BY BILLY SUTER
THERE are at least five things one simply has to do when visiting Durban – including having a swim in the sea, enjoying uShaka Marine World, tucking in to a bunny chow from anywhere, and taking a ride on the sky car to the top of Moses Mabhida Stadium.
Also on that list is putting aside an hour (or, ideally, two) to take the famous high tea at one of the most wonderful of KwaZulu-Natal hotels – that historic, five-star pearl of the Indian Ocean, The Oyster Box, at 2 Lighthouse Road, Umhlanga.
It may seem a little pricey at R320 a head – hey, there is only so much tea and cake one can take in one afternoon, said a naysayer friend, taking in jest but with a jot of jealousy – but taking tea at the Oyster Box is not, for the average man in the street, a once-a-week event.
As a marvellous, memorable treat for celebrating a special occasion there can be little to beat it. Little wonder, then, that so many birthdays, engagements, anniversaries or similar celebrations are held there.
Inspired by the hotel’s colonial atmosphere, The Palm Court provides the perfect backdrop for the high tea.
It truly is something special – and not just for the dazzling array of sweets and savouries, but also the elegant ambiance of a cool, classy room and five-star service.
The tea is held in a sunken, spacious, open area dotted with towering palms, and where chandeliers dangle above your head and, even higher still, giant propeller-like fans lazily swirl. Mellow music gently flows from a pianist at a baby grand.
Three pianists alternate, performing on different days, with amiable Derek Mnikwe in when we were there recently. He’s been entertaining there since 2011 and offers unobstrusive light classics, some Andrew Lloyd Webber and everything from My Heart Will Go On to Hero and I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.
Then there are those special touches – the friendly welcome; the white linen napkin placed on one’s lap as one is offered a flute of sparkling wine (or grape juice); the complimentary souvenir box of tea on a saucer alongside the dainty pink-and-white teacups; the handwritten welcome note on the crisp linen tablecloth.
Tea is on the menu and served as often as you wish – but not only tea. Hot chocolate, cappuccino and coffee are also available at no extra charge, and one is advised to take one’s time to savour the many delicious bites on offer.
A centrally placed table groans with colourful confections and savoury titbits and I, for one, couldn’t keep away from the platter of smoked salmon, capers and lemon slices.
A big hit, too, were the delicious, round and crustless sandwiches filled with chicken and mayo, edged with almond flakes and crowned with a half a strawberry atop a slice of cucumber.
Also among the savoury spreads the day I was in were an impressive choice of cheeses, nuts and biscuits; beef canapes; and a surprise delight that were bree and apple-slice finger sandwiches. Also of note were tiny ham and pistachio nut triangular sarnies on health bread. There, too, were chilli bites (a little boring and with no bite, to be honest) and mini vegetable burgers.
After a second glass of sparkling wine and an order of cappuccino it was time to hit the high-calorie corner…and, boy, what a treat.
Absolutely LOVED the coffee cake (the find of the day!) and was more than happy with the mini milkterts and mini eclairs. Of note, too, was a high carrot cake that was moist and rich, and definitely worth having more of on another visit.
The bright pink mini macarons were also super-yum, as were the home-made marshmallows, while the display of meringues, apricot balls and marshmallows in large glass urns makes one feel like Charlie in the Wonka Chocolate Factory.
I left two hours later with a wide smile and the need to release the belt buckle a good notch or two.
The high tea is held every day from 2.30pm to 5pm and booking is advised. Also of note is that from 6pm to 9pm, for a cost of R95, one is able to enjoy the sweet treats (no savouries) and also conventional tea and coffee servings.
……………………..INTERESTING HIGH TEA FACTS…………………………
The Oyster Box bakes some 4 000 macarons each month. One of the world’s most popular sweet treats, the macaron cookie comes from Italy, introduced by the chef of Catherine de Medicis in 1533 at the time of her marriage to the Duc d’Orleans who became king of France in 1547 as Henry II. The term “macaron” has the same origin as the word “macaroni” – both mean “fine dough”. The first macarons were simple cookies, made of almond powder, sugar and egg whites. Many towns throughout France have their own prized tale surrounding this delicacy. In Nancy, the granddaughter of Catherine de Medici was supposedly saved from starvation by eating macarons. Only at the beginning of the 20th century did the macaron become a “double-decker” affair. Pierre Desfontaines, the grandson of Louis Ernest Laduree, had the idea to fill them with a “chocolate panache” and to stick them together.
ARTWORK IN THE PALM COURT
The Oyster Box recently acquired a Tretchikoff painting, titled Chico, to add to its art collection. Vladimir Trechikoff was one of the most commercially successful artists of all time. Chico depicts the Tretchikoff family’s domestic cat and fits beautifully into The Oyster Box…home to the famous resident cat Skabenga.
Bought on auction in 2007 when The famous Savoy Hotel in London closed down for a two-year refit, the four magnificent tole (lacquered or enamelled metalware, gilded and elaborately painted) and ceramic chandeliers, now hang proudly in The Palm Cour