EDINBURGH Coffee-in-a-cardboard-cup ‘to go' just won't do before Christmas. It's got to be an old-fashioned sit-down cream tea

Christmas is certainly in the air — millions of swirling snow flakes slow-dance their way from low-hung clouds, only to be squished under hurried shoppers' feet; dark-limbed trees, decked out with strings of twinkling fairy lights, toss their leafless heads, spilling shaky, shimmering puddles of light. Soot-streaked sandstone-fronted buildings stand majestically to the left; the stout, formidably grey Castle looms over the right, and the tall, pointy Scott Monument rubs shoulders with a cheery, neon Ferris wheel ahead… There's no refuting it — Edinburgh's city centre, with its giant snow-globish feel, is at its atmospheric best, come Christmas!

It is, unfortunately, also heaving with people. Throughout summer, it's the festival lovers, who stand around, taking pictures of kilted doormen at posh hotels. And, when they're gone, the locals, sighing with relief, pop back into their favourite haunts, trawling for gifts, nosing around the Christmas-market, and fine-tuning that great British art — queuing up at the bus shelters — but not before they've had a spot of tea, mind!

Because, this being Britain, even the spectacular, seasonal nosh — roasted chestnuts sold by the twist, fragrantly-spiced mulled wine, hot syrupy crepes — can't really knock the classic cream tea off the top of the ‘comfort food' list. And tea boutiques that offer the complete, indulgent experience — cheerfully elegant interiors, delicate, floral china, knowledgeable staff — are not just enjoying long queues at their doorstep, but also teaching high-street caffeine-in-a-cardboard-cup companies a thing or three about ‘proper' teas!

A revival of sorts

True to its royal roots (as a pared-down version of the genteel afternoon tea, which came into being, thanks to a peckish Anna Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, back in the 19th Century), the classic cream tea is a suitably grand affair, involving — besides the mandatory large appetite — warm, fat scones, a generous serving of clotted cream, little pots of home-made jam, and, of course, freshly-brewed tea. “I think tea boutiques are much sought-after now, as catching up with friends over a nice cream tea is in,” says Sophie Smythe, café manager at Eteaket, a celebrated tea boutique on Edinburgh's trendy Frederick Street. “And, what with cream teas being quintessentially British, tourists love to try it,” she adds.

“Traditionally, cream tea was served only in Devon and Cornwall, and we still source our clotted cream — rich, thick and buttery — from Cornwall!'' says Gaynor Salisbury, owner of the popular Loopy Lorna's Tea House (“The store is a tribute to my mom Lorna, and am sure she wouldn't mind me calling her Loopy”), at Morningside, an upmarket Edinburgh neighbourhood.

“People who travelled to those parts greatly enjoyed the cream teas, and it slowly spread across the country.” Today, cream teas can be had in many locations around the city — including iconic hotels such as The Balmoral — but the fine tea boutiques, all lovely, tiered cake stands and the delicious aroma of baking, offer a delightfully cosy, inimitably old-fashioned experience.

A bite of culinary heaven

At just under six quid a head, the cream tea comes with two very-satisfyingly-sized, oven-fresh scones (plain or fruit, as the options typically go).

When neatly sliced and slathered with gorgeously-rich clotted cream and a decadently thick smear of jam, it seems, already, like cream-tea heaven. And, that's even before the first sip of tea…

“I would recommend our Bouteaque Blue Mist (black tea) from Coonoor, India, as the perfect afternoon tea,” says Sophie. “This exclusive tea is grown at a high altitude, has a delicate citrus taste, much lighter than most black teas, making it one for the connoisseurs or to make someone feel like one!'

And, the fragrant tea, served in beautiful, vintage china, taken without milk and sugar, actually manages to — now, this is a rare admission by a milky-sweet chai drinker — draw out flavours that might've otherwise been smothered.

Oh, and it also fortifies you sufficiently to brave the bone-numbing cold (which, by the by, thankfully distracts you from thinking about the number of calories you've just consumed) and the civilised wait for the bus back home…

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

* Prices start at 5.95 pounds (per head) for the cream tea and 11.95 pounds (per head) for the afternoon tea. The latter includes dainty, savoury sandwiches and a variety of cakes too. Expect to pay stiffer prices at luxury hotels

* There are plenty of free attractions at the Edinburgh Centre — splendid museums, the Princes Street Gardens, window shopping, and, of course, a brisk hike up Arthur's Seat (Edinburgh's resident ‘peak' at 823 ft)

* Suggested read for an unusual ‘feel' of the city — “One City” (One City Trust), a slim collection of short-stories by three of Edinburgh's celebrated authors — Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin, and Irvine Welsh, with an interesting introduction by J.K. Rowling (where she, incidentally, mentions ‘cashmere and cream teas' as some of life's little luxuries)