‘Where in Oxford is best for afternoon tea?’ – this is the question I sent out into the ether of my local facebook group and, for a special occasion, the answer was overwhelmingly in favour of The Old Parsonage. Once there, I couldn’t waste an opportunity, so out came the camera, on went my blogger hat and oops – oh yes, there were the curious looks as I scrunched myself up in the corner to get that shot.
My sister and I had decided to treat our mum, for her Christmas present, to a scrummy afternoon tea in a fancy venue. My sis had only been to Oxford once (she’s a London gal now), so we planned to go for a wander around before our tea and enjoy it being just the three of us again – no grouchy baby, hyper 4 year old or any of our gruff menfolk to ruin the girlie camaraderie.
Having had it suggested to me that The Old Parsonage was the very best place to in Oxford for afternoon tea and, with a high tea costing £25, it was luxurious without being prohibitively exorbitant for a self-employed mum and a 28 year old on the verge of buying her first flat (Congratulations sis!). The weather was chilly and dampish and whilst we had enjoyed a mooch around the shops and even a bit of culture in the form of sticking our heads round the door of the Ashmolean, we were more than ready to plonk our bums down for the first sitting of afternoon tea at 2.30pm.
The atmosphere was just perfect for a winter treat. Slate-coloured wooden panelling, intimate lighting, a quirky collection of portraits and stuffed fish (go figure) and two roaring open fires (one real, one not although it took me the whole two hours we were there to realise the fakery), we felt as though we had stepped into the Parson’s personal study.
Velvet window seats were set inside lead-paned embrasures, whilst comfy felt-upholstered bucket chairs in jewel colours encircled the rest of the table and Sis and I admired the set-up, whilst our dear Mama bemoaned the lack of a tablecloth to go with the real napkins (a generational thing possibly, Sis and I liked the contrast of the china and linen against the dark wood).
We spent an inordinately long amount of time choosing our individual tea blend which arrived in tall silver pots, something like coffee pots, which looked nice but were rather hot to the touch. All the niceties were observed – even down to the strainer and its rest; what a shame I twice forgot to use the strainer when pouring myself a new cup and ended up picking tea leaves out of my teeth for the rest of the afternoon! The waiting staff were friendly, helpful and present without hovering or being obsequious (a pet hate of mine) and the food arrived promptly.
Teeny little sandwiches with the crusts cut off, A scrumptious chocolate hazelnut eclair, zingy orange macaroons, a bite-sized custard tart and even a hand-rolled truffle. All this as well as the standard scones-and-cream-and-jam? This was a fancy-pants high tea!
The sandwiches were freshly made on very nice soft bread, with a good variety of fillings (cream cheese and cucumber, crayfish cocktail, smoked salmon, ham and mustard, egg and cress, not necessarily in that order). The ham was the proper stuff and very tasty, the crayfish was pleasant (never had it before, nice to broaden my horizons) although a little spicy for the Mater, unfortunately all three of us were disappointed with the smoked salmon which was greasy, tough and rather flavourless. Very sad as this was the sandwich of choice for all of us.
The scones made up for the smoked salmon disappointment, being warm, freshly baked and very light. Even, dare I say, better than mine – and I don’t say that lightly. If I wanted to evoke a Paul Hollywood style of nitpickiness I might point out that they need to flour their cutters as all the scones were emulating the leaning tower of Pisa, but it doesn’t personally bother me, I just like to act pretentious occasionally!
The cream was clotted (the only acceptable sort for a proper cream tea) and the jam was delicious and, I suspect, made in-house. I had strawberry but Sis and the Big M got a darker jam, maybe plum or damson which, whilst delicious, was perhaps a touch overpowering for the scones and made the cream taste a bit peculiar. Luckily I’m a very nice sister/daughter and shared my strawberry with them.
The cakes and pastries were a delight, with something for everyone. I wasn’t too bothered by ginger cake, Sis had two. I thought the Choc-hazelnut eclairs were fabulous and would have eaten all three if I hadn’t been so full, but the others weren’t so keen on the boozy flavour of the chocolate cream. The orange macaroons were scrummy, really zesty with a nice crisp shell and chewy insides. I particularly enjoyed watching everyone around us receiving more and more vividly orange macaroons as the afternoon went on – did someone have a slip of the food dye?
To top it all off, they even provided a chic cardboard box in which to take home our leftovers, a nicety which (when presented with it) somewhat ameliorated The Man’s mood after being left with the kiddiwinks all afternoon.
I feel we were very lucky to have been in the little side room off the main reception/bar area. There was a larger restaurant area – I walked through it to get to the loos and they were doing a roaring trade in afternoon teas – but it felt a bit open and impersonal. Our secret hideaway at the side gave our tea a real sense of occasion and intimacy with only 4 small tables in the whole room. If this is important to you then it might be worth requesting it when you book. I could also picture booking that room exclusively to make a very special venue for a hen party, baby shower or birthday tea.
The garden, although rather chilly and slightly desolate in mid January, looked like it would make a magnificent place for an al fresco tea come the warmer months, so that would be an option also. If I were to go again I’d ask to have a look round the rooms, though, as I would love to see if the accommodation matched the quality of the dining.
The location of The Old Parsonage was central enough, near the Natural History Museum, that it was easily walkable from any point in town, without being surrounded by passing foot traffic, making it feel a little more secluded and exclusive, however Quod, the brasserie for The Old Bank Hotel, is part of the same local chain and much more centrally located if that’s important to you.
All of us agreed it was the perfect choice for our special girlie day out and it was really lovely to spend the time together, especially with Sis on the verge of starting a new life with her lovely chap. I would definitely recommend The Old Parsonage for an afternoon tea, but it is probably worth booking ahead and making any stipulations you might have quite clear, such as where you want to sit.