There is something about High Tea which brings out the civilised in us. Indeed, the moment I am surrounded by scones and pots of tea I find myself fighting the urge to extend my pinky finger as I raise my tea cup.
History has it that the British tradition of High Tea began in the mid 1700’s as an afternoon meal which was usually served between three and four pm. It was originally a meal for the working man and was taken standing up or sitting on tall stools, hence the ‘High’ reference.
Over time High Tea crept into the echelons of high society. It served as a platform for catching up on the latest gossip and also doubled as a meal before attending events such as theatre performances. Apparently, around the time that High Tea became popular with the upper classes one John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, came up with the idea of placing meat and other fillings between two slices of bread. Thus, the High Tea sandwich was born.
High Tea spread around the globe and is a popular tradition to this day. A number of establishments around Johannesburg offer their own version of High Tea. I recently decided to try out Protea Hotel Fire & Ice’s at Melrose Arch. Upon arrival my partner and I were ushered upstairs from the hotel’s reception (which opens onto a gorgeous, all-white ground floor deli) to an opulent, open-plan dining area.
The Fire & Ice Hotel’s décor is quite over the top but in a stylish, contemporary way. Many of the furnishings are intentionally mismatched and oversized (think a five foot long chaise longue and a two storey high wingback chair for instance). White, black, silver and grey colours dominate which are offset by mirrors, pictures of celebrities, chandeliers and, fittingly, black felt Proteas emblazoned on silvery wallpaper.
The floor on which the dining room is situated is gently broken up into various sections including an alfresco eating area, bar and lounge by decorative slats of glass, silver organza curtains and in one case a stand - alone wall featuring a whimsically framed cavity which overlooks the deck area. A ‘Milkshake Bar’ also serves ‘grown – up’ milkshakes and the romantically inclined will no doubt appreciate the specially cornered off booth which comes complete with its own chandelier.
At the centre of the dining room was a tiered buffet-style High Tea. A purist by heart I must admit I would have preferred a traditional, individual three-tiered tea tray but it didn’t stop me from tucking in. The buffet was spread over a marble table top which was decorated with tall, white vases filled with silver branches and red roses, each of which was offset by a single crystal.
I began with the savouries which included olive and onion muffins, buttery mini bacon and cheese ‘pig ears’, an assortment of white and brown bread sandwiches (sadly cucumber-less and still sporting their crusts) mini spinach and tomato quiches, tiny bowls of salad dressed with a delicious balsamic reduction and salmon bagels. A large silver bowl of fruit was also available for the plucking. Orange juice, apple juice and a selection of teas and coffee were offered alongside a range of alcoholic beverages which could be ordered off the menu.
Next came the sweets! On offer was a magnificent baby raspberry Swiss roll, fruit skewers, mini pecan nut and milk tarts, squares of chocolate chip shortbread, cheesecake topped with (unfortunately) over- thick lime gelatine, baklava, iced cupcakes drizzled with glitter as well as a peppermint crisp cake and an Oreo cake somewhat clumsily enrobed with pink icing and crushed Oreos (which struck me as somewhat out of place).
Having had my fill I came to the conclusion that while tasty, I felt the hotel had quite a different take on High Tea than I did and that it lacked a little in terms of sophistication – an opinion I have no doubt is coloured by my previous High Tea experiences and the fact that I was expecting something a little more traditional. What the tea lacked in cucumber sandwiches it made up for in friendly service, vibey music and ‘wow’ factor.