Tea is served, Ma’am

Ladies at leisure don’t just do lunch; now they also meet for high tea. To find out more about how this grown-up inclination is spreading, KIM MAXWELL sampled pastries, scones and crustless sandwiches in some of the world’s most sought-after tearooms

KIM MAXWELL

Ladies have always lunched, but if current leanings in South Africa, London and Singapore are any indication, afternoon or high tea is the new lunch. It seems appropriate to begin any exploration in London, where hotel tea options are plentiful.

Taking afternoon tea seems to have originated in the 1800s with Anna, seventh duchess of Bedford. Feeling faint between lunch and dinner, she made regular requests for a tray of tea with bread and butter in the mid-afternoon. High society lady friends soon received invitations to join her, and small pastries and delicate sandwiches made their appearance.

Taking tea at The Dorchester seems firmly entrenched with London society ladies these days (it’s full most weekends and popular with tourists for being “quintessentially London”). Being selected as London’s Top Afternoon Tea venue in 2000, 2002 and 2007 by the Tea Council of Great Britain (yes, there is such an esteemed organisation), is an indication of how seriously tea is for this team.

The hotel has a dedicated crew of 15 pastry chefs competing in a good-natured fashion to create new tea additions. Attention to detail extends to 20-plus specialist loose-leaf teas, and scones made to a 50-year-old recipe served with strawberry jam and Devonshire clotted cream.
 

Claridge’s hotel’s Art Deco foyer and reading room are the adjoining venues for afternoon tea, served on custom-made Bernardaud green-andwhite striped porcelain while a pianist tinkles in the background. The menu includes sandwiches, cakes, scones with tea-infused Marco Polo jelly and Cornish clotted cream. Mariage Frères teas join a plethora of organic and exotic loose-leaf teas sourced around the world.
 

The Berkeley sacrifices tradition for fun and fondant that’s of particular appeal to fashionistas. Billed as their Prêt-à-Portea 2008 autumn/ winter collection, pastry chefs take inspiration from London Fashion Week designs twice a year for the season’s edible creations (spring/summer 2008 featured Christian Dior pink chocolate bikini biscuits and the like).

For autumn/winter think Smythson “Maze Bag” banana Madeira; Christian Louboutin “Pigalle” green glitter shoe biscuit with red sole; Valentino red coat biscuit with gold buttons; and Giambattista Valli redcurrant bavarois topped with raspberries and a Jimmy Choo high heel tuille. Loose-leaf teas are served in bespoke Paul Smith bone china (by Thomas Goode of Mayfair) and champers poured in Baccarat crystal. A novel touch is a fashionista’s biscuit delivery service via the Prêtà- Portea pink and pistachio Vespa, packaged in take-away handbag boxes.

Colonial tea traditions are alive and well at hotels in tropical Singapore, and most add an Asian touch to their menus. Being greeted by a turbaned Sikh doorman and gliding past chandeliers and columns into the 121-year-old Raffles Hotel lobby is a lovely introduction to afternoon tea in the air-conditioned Tiffin Room. With lush Palm Garden views and a harpist plucking strings, tea features old silver jugs and sugar bowls on white linen. Three-tier stands of delicate pastries and sandwiches are complemented by a buffet table of tropical fruit (jackfruit, starfruit, and so on), with chefs serving local specialities such as popiah, mee siam and curry puffs.

The impressive woodpanelled Bar & Billiard Room with swinging ceiling fans is also worth a look, even if their high tea buffet table of mostly European sweets and savouries seems neglected at the far end of the room. Frank Braun, Raffles Hotel’s German pastry chef, says the popular Tiffin Room sticks to Western classics with occasional modifications, and being situated in Asia means there’s always some local menu influence. Tai Tais (Singapore’s well-to-do ladies of leisure) are regular tea-goers, usually draped in designer wear, handbags and shoes.

At the St Regis Singapore you’ll spot a few coiffed and coddled ones. New European-styled hotels are always a drawcard for chauffeured Asian ladies wanting to be seen in the right places. Goodwood Park Hotel (built in 1900) has been a haunt of expatriates and Tai Tais over the years, although some opt for the Chinese dim sum high tea buffet over weekends with their families instead. The afternoon tea buffet served in L’Espresso lobby features a selection of Western-style sweet and savoury options. It affords views of the nearby deli, famous for stinky durian mousse cakes and creations. Interestingly, chocolate fountains with fruit are a feature of both L’Espresso and the Bar & Billiard Room options.

South African hotel tea traditions are picking up too. Vicky Gurovich at The Saxon Boutique Hotel & Spa in Johannesburg echoed other local pastry chefs in saying that South African ladies gravitate more toward afternoon teas than lunch, particularly over weekends. With crustless sandwiches and scones a given, Vicky says a good tea should offer a sweet classic, something savoury and a cake or tartlet option incorporating seasonal fruit.

In Cape Town, the Mount Nelson’s Windsor Room’s spread offers increasing appeal for girlie gettogethers, stork parties and special birthdays, with pastry chef Samantha Waring dreaming up monthly tea themes. I’ve arranged a “Nellie” girls’ birthday tea there myself, and it feels terribly civilised to select your cakes and be served your preferred leaves in a glass infuser, then settle back onto a stylish couch to chat.

What The Mount Nelson and The Palace at the Lost City have in common with Goodwood Park and Raffles Hotel’s Bar & Billiard Room is a spread on buffet tea tables. A few hotels – Raffles’s Tiffin Room and St Regis Singapore – serve a combination of individually served tea refreshments, such as a three-tier stand, plus additional help-yourself options.

Others, such as Claridge’s and Hyatt Regency Johannesburg, wheel a trolley around for guests to select their preferences. The Hyatt’s trolley is, in fact, a specially imported, no-creaking, sophisticated covered set-up. Serving individual tiered stands of crustless sandwiches, scones and sweet treats is popular at The Dorchester, The Berkeley and The Saxon. Afternoon tea seems to outnumber high tea options by far, but pastry chefs failed to provide a definitive answer about how they differ.
 

The Dorchester is one of few London venues still serving high tea. As it’s later in the day, it makes a popular pre-theatre meal. Their afternoon menu loses scones to welcome three warm savoury high tea choices: leek and Stilton tart, for instance. A complimentary glass of Dorchester Champagne is a nice touch. On that note, champagne teas have been offered overseas for some time where it’s standard to only include a glass, so Hyatt Regency Johannesburg’s Tea Amo deal is particularly generous (see below).
 

Yes, tea-sipping options have never looked better. Good London hotels wouldn’t dare to serve anything but loose-leaf teas. Most have a house blend, plus exotic Asian varieties, grouped under organic, herbal, oolong, black or green teas and the like. Claridge’s selection includes a tea grown in Cornwall, and Chinese Royal White Silver Needles tea that is picked at dawn and processed by hand.
 

In South Africa, a small, quality loose-leaf tea selection at The Palace is admirable. But the Mount Nelson takes the prize since collaborating with Nigiro in offering over 30 looseleaf options. It includes a house blend black tea containing pink rosebuds from the hotel garden – in the colour of the Nellie façade, of course!

London
THE DORCHESTER
• Afternoon tea, £31,50; champagne afternoon tea, £40,50 (£52 including Laurent Perrier Rosé); high tea (including a glass of Dorchester Champagne), £46. • Afternoon tea is from 2:30pm or 4:45pm daily and high tea from 5pm – 8pm daily in The Promenade.• Finer touch: 15 pastry chefs’ concoctions and a 50-year-old scone recipe. • Call +44 20-7359-9266 or visit www.thedorchester.com.

CLARIDGE’S
• Afternoon tea, £31,50; champagne afternoon tea, £39,50 (including Laurent Perrier), or £49,50 (including vintage Dom Ruinart).
• From 3pm or 3:30pm and 5pm or 5:30pm daily in the Art Deco foyer and reading room.
• Finer touch: a tradition of scones with tea-infused Marco Polo jelly and Cornish clotted cream.
• Call +44 207-409-6307 or visit www.claridges.co.uk.

THE BERKELEY
• Prêt-à-Portea, £35 (£43 including Laurent Perrier and £49 for couture champagne).
• From 2pm – 6pm daily in the Caramel Room.
• Finer touch: being fashionable never tasted this good at teatime.
• Call +44 20-7235-6000 or visit www.the-berkeley.co.uk

Singapore
RAFFLES HOTEL
• Tiffin Room afternoon tea, S; Bar & Billiard Room high tea, S.
• Tiffin Room from 3:30pm and 4:30pm daily; Bar & Billiard Room from 3:30pm – 5:30pm daily (starts 4pm on Sunday)
• Finer touch: teatime classics plus delicious local grub transports you to colonial times.
• Call +65 6337-1886 or visit www.raffles.com.

GOODWOOD PARK HOTEL
• Afternoon tea buffet, S; dim sum high tea buffet, S,80.
• From 2:30pm – 5pm daily in L’Espresso in the lobby; from 3pm – 5:30pm in Min Jiang Chinese restaurant on weekends.
• Finer touch: tea get-togethers can stretch all afternoon at L’Espresso.
• Call +65 6730-1743 or visit www.goodwoodparkhotel.com.

THE ST REGIS SINGAPORE
• Afternoon tea, S; champagne afternoon tea, S.
• From 3pm – 5pm in the Drawing Room.
• Finer touch: observing Tai Tais on plush couches, nibbling, with Singapore’s biggest tea menu (from French teamaker Dammann Frères) poured from a trolley.
• Call +65 6506-6888 or visit www.starwoodhotels.com.

South Africa
HYATT REGENCY JOHANNESBURG
• Tea Amo, R155pp (R300 for two); Moet & Chandon Champagne Tea Amo, R380 pp (unlimited champagne).
• From 2:30pm – 4:30pm daily in Ndau Lounge, overlooking the courtyard garden.
• Finer touch: the unlimited flow of champagne option is an extra special addition.
• Call 011-280-1234 or visit www.johannesburg.regency.hyatt.com.


THE MOUNT NELSON
• Afternoon tea, R150.
• From 2:30pm – 5:30pm daily in the plushly elegant Cape Town hotel’s Windsor Room.
• Finer touch: piano tinkling and superb loose-leaf teas over classic nibbles, plus Cape Malay favourites.
• Call 021-438-1948 or visit www.mountnelson.co.za.

THE PALACE OF THE LOST CITY
• High tea, R130.
• From 3pm – 5:30pm daily in the Crystal Court’s airy space.
• Finer touch: exotic loose-leaf teas in Royal Albert china with the grand piano tinkling in the background.
• Call 014-557-4307 or visit www.suninternational.com

THE SAXON BOUTIQUE HOTEL & SPA
• Afternoon tea, R150.
• From 3pm – 6pm daily on the pool terrace.
• Finer touch: an Afro-Zen vibe with a three-tier stand of goodies attracts groups of 30-something ladies.
• Call 011-292-6000 or visit www.thesaxon.com.

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