The English tradition of high tea may have originated in the 19th Century as a royal custom, serving the late afternoon hunger pangs of Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, but its charm has almost the entire world in its grip today. Tourism isn’t only about places any more, but also about culturally immersive experiences. There are several boutique hotels the world over that offer high tea options for the weary and the worthwhile traveller — mostly during that time between breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner, keeping the intimacy of small groups intact, as they bond over a variety of tastefully picked teas and petit fours. These high teas bring alive all those scenes in the Enid Blyton books that we’ve all, at some point, drooled over. Finger sandwiches, cold salads and hot scones, cakes and cured meats, and above all, steaming pots of tea or cold milk—these images that come to mind are a classic representation of the afternoon picnics in the Famous Five series, and who can forget the big tureens of mashed, creamed potatoes and blobs of butter?
In looking for off-the-beaten-path things to do in and around Sydney, the one thing that stood out was experiencing high tea in a few choice places. One such is The Tea Room at the historic Queen Victoria Building (QVB), a hot spot for high-end shopping and fine dining. At about 11 am, the morning tea menu presented itself and it was elaborate, to say the least, with over 30 teas to choose from, as well as champagne, for those celebrating a special occasion. “I’d highly recommend the Vanilla Spice and the Strawberry Rooibos—the former faintly earthy and warm, and the latter, light and sweet,” said our waiter, Will. Silver kettles with steaming, aromatic teas were brought in, with sets of silver strainers and holders, frothed, creamy milk in little silver decanters. Just as the teas were being poured out, a three-tiered tray appeared, filled with little sandwiches, savoury nibbles like mushroom and cheese arancini, mini quiches, and bite-sized desserts, comprising salted caramel macarons, hazelnut praline cake, mango cheesecake, and the like. Another plate bearing scones, raspberry jam and clotted cream was placed across the table.
The teas really hit all the right spots, the food was finger-licking delicious, and the ambience was fit for queens: the high ceiling with crystal chandeliers, the elegant country rose china clanking all around, water boiling at the different tea stations across the room, emitting little puffs of steam, gave the whole room an imperial edge, one that brought to mind the sets ofDownton Abbey . All for a queenly sum of $50. “Think of it as something bigger than just tea—it’s an English dream,” said Will, as he collected the bill.
At Anti:dote, the stylish cocktail bar situated in Fairmont, Singapore, aesthetics is only half the lure, says Executive Sous Chef Prashant Kulkarni. “Undeniably, it is the combination of aesthetic factors and innovative offerings, which add to a delightful experience, that has contributed to the success of our afternoon tea,” he says. Offering a predominantly western experience to locals and travellers alike, the tea at Anti:dote is a unique affair. “Our tea is presented in an ‘Instagrammable’ three-tiered, white leather-clad jewellery drawer-chest; each layer unveils dainty treats by our pastry team and gourmet finger sandwiches crafted by the head chef.” High tea is definitely an emerging trend here in India too, and the offering at the Bengaluru Baking Company, the patisserie at the JW Marriott Hotel, is proof of that. Manager Sundaram Ghosh says, “Although we occasionally see visitors from outside the country coming in, we actually get a lot of locals as walk-ins on an everyday basis—ladies’ groups and also the young college crowd—given that our afternoon tea is reasonably priced for an upmarket hotel.” At Rs. 722, the tea is a merry combination of desi delights, like puffs and masala chai, and Western treats like waffles and cakes. One can choose from a wide range of teas, from Darjeeling to Earl Grey, herbal to green.
Going back to where it all started, The Rubens at the Palace in London, close to Buckingham Palace, offers a lavish high tea experience. “Our afternoon tea is enjoyed by travellers from all around the world as well as local guests,” says General Manager Malcolm Hendry. One would assume it fair to conclude that in a place like London, afternoon teas must be so commonplace that it could probably be a fading trend.
Hendry disagrees, “Afternoon tea is a highly favoured tradition and it’s definitely not fading away. What sets us apart is our beautiful view of The Royal Mews of the Palace and our Royal Afternoon tea offering with royal furnishings. Our tea is traditional, with slight tweaks during the different seasons, but The Royal menu is a clear winner!”
If the sound of egg and cress sandwiches, possets, tarts, caviar and cupcakes, feels like music to your ears, you’ll probably agree. Priced at about £40 for adults, and £15 for the Princes and Princesses (under 12), the afternoon tea at The Rubens is as regal as it gets, and it comes recommended as a must-do by several online influencers. High tea today is much more than just tea and biscuits— it’s about getting a taste of the royal kitchens and their savoir-faire. A chance to get a slice of a Zen-like state, seated in a stately ambience, steeped in the romanticism of a venerable Victorian chapter.
A note on an ode
The popular song ‘Everything Stops For Tea’ about the beverage being England’s most popular drink was composed by Americans Maurice Sigler, and has lyrics by Al Goodheart and Al Hoffman.