For the French chef Raymond Blanc, the owner of Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire, English afternoon tea is one of our greatest culinary achievements. "I was nervous about it at first," he says. "But I think it is one of your most elegant ceremonies. Plus it is the one time the English can be gourmandises and have pastries in the afternoon." Adding, "Also, only the English could drink that much tea and still be calm."
But while the adopted Englishman may be right that the tea table remains a place of decorum, we Brits are once again going crazy for afternoon tea. Bettys Tea Rooms are a Yorkshire institution. Over the years, the venues have become almost as famous for their long queues as for their fancies. So much so that recently in its Harrogate and York branches, it has introduced a reservation system for teas to cope with booming demand.
"We have definitely experienced a significant growth in people coming to take afternoon tea over the last five years," says Paula Kaye, a manager at Bettys. "The customers are really diverse, not just older generations, also younger generations or groups of friends choosing it over, say, a day at the spa, and [they] see the venues as a nice place to meet socially."
At York and Harrogate, where guests sit in the Imperial Room and enjoy striking views, guests can now book for afternoon tea. It has also followed the trend in moving beyond the simple formula of scone, sandwich and a slurp of tea.
"Over the last couple of years, there has been a growth in popularity from people wanting the experience," Kaye adds. "We have worked on that in the last year to develop the total experience for the visitor."
Bettys isn't alone in enhancing the tea experience, with an increasing number of venues offering eye-catching teatime menus. Later this month, Japanese restaurant Nobu Berkeley in London's Mayfair is launching its own version of the British staple, serving up such delights as savoury beef and shrimp takoyaki, dorayaki (Japanese pancakes) and doughnuts filled with yuzu curd. The Langham Hotel in Westminster has a tea sommelier, while at the constantly evolving Parlour at Sketch restaurant on Conduit Street guests eat with mismatching crockery and from unusual three-tiered cake stands.
For the fashion-conscious, the Berkeley hotel, also in London, serves a Prêt-à-Portea, where the cakes and treats are shaped like catwalk creations from designers such as Burberry, Bottega Veneta and Dolce & Gabbana.
The Connaught Hotel's menu from two-Michelin-starred chef Hélène Darroze features 30 different types of jam. The Sanderson has the Mad Hatter's Afternoon Tea, which tempts guests with playful dishes such as strawberry-and-cream mousse and a portion of passion fruit jelly, coconut panna cotta and exotic foam.
While hotels and restaurants are having more fun in their creative approaches to the afternoon meal, it is an important source of revenue for the venues too. Prices are sometimes high, and in many places you are compelled to order the set menu.
To enjoy the award-winning Claridge's tea, it costs £38 per person; at the Ritz (which has seven sittings per day), afternoon tea is £42 per person, rising to £53 for the "celebration tea". Of course, these prices all go up if you add champagne. Last year, the Cliveden hotel in Berkshire was offering what it said was the world's most expensive afternoon tea, at £550 a person. For that you got white truffles, caviar and Chinese tea that costs £2,000 a kilo. Celebrated venues such as Peacocks in Ely are more reasonable, with "the full monty tea" setting you back £16. Tea and cake at London's trendy Riding House Café is from £5.
Irene Gorman, the head of the Tea Guild, says the quality and demands have changed. It is no longer just friends meeting for tea, it has also become a time for business meetings. She also points out that it often offers a cheaper alternative to a night out, besides the fact that you might not fancy dinner after several sandwiches, scones and cakes in the middle of the afternoon.
"You know what it's going to cost you beforehand, so the choice is yours before you go," she says. "Unlike dinner, you don't have to wonder how much you're going to spend on wine. You want to be out, in nice surroundings. And it's still a great way of enjoying yourself."
The Tea Guild (tea.co.uk) offers membership to venues offering tea across the country. The criteria and examination process to join are strict and each year it inspects its members and gives a detailed report back to help to maintain quality. It also presents awards each year, those for excellence being like a Michelin star, while the top prizes, it says, are " the Oscars" of tea. Last year, Claridge's hotel won its top London award, while the Rocke Cottage Tea Rooms in Shropshire was "Top Tea Place".
Its drive for quality is mirrored by campaigners from Devon, who are appealing to the EU to bestow the Devon cream tea with Protected Designation of Origin status. One of its stated aims is to stop inferior-quality copies.
"Afternoon tea never went away," Gorman says. "What is going away, however, is people not doing it very well. Certainly over the last 10 years it has got better. It's no longer seen as something you take your old auntie to.
"People have very high expectations of it. It's the one meal you'll not forget if it's not good. We've become more sophisticated in our palates."