Words and Photography by Felicity Spector
It was almost too pretty to eat. I say almost, because of course I fell on the three-tiered cake stand with rather indecent haste.
But the chefs at Cannizaro House, one of Mantis Collection's privately owned boutique hotels, have put a lot of effort into their new Christmas afternoon tea, which showcases the considerable talent of pastry chef Dharma Shrestha, and all his twenty one years of experience.
The forty six rooms are all individually decorated and named after famous historical figures who've stayed there in the past: with green space all around, you'd hardly think you were on the edge of London. There's plenty of local artwork on display, too: all of it available to buy.
But back to the kitchen, which not only has a two AA rosette award, but has just been voted best fine dining restaurant in this year’s Time and Leisure awards.
The hotel had invited us for a sneak preview of the Christmas tea - although first, there was a bit of a cookery lesson.
Chef Dharma emerged into the lounge carrying a tray of just-baked speculoos gingerbread men and a range of coloured icings.
His deft hand with the piping bag made it look ridiculously easy, adding bow ties and buttons and smiley faces, followed by a beautiful display of calligraphy as he spelled out the words 'Merry Christmas' on the tray. My effort was rather less professional: my first gingerbread man sported more of a splodge than confectionery couture, and the second had a distinctly sinister expression.
Perhaps I would have better luck with the next task. A line of miniature Valrhona chocolate cakes was laid out, ready to be dipped in liquid chocolate, and then covered with a quenelle of spiced chocolate cremeaux and a sprinkle of bronze coloured popping candy.
After failing to produce anything like an exact replica of the chef's version, I like to think my chocolate dipping was generous rather than clumsy. My efforts at quenelle making, though, were frankly laughable.
I finally managed to spoon out a manageable dollop, which sat proudly on top of the cake for about eleven seconds before sliding inexorably onto the plate.
Luckily distraction was on hand: the full afternoon tea had arrived.
And what a spread: a stack of finger sandwiches, just to get going, including a rich egg mayonnaise on light rye bread and smoked salmon on granary.
Then it was onto the fruit scones, warm and soft, with the obligatory clotted cream and some rather good home-made strawberry jam.
The Christmas seasonal offering included the mini chocolate cakes we had dipped earlier, made with ground almonds and a splash of rum, and topped with delicate quenelles of cremeaux - all of it sourced from Valrhona.
Next there were mince pies, with a shortbread-like pastry and just the right amount of mincemeat inside, crowned with a swirl of brandy butter cream. They didn't last long.
I couldn't resist a thick triangle of eggnog cheesecake, smooth and luscious with a good layer of crunchy biscuit base - but the standout dessert was the chestnut and clementine shot, a beautifully light combination of mousse and panna cotta in a shot glass, which proved absolutely irresistible. I think I may have polished off all three of them.
As for the spiced gingerbread men, I took home my creations in a handy box, the better to preserve my rather unique decorating efforts. I might not win any prizes for sugar work, but judging from the rest of the festive treats we enjoyed at the afternoon tea, I am sure they will taste a lot better than they look.