In 1840 the seventh Duchess of Bedford requested that a tray of tea, bread and butter, and cake be delivered to her room each day at 4pm - in her household dinner was served at 8pm, and she needed something to fill the void between lunch and dinner. After a while she started to invite her friends to join her and made it a social event, from here Afternoon Tea was born!
Afternoon tea is such a quintessentially English occasion and with tomorrow being the start of National Afternoon Tea Week we couldn't let this event pass without a mention. Mark Mitson is Head of Pastry at The Assembly House in Norwich and agreed to speak with us about his career.....and my goodness he has worked in some incredible places catering for some serious A-listers!
Hello Mark, thank you for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to speak to us. So, tell us a little bit about yourself;
I am Head of Pastry at The Assembly House in Norwich and the official Scone Jedi (check out my Instagram hashtag!). I am in charge of the pastry section at the House and make all the themed teas, cakes and many of the desserts in addition to leading patisserie classes at The Richard Hughes Cookery School.
I trained in Braintree and then in Switzerland and have worked at a range of West End hotels including Hilton Park Lane where I was chased round the kitchen by a furious French pastry chef who had a rolling pin in his hand! I moved to the Intercontinental, took an advanced diploma in patisserie and was the only person in the UK to be awarded a distinction. I’ve won the Association of Pastry Chefs Dessert of the Year competition, competed at the highest-level pastry competitions and was Head Pastry Chef at Claridge’s.
I catered for Joan Collins’ wedding and was invited to see Madonna in concert after I cooked for her children. I’ve cooked for the Queen, the late Queen Mother and many members of the Royal Family and my recipes have been used in Delia Smith’s cookery books. I met Delia after I moved to Norfolk so that I could be closer to my partner Simon’s brother and I took up a position at The Blakeney Hotel.
I’ve been at The Assembly House since 2014 and during which time we’ve won Norfolk Food and Drink Awards’ Afternoon Tea of the Year, an award which I now help to judge.
I live with Simon on the North Norfolk coast and one of my claims to fame is that I bake more than 100,000 scones a year!
Mark, you have had an incredible career working in some of the best hotels in the UK, and cooking for so many famous people, did you always want to be a Pastry Chef?
I like the planning and the precision involved in being a pastry chef, I like perfection and creating something amazing. We follow recipes – not all chefs do, or have to – because what we create has to be replicated hundreds or thousands of times: the first afternoon tea I make for photographs has to look the same as every one I make. That’s a real challenge, and I love a challenge!
What do you love most about your job?
I absolutely love the themed afternoon teas: taking the ideas and making them into cakes. You have to think your way round problems in order to get the perfect end result that you can then make time and time again and, more importantly, make sure the team can make the cakes. I love the fact that we do things that no one else does and that we are so different: it’s always such a great feeling to see a finished tea and think “yes!”.
You create some of the most beautiful (and delicious) creations, where do you get your inspiration from?
At The Assembly House the afternoon teas are designed alongside one of my colleagues (and Assembly House Chef/Director Richard Hughes’ wife), Stacia Briggs, she tends to come up with the themes and the ideas for cakes, and then together we think about how they will look but she really leaves that part to me. We’re a good team and have worked together on every single themed tea that The Assembly House has put on. When we start a new afternoon tea we’re already working on what will be next: we’ve already got ideas that will take us to next summer! My favourite that we’ve made so far was Easter 2019’s Easter Honey Bunny tea: bees and bunny rabbits!
What is the most extravagant dessert you have ever been asked to make?
I think it would be the dessert I designed when I was at Claridge’s – I was asked to come up with a dessert in memory of Dame Barbara Cartland: of course it had to be pink. Dame Barbara’s favourite hotel had been Claridge’s and her favourite dessert had been crème brûlée. So I made a crème brûlée for her which was vanilla-flavoured, topped with raspberries and wrapped in white and pink chocolate and it was on the foyer menu and so available from breakfast to dinner!
With next week being National Afternoon Tea week, do you have any tips and tricks for us amateurs on how to create the perfect Afternoon Tea?
Come to The Assembly House and have ours! It’s an Ice Cream theme at the moment, so lots of ice cream flavours like mint choc chip, raspberry ripple, Knickerbocker Glory and Neapolitan made into cakes. But if you’d prefer to make your own, I run afternoon tea making classes and other patisserie classes at The Richard Hughes Cookery School so I can show you in person!
Dead or alive, who has inspired you most in your career?
It has to be Claire Clark who I worked with for several years and who is one of the very best pastry chefs in the world. She’s worked at The Ritz, Claridge’s, London Hilton Metropole, The Wolseley and with Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. We work in the same way as each other and we’ve both had classical training, so we know that things must be just right. She is inspirational and she pushed me to be better.
I can imagine they are few and far between, but when you do manage to get a long weekend off, what does your ideal weekend away look like?
I can sum this up in one word: camping, but it’s quite glamorous camping – people laugh and say that our tent is better than their house! We’ve got an electric oven and hob, we’ve got a Kingsize bed, we’ve got a TV, a fridge, a wardrobe, a sofa…we’ve even got a kitchen sink. When people say they’ve packed everything apart from the kitchen sink, I’ve packed that, too! I love the freedom and being able to escape – even if we only go a few miles down the road from home!
If you could learn a new skill, what would it be?
I’d love to learn how to play the piano. If I knew how to, I could make afternoon tea and then play to the guests while they ate!
Your favourite recipe book: The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller
Your favourite place for dinner: The Pigs at Edgefield in Holt
Your favourite dessert: Anything with dark chocolate and cherries. I’m a Black Forest Gateau fan.
Favourite cocktail: I don’t drink cocktails, I do drink dark rum though!
Scones: Jam then cream, or cream then jam? No doubt on this one, jam then cream.