Alongside a traditional Sunday roast, Wimbledon, fish and chips, and our quirky sense of humour, a nice pot of tea with dainty sandwiches, warm scones and as many pastries as I can eat is very close to the top of my ‘things that make me glad to be British’ list.
Whether you say scon or scoan, and whether you’re cream first or jam first (it should be jam, every time), afternoon tea is as quintessentially English as Dame Judi Dench sniffing a David Austin tea rose in the sweeping grounds of a stately home.
Heading out for tea in the beautiful New Forest ticks another British box – we can indulge our love of queueing behind the native ponies and donkeys ambling peacefully along the narrow country lanes.
Possibly the most famous forest village is Beaulieu, home to the grand Palace House and the world-renowned motor museum.
Close to the banks of the tidal Beaulieu River, the Montagu Arms is an ivy-clad country manor hotel with an award-winning restaurant.
The Terrace has floor-to-ceiling windows framing a fragrant garden packed with blousy roses and honeysuckle, tiny birds flitting through the branches and hopping daringly across the threshold in search of stray crumbs.
The dining room is run by new head chef Matthew Whitfield, who’s returned to his English roots from one of the world’s best restaurants – the three-Michelin-star Eleven Madison Park in New York.
Booking a traditional full afternoon tea earns you a place in the elegant Terrace, but a simpler cream tea can be enjoyed in the sunny conservatory or the beautiful grounds on a spur-of-the-moment visit.
Afternoon tea itself is as you would expect, but the pastry chef has put a modern twist on tradition by kicking things off with a delicate amuse bouche of passionfruit puree, coconut rice pudding and fresh pineapple served in a tiny kilner jar.
We polish that off with indecent haste, and then it’s on to the main event where we fall onto dainty sandwiches with fillings of egg mayonnaise, whisky-smoked salmon with lemon and dill, ham and dijon mayonnaise. and cucumber and cream cheese. Warm scones are served with thick clotted cream and homemade strawberry preserve.
The pastries are pretty as a picture, and taste as good as they look. Light choux buns come filled with cream and strawberries, there’s a gorgeous chocolate and coffee concoction with a brandy snap disc, and a delicate raspberry and passionfruit slice has an incredible 12 layers of deliciousness.
For those who always opt for cheese over pudding, the Montagu Arms’ welcome savoury version of afternoon tea features the traditional sandwiches alongside warm cheese and bacon scones with cream cheese and caramelised onion chutney, homemade sausage rolls, salmon in puff pastry, and a scotch egg.
There’s also an extensive list of teas, from English Breakfast to Silver Needle, the most famous white tea in the world.
Service here is exemplary, with nothing too much trouble for the charming staff, and they pack up the little we haven’t manage to eat for us to take away.
Afterwards, we stroll around the gardens, where the bird song is so loud it almost feels as if they should be asked to keep it down a bit.
We are British, after all.