Watching my children tuck in to afternoon tea in the manner of two starving hippos, I can’t help but wonder what Anna Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, would think.
The Duchess is widely considered to have started this quintessentially British tradition, which took root in England back in the 1840s. Not satisfied by the standard two meals a day, she ordered tea and cakes to her room to fill the afternoon gap. It soon spiralled into a social occasion and an altogether more indulgent spread, and the oh-so-genteel afternoon tea as we know it was born.
As I survey the scene at Délices, a French boulangerie-pâtisserie (that’s bread and cake) in Bedford, I’m not sure genteel is quite the word I’m after when it comes to describing my hungry kids. We’ve been invited along to the launch of the new children’s afternoon tea menu, and they’ve had eyes the size of saucers since we walked in.
At the sight of a platter of golden-brown breads, fluffy meringues and delicate pastries, my eldest goes straight in for a giant, flaky croissant, plunging his elbow into a dollop of cream en route. My youngest, overwhelmed, is clutching a mini-gourmande in one hand and a bright green macaron in the other, taking alternate bites out of each like a small caveman.
Diana – the resident pâtissière – is unflustered, or at least very good at pretending to be so. Having trained at one of the top schools in Paris, where she met business partner Geraldine – Délices’ boulangère extraordinaire – the pair moved from Paris to Bedford to set up the French artisan bakery and cafe in July 2015.
Together, Diana and Geraldine have worked hard to develop new menus like the one we’re road-testing today. Over two years they’ve found new ingredients – all their breads are now made with organic flours, and they use a levain sourdough starter – and brought a continental feel to their home in one half of the Bedford Art Centre. It’s an odd venue, sharing the same space as the art shop in a less-than-pretty part of town. But floor-to-ceiling windows that flood the space with light, a lovely relaxed atmosphere, and tables that spill out onto the pavement in the summer months do their very best to make up for it.
As for the afternoon tea itself, it’s absolutely incredible, if perhaps not quite what the Duchess would have been accustomed to. Slate platters are served up in lieu of cake stands (I liked this rustic touch; my kids were a little disappointed) and there’s not a limp, crustless cucumber sandwich in sight. Thankfully baker Geraldine’s breads have the kind of delicious deep, golden crust that will give your jaw a workout, rather than the softer, paler British loaf we’re more used to.
The children’s menu features mini versions of grown-up favourites like a mini-gourmande, mini croque monsieur and a mini jambon de Paris sandwich, plus there’s a vegetarian option. The price is an issue for me – £15.50 per child and £22 per adult means this would be a very rare treat for our family – but there was so much food that my children could definitely have shared one platter, and it was nice not to have to cook tea for any of us that night. I mention this to Diana and she explains that feedback like this is definitely welcome, as they’re still tinkering with the formula.
The puddings on the children’s menu include a fruity mousse, a macaron, a meringue, croissant and a gluten-free gateau called a Byzance. The adult version has a few more delicate cakes thrown in, too, including Le WooMan – Diana’s own creation of pistachio financier, almond-milk mousse and apricot compote, which went down nicely with a steaming cup of black Lorelei tea. On the subject of drinks, we spotted a hot chocolate on the menu made with whole milk, Belgian 70% dark chocolate and Madagascan vanilla. If the rest of the food and drink is anything to go by, it might just be the best hot chocolate in Bedford.
An hour or so later, with meringue-matted hair and a trail of crumbs following behind them, the kids set off home with full stomachs and wide, sticky grins after what was a truly delicious first afternoon tea. Genteel they’re most certainly not, but I think the Dutchess would be proud of them. For all we know, this is how she ate afternoon tea alone in her bedroom, before everyone else decided to gatecrash the party.
You can find Délices at 7 Howard Street, Bedford MK40 3HS. Menus and opening times are all available at www.delices.co.uk. Booking is essential for afternoon tea – just call 01234 353280. With thanks to the team at Délices for inviting us along (and sorry again for the mess).