|The Coeliac version of high tea
‘High tea’ is commonly known around the world as a dignified outing where refined people partake of their tea and sandwiches with perky pinkies outstretched. But, in the late 18th century ‘high tea’ was instead a hearty evening hoe down for farmers and working folk who downed meat, cheese and eggs with gusto, and scoffed bread and cake with their pinkies firmly tucked in. ‘Afternoon tea’ was another meal altogether and it’s what we have in mind when we order our English Breakfast with milk. Allegedly, the Duchess of Bedford had a hard time getting through the evening’s entertainment program without having a little something beforehand (it seems lunch didn’t really exist – only breakfast early and dinner rather late). The Duchess started inviting people round for tea and scones before heading off to the theatre and thus afternoon tea was born.
And grateful we are for it! I adore afternoon tea but for such a genteel activity, high tea in my experience has often been hilarious, interesting, fascinating but rarely genteel.
Here are three of my favourites:
The Lobby, Peninsula Hotel, Hong Kong
They actually call it afternoon tea here!
There is an airport bustle feel about such a dignified place. Amongst the lofty pillars and gold leaf, there is laughter, clatter, chairs scraping and cutlery clunking. Everything is run with remarkable efficiency – clockwork precision. Things arrive, flutter and land on the table: tea and then the compulsory three-tier cake stand.
I watch enthralled as a middle-aged fellow sits down at a table alone. He has a big smile on his face which lights up further when his cake stand arrives. Then, he takes out his video camera, holds it in his left hand, and turns it on himself while he scoffs a scone with his right hand. He practically smacks his lips with joy and closes his eyes with pleasure. He then gives a running commentary in a foreign language and I have enormous fun imagining what he has to say.
Tiffin Room, Raffles Hotel, Singapore
The Raffles Hotel is all those clichés – majestic, regal, palatial. The white columns are solemn and beautiful, and the colonnades are a cool and subtle oasis in the constant humidity. So there’s something particularly galling about having to line up outside the door of the Tiffin Room like riffraff lining up for a hip nightclub on a Saturday night. Ok, the clientele are decidedly older and more conservatively dressed but otherwise, there’s that same buzz of excitement and boredom, anticipation and annoyance.
This was my first high tea as a Coeliac (no gluten usually = no cake). There was no cake. But there were sweet little jellies, chocolate dipped strawberries and blueberries and cream which were – no other word quite fits – delightful. The sandwiches were sound but the extensive, steaming, delicious looking buffet that called to me like a siren was off limits. Reasoning with myself that I had missed out on scones, I greedily dared to ask the waiter, ‘please sir, can I have some more?’ and was duly rewarded with more sandwiches made with the chef’s ‘secret recipe’ bread – so delicious that at first I thought they weren’t, in fact, gluten free.
The Tea Rooms, Gunner’s Barracks, Sydney
The Tea Room
Surely this is one of the only places in the world where you have to guard your plate against swooping kookaburras stealing your smoked salmon sandwich. One swept onto the balcony, quietly but clumsily snagged a morsel, sending crumbs scattering and hands waving, and then took it back to a tree only meters away and smugly ate it.
This was a decidedly hilarious afternoon tea. My friend and I decided that the one (very camp) waiter, who made a (suitably camp) fuss over us, did everything in this restaurant. We decided that he was not only serving the tea and coffee but making it as well, and quickly donning a lace-edged white apron to make the sandwiches. He was out of the room when some smooth crooning suddenly came through the stereo system. We fell about laughing thinking that he’d taken on that role too and was singing into a microphone in between tea top-ups. We cried with laughter. I was actually in danger of throwing up all over my Royal Doulton and it was only the thought of that that subdued me a little.