Afternoon Tea at the Empress
Most afternoons, I have a cup of tea. With milk. It’s such a part of my routine that this past week there was an “incident” (shall we say) at work when I discovered someone had used up the milk I keep for my tea in the office fridge, thinking it was hers. My co-workers laughed at my distress, but I can’t drink tea without milk. And I really enjoy my afternoon cup of tea.
So last weekend, while I was in Victoria visiting a friend there on business who told me she really wanted to someday, one day, have afternoon tea at the Empress, it didn’t take much for me to decide I liked that idea very much. “And what’s stopping us from having tea at the Empress this weekend?” I asked. Within minutes, we had a reservation in the hotel’s Tea Lobby for the next day.
Victoria, BC, has been called the most English city in Canada, and the city definitely plays up that reputation for the tourists. Afternoon Tea at the Empress Hotel is a big part of that playing up, and there is no setting more lovely than the Empress Hotel. One of Canada’s iconic “railway hotels,” it has been a landmark on Victoria’s Inner Harbour since its opening in 1908.
We both skipped breakfast and arrived at the hotel’s Tea Lobby appropriately famished. It’s located off the main lobby and its windows overlook the Inner Harbour. We were seated near those windows at a low table.
(And here’s an aside for you: I learned that high tea is actually the supper-type meal the English eat in the early evening, while afternoon tea or low tea is always taken in the afternoon. It’s called low tea because typically you sit at a low table.)
The meal began with cups of seasonal fruit served with cream ― in our case, strawberries. I’m a bit of a strawberry snob and unless the berries are grown locally and are in season, I really don’t think much of their taste. Such was the case with these strawberries, shipped in from California, I’m sure, but hey, what seasonal fruit would you find anywhere in Canada in mid-April?
We were given a choice of eight teas ― I chose the Empress Blend, a tea that “boasts a bright coppery colour and takes milk exceedingly well.” My friend chose Margaret’s Hope Darjeeling, which offered “the distinctive character of Muscat grapes and hints of current.” Clearly tea can be as sophisticated as wine.
Along with our pots of tea came the three-tiered plate of … well … the main event. Our little table was packed, what with the silver teapots, china teacups and small plates, and the tower of savouries, scones, and sweets, but the server positioned everything on the table with expertise and, remarkably, it all fit. Then, after pouring our tea and ensuring we had everything we needed, he offered to take photos of us with our own cameras. He definitely had the routine down pat.
And then? And then we dug in!
The savoury level of the tiered plate consisted of tiny sandwiches: smoked salmon pinwheels, cucumber sandwiches (of course!) with saffron loaf, mango & curried chicken sandwiches (my favourite), free-range egg salad croissants (also very tasty), and cognac pork pâté on sundried tomato bread.
Then we moved up a level to the fresh baked raisin scones with clotted cream and the Empress’s own strawberry jam.
On the final, upper-most tier were the pastries: lemon curd tartlets, cappuccino chocolate tea cups, rose petal shortbread, chocolate and pistachio Battenberg cakes, and the one I’d been waiting for: Parisian style macaroons.
It was heavenly. And when we were finished, our server presented each of us with a small box of the tea we had been drinking.
I didn’t eat dinner that night. Who knew afternoon tea could sustain your body for an entire day?