Sopwell House Hotel is a grand affair, with over 100 rooms, two restaurants, a spa and 12 acres of grounds to its name. But of it all, our favourite place to relax is where they serve afternoon tea – in the cocktail lounge.
It’s a long, breezy room that begins with a marble-topped bar and stretches all the way to an end fireplace and library, with little coves and floor-to-ceiling sash windows dotted along the way. Striped monochrome wallpaper, convex mirrors, fabric armchairs and lustre cushions make for a modern feel; but there’s also parquet flooring, a huge central marble fireplace and white linen tablecloths to create the kind of traditional afternoon tea ambience that most guests would want.
It’s a comfortable place to sit (there’s a soft, chunky armchair per guest), so you’ll likely be here for at least a couple of hours. Begin with a choice of Twinings loose-leaf tea or coffee – not a particularly long or fancy menu, but something for most tastes nonetheless – and plates of elegant finger sandwiches filled with the usual suspects. The bread was soft, the cucumber sliced to thin perfection and, best of all, a waiter makes the rounds with a silver tray of sandwich refills, which you’re free to indulge in as often as you like.
Scones, one sultana one plain, were well-risen and shiny on top, with fluffy interiors and a good bite. There’s one little pot of Tiptree jam per person (a choice of two, ideally homemade, preserves would have made us far happier) and a generous amount of clotted cream. By far the best tier of Sopwell House’s afternoon tea stand, however, was the cakes, all homemade by an in-house pastry chef.
A bright yellow lemon macaron was bursting with zest, its two shiny shells sandwiched together with a thin layer of explosive raspberry jam – how we wish that had been served with the scones. Pistachio Battenberg tasted exactly as it sounds, with a strong, authentic flavour and happy absence of food colouring. A little rounded pastry case came piped with soft crème patissiere and topped with blackberries that tasted fresh from the hedge, and a pretty square of carrot cake decorated with a chocolate feather was spicy and deliciously moist – a difficult consistency to achieve, when you’re making such small squares of cake.
Although there’s nothing hugely innovative on the menu (and the jam offering could certainly do with some work), afternoon tea at Sopwell House is something we’d like to repeat. Everything we ate was well-executed, presentation was appropriately delicate, and the cake tier was something special, full of articulate flavours and hard-to-achieve textures. Plus it’s a generous afternoon tea (our sitting was at 4:30, and we felt no need for dinner) and polite, gracious staff let you be – we felt unrushed and relaxed for the duration. Definitely worth the trip to St Albans for.
Traditional afternoon tea: £25.95 per person (Monday – Friday), or £29.95 per person (Saturday – Sunday)
Champagne afternoon tea: £35.95 per person (Monday – Friday), or £39.95 per person (Saturday – Sunday)
Written March 2017, images courtesy of Sopwell House Hotel