Bloomers of Bakewell), that each claim to own the original recipe, I know a good tart when I see one – The Midland’s Bakewell Tart was actually one of the best I’ve had in a long time.
The Chocolate Slice, although a little uninspiring for such a grand setting was also tasty enough. More disappointing though was the pastry on the French Fruit Tart that was hard.
Although it pains me to use a word such as ‘mediocre’ to describe anything to do with what is undoubtedly one of Manchester’s finest buildings with such an important and rich history – the quality of the food leaves me with little choice. For the overall experience however, I’d definitely go back – and after my afternoon tea taster, am more eager than ever to finally get along to The French at The Midland.