Afternoon tea, it’s a piece of cake? 

Afternoon tea, that great British tradition. Decadent and glorious for a normal person, but a nightmare for Allergy Girl.

Let’s start with layer one; the sandwich. Easy, right? Two pieces of bread, some kind of spread and a filling, delicately cut into bite sized fingers. Wrong! The humble sandwich is one of Allergy Girl’s biggest nemeses.  The first hurdle is the bread itself. I don’t have a gluten allergy.  Bread makes me fat, but I like it. But many catering establishments look at my list of allergies and think, “She’s allergic to stuff, therefore she can’t eat gluten.” So I end up with this weird crumbly dry stuff that vaguely resembles bread but tastes like it’s made of plywood. Which leads me on to the next hurdle – spread. There are loads of good dairy free spreads available nowadays, so I struggle to understand why caterers find this one tricky.  Nineteen Fourteas tearoom in Havant, Hampshire, rose to the challenge and popped to the local Tesco before my recent visit. Problem solved.  So onto the final sandwich hurdle, the filling.  Sometimes it will be soggy slices of cucumber and nothing else (yuk). Usually ham or chicken. Sometimes chicken and bacon if I’m really lucky.  But not awe inspiring. 

The next layer of the afternoon tea stand is the scone.  Or as I sometimes call it the ‘none’ because there are none.   I once attended a slightly posh upmarket establishment in Chichester, West Sussex, which should have been a joy. I phoned in advance to discuss my allergies, and followed this up by email. They assured me that they would cater for me no problem, and that my afternoon tea experience would be as good as the other members of my party. When the ubiquitous cake stand came out, imagine my disappointment to see these lovely fluffy warm scones all around me, and an empty space where mine should be. I had foreseen that this might be the case and ran back to my car to collect the ‘back-up’ scones I’d dug out of my freezer. I then had to pay £25 for the pleasure of having catered for myself.  

The top (and most important) layer is the cake. What is afternoon tea without a massive slab of cake? Disappointing. Back to the upmarket establishment in Chichester, they obviously didn’t have the skill or inclination to attempt baking a cake, so cheated and bought a selection of sawdust and sugar otherwise known as a supermarket “Free From” range (back to thinking I’m coeliac).  That was the icing on the cake! 

I have sampled several afternoon teas in the quest to find an Allergy Girl friendly solution. My favourite was just last weekend. Lilly’s in Wickham Square did an outstanding job. Yes, there was the unspread ham sandwich, but the ham was beautiful (freshly sliced gammon ham with honey and mustard), the granary bread was hearty and delicious and a little pot of dairy free spread was provided so I spread my own sandwich.  The scone was heavenly. Still warm from the oven and a decent size. Topped with the dairy free spread and strawberry jam (from a twee little jar) it was delightful. Amazingly I still had room for the cake, which was a huge dairy and egg free chocolate cupcake topped with rich chocolate frosting. I was a very happy Allergy Girl.  

Nineteen Fourteas comes a very close second.  The tea room is quirky with its 1940s theme, and the owner Betty is simply fabulous.  The high tea comes with an added layer of crackers and cheese, and Betty bought in some dairy free cheese just for me! The vanilla cupcake was beautiful, and I enjoyed it the following day (as I was too stuffed to manage it). 

The Pavilion Tearoom at Stansted Park is a pretty good alternative, but you get a flapjack and fruit salad in place of the cake, which is better for my waistline but doesn’t really hit the spot.  I would also recommend Rhinefield House Hotel in the New Forest, for a beautiful location and refined menu. 

From my experience it helps to book afternoon tea well in advance and to follow up with an email. I always offer my basic sponge cake recipe, which only Betty has taken my up on so far. My basic sponge is easy and quick to make, doesn’t require many special ingredients and can be jazzed up with different flavours. See my recipes page for the recipe. 

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