Douglas has been a professional food writer since 1986. He is also an award-winning actor and director in Community Theatre and has been for many years. His blog may be found at: www.urbaneguerilla.wordpress.com
Published December 10th 2011
There is something about the words 'High Tea' that immediately evokes visions of rolling green velvet lawns, Edwardian butlers called Hudson, footmen called Edward and pert maids called Emily together with wafer-thin cucumber sandwiches, iced petit fours and porcelain so thin you can see through it.
It is a tradition stretching back to the mid-1800s - an institution begun by the Duchess of Bedford.
Around this time, gas or oil light was introduced in wealthier homes, and eating a late dinner (around eight or nine at night) became fashionable.
At the time, there were only two meals each day -- a mid-morning, breakfast-like meal and the other was an increasingly late dinner-like meal.
The story goes that the Duchess found herself with a "sinking feeling" (likely fatigue from hunger during the long wait between meals) and decided to have some friends over for assorted snacks and tea (a highly fashionable drink of the time).
The idea of an afternoon tea gathering spread across high society and became a favourite pastime of ladies of leisure. Later, as fashion does, it spread beyond the elite circles and became more accessible for other socio-economic groups.
This, very properly, was called 'afternoon tea' and not to be confused with 'high tea', a fairly substantial meal eaten by working men at about five o'clock after the main meal of the day taken at about noon and called 'dinner'.
Since then the idea has become once more fashionable and now re-christened 'high tea' afternoon tea is again being offered by the better Tea Rooms and establishments.
The mainstay of these High Teas, is, quite naturally, tea. Traditionally loose leaf Indian or China tea is used, requiring the use of a tea strainer (always silver) and usually one of the better brands such as Twinings Earl Grey or Jackson's of Piccadilly Queen Mary mix.
It has been said that the choice of tea is vital, but Lady Nancy Astor took it all a step further. Guests would be asked routinely - 'Indian or Chinese? Milk or Cream? Milk, - Jersey or Shorthorn?'
The English afternoon tea ceremony is nearly as complex and rooted in tradition as is the Japanese - take the pot to the kettle, not the other way round; warm the pot; one spoon of tea for each person and one for the pot; allow it to steep and then pour.
The argument of whether or not the milk goes in first I'll avoid, except to say that the practice arose because the first cups used were so thin that it was feared they might break if the tea went in too hot and Eric Blair (George Orwell, a noted tea drinker) thought you could only regulate the degree of milkiness if the milk went in last.
All of this historical reminiscence was brought about by Angela and I having a High Tea at the delightful Cottage Tea Room in the Swan Valley, one recent Sunday afternoon.
It was a glorious day, warm but not hot, perfect for self-indulgence.
The tea rooms are set in a converted Art Deco home, overlooking vineyards and filled with the kind of shabby chic so popular at the moment. Most of which is also for sale and after your tea you will be so mellow you may find yourself the proud owner of a Paris Match wall clock without any conscious effort on your part.
The decor extends to the tables and napery; lace tablecloths; fresh roses and elegant but comfortable chairs.
High tea ($30 per head) at the Cottage Tea Room begins with tea (naturally) - a large pot, milk and, joy of joys, hot water so you can regulate the density of your tea. I like it weak, Angela likes it strong enough to melt the spoon.
As a first course, opening salvo we had two freshly baked scones of surpassing excellence with whipped cream and home-made strawberry jam (and you can tell the difference).
The scones were wonderful, very light and just the right size. These were followed by a three-tier cake stand of deliciousness - crustless sandwiches, including the indispensable cucumber, curried egg, ham and salad and so on.
The middle shelf had large fresh strawberries dipped in rich dark chocolate as well as miniature cup cakes of carrot cake, chocolate and other, less identifiable, but no less delicious, ingredients.
The top tier had actual wrapped chocolates and some small bite-sized tartlets.
On a separate plate were the savouries - dolls house pasties of superb flavour and immaculate pastry - also obviously homemade. If all this was not enough we finished with individual ramekins of homemade strawberry cheesecake - absolutely magnificent. The new owners of the Cottage Tea Rooms - Johan and Sarah Lock very recent new owners, I might add. The management side has been taken on by Sarah and her daughter Alana, who have taken to their new roles with gusto.
The Cottage Tea Room is a delight, the High Tea a high point of our day and I wish them every success in their new venture, but I am confidant that with the attention to detail shown so far and the quality of their food and service that will not need any luck at all.
I understand that they will also be serving light lunches, which would be well worth sampling at some future date. Perfect for a leisurely self-indulgence for two, a family group or a large party of friends.