BY BILLY SUTER
IT WAS in the Victorian era that Britain introduced what became formally known as high tea, a late-afternoon sit-down to hot beverages and snacks that bridged the gap between lunch and a dinner that was seldom enjoyed before 8pm in those days.
The pastime reportedly began even earlier as a less posh affair – as a practical means for the working man to renew his energy during a hard day’s graft. He usually took his tea, toast, sandwiches or scones while standing up or sitting on tall stools, which is where the term ‘high tea’ is said to have originated.
The Historic UK website reports that ‘taking tea’ became a fashionable social event during the 1880s when upper-class and society women turned it into the thing-to-do. They would change into long gowns, gloves and hats for their afternoon tea, which was usually served in the drawing room between four and five o’clock, the site adds.
It was author Henry James who was credited with saying that “there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea”, and having visited the Hilton Durban at the weekend to indulge myself, I have to concur.
The Hilton Durban, close to the beachfront, has, for some two years now I have learned, been presenting a high tea in its ground-floor Coral Lounge. This is in the spacious area between the hotel’s reception and Big Easy restaurant. It is marked out with room-divider-like structures which, depicting coral, perhaps more resemble melting, grey honeycombs.
It’s an elegant, spacious area, with cosy corners at small or large tables, the only drawback for me being that the smaller table my partner and I were shown to was at knee height when we were seated, forcing us to crouch forward to eat and drink.
In this room, from 2pm to 5pm every Saturday, and at a cost of R270, one can have as much hot beverages as one likes – and I can recommend the hot chocolate, while my partner gives a thumbs-up to the cappuccino.
Best of all, though, are the variety of savoury and sweet snacks from which one can choose. They are attractively displayed on tables and counters surrounding the hot-beverage area.
On arrival one is presented with a chilled cranberry juice in a long, fluted glass, and led to one’s table. There, alongside a take-home souvenir of a chocolate brownie in a plastic wrapper, is a card with a personal note of welcome – from the hotel’s pastry chef Andrew de Bruin, who later takes time to visit each table, briefly chatting to guests about items on the menu.
In addition, kitchen staff saunter through with trays of fresh, hot snacks every so often, presenting them at one’s table. The day we were in we had some very yummy scampi (a single, large prawn served in a little dish with sweet chilli sauce), a serving of mini burgers and tasty spiced chicken skewers. Warm bread is also served.
The high tea buffet tables heave with sinful delights, the savoury section the day we were in including mini roast beef rolls, tramezzinii triangles with salmon, and a tasty chicken in a crispy pastry cup. The kebabs with balls of lamb looked inviting but were too dry and chewy for my taste, and way too large. One ball on a stick would suffice.
Among sweet treats are an assortment of tarts and cakes – I loved the decadent carrot cake with a blue macaroon topping the slice – and also scones with cream and jam, strawberry mousse, chocolate mousse, crème brulee, and a to-die-for, mixed-nut slice which was my find of the day.
A popular draw is the chocolate fountain alongside skewers of blue-and-white marshmallows and pink cubes of Turkish Delight.
“The delicate nature of eating bite-sized sandwiches and tiny samples of sweet and savoury treats offers a different way of enjoying an afternoon of scrumptious culinary experiences,” says Hilton Durban’s executive chef Janine Fourie.
She adds that the Hilton Durban high tea has proved particularly popular for special occasions – a birthday, an anniversary, a baby shower, a bridal shower, or simply as an excuse to catch up with friends.
To make a reservation, phone 031 336 8100 or email Mildred.Mgobhozi@hilton.com.
Oh, and note that while the high tea is presented only on Saturday afternoons, a booking for 30 or more guests can be arranged for any day of the week.