Afternoon tea not to be missed
FAIRMONT EMPRESS HOTEL Address: 721 Government St. Tel: 384-8111 Hours: Afternoon tea served in the lobby daily from noon until 5 p.m. Centennial Tea served Fridays only Reservations strongly recommended. Major credit cards and Interac accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Picture for a moment, the Inner Harbour without the Fairmont Empress. Had it not been for the vision of Francis Rattenbury, this part of town might be little more than a collection of non-descript buildings, as the first site proposed for the Canadian Pacific Railway’s new hotel was on Belleville Street.
As I walk past Victoria’s coffee shops, filled with people clutching supersized biscotti, I am similarly grateful for an institution within an institution: afternoon tea at the Empress.
Though many regard drinking tea as a quintessentially British act, Chinese history clearly indicates they were thousands of years ahead of the Europeans. It wasn’t until the mid-18th century that tea replaced ale as the breakfast beverage of choice for Britons. They can, however, lay claim to the practice of afternoon tea, thanks to the seventh Duchess of Bedford, who invited friends to join her for daily sandwiches, cakes and a cuppa to stave off hunger pangs caused by late dinners.
This year marks a century of afternoon tea at the Empress, a tradition that inspired one Boise, Idaho couple to create a scaled down version of the hotel’s lobby in their home.
I reviewed the tea a few years ago and it was wonderful, but during a later visit a couple of years ago, I had a sadly mediocre experience.
I dropped by the hotel recently and kept my fingers crossed, and it turns out the Fairmont team took steps to correct this.
They hired the personable Mark Wachtin as manager tournaut and eventually assigned him to oversee afternoon tea. Wachtin rightly points out that he has had significant help from others, including server Marlene Watson, who began 39 years ago, and Joga Kaler, who uses a century-old recipe for the approximately 200,000 scones he has produced for each of the last 25 years. I don’t imagine anyone at home asks him to make any.
The original CPR silverware is being replated and the serving area has moved to the centre of the room, which diminishes the noise. Cellphones are off and the constant stream of people through the lobby stopping to take pictures of other people taking tea has been politely halted. In short, it has been restored to an elegant experience.
Of course, the price has changed over the years. In 1930, a dollar bought tea, honeyed crumpets or raisin cake, followed by an assortment of sandwiches and pastries. Today, the price is $54, but you may select from a range of carefully chosen teas including the house signature blend of Chinese, Indian and African teas.
The menu commences with fresh berries served with heavy cream, followed by scones served with more cream and strawberry jam.
You might want to switch teas as you continue with finger sandwiches, including cucumber with a hint of horseradish, curried chicken, grated carrot, ginger and cream cheese. Rich mushroom pâté served open-faced on a slice of nutty baguette, and smoked salmon and cream-cheese pinwheel sandwiches were equally good.
My sweet tooth was sated by shortbread infused with Earl Grey tea, tiny tarts filled with lemon curd and chocolate cups filled with ganache and candied cherry and assorted cakes. Service was charming, thoughtful and relaxed.
In celebration of the hotel’s centennial, the Empress offers an anniversary tea with a menu designed by executive chef Takashi Ito and pastry chef D’oyen Christie on Fridays, served in either the Library Lounge or the Harbourside Lounge. I began with a glass of Mumm Cordon Rouge.
As with the regular afternoon tea, we continued with fresh berries while I sipped Oolong and Sue sampled fragrant Kea Lani orange pineapple, a blend of dried fruits and herbs. Our pleasant daze was gently interrupted by the arrival of an amuse bouche: a shooter glass of icy green tomato gazpacho garnished with a pair of hand-peeled shrimp. Warm scones with golden raisins disappeared as quickly as the ones with aged cheddar and herbs, slathered with strawberry preserves, cream and tart cranberry jelly.
A spectacular selection of open-faced sandwiches included duck confit and poached pear on lightly toasted filone, heirloom tomatoes, fresh buffalo mozzarella and cucumber with tarragon vinaigrette on multigrain bread, Dungeness crab and smoked salmon atop toasted dill brioche, curried chicken and mango on rye, not to mention lobster and truffle salad and grilled asparagus on olive baguette.
A glass of nutty Lustau Amontillado sherry preceded sweets, which included a delicate apricot and Grand Marnier macaroon, fresh fruit tartlettes and chocolate toffee pudding cake with a trio of contrasting butter creams. We parted with a gift of Centennial blend tea and the additional gift of hand-crafted truffles. Not something you would do every week at $100 per person, but Sue and I agreed it was worth every penny. I would recommend either tea service as the perfect choice for a special celebration.