Taking High Tea – A Festival Restorative in Every Way


High tea for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival 2013 at the National Gallery of Victoria

Festivals have been an important aspect of human life from England and Europe to Australia and the Americas and all over the Middle and Far East from antiquity until today.

More than any other destination in the world immigrants leaving Britain in 1852 were heading to Melbourne, chasing their dream of finding gold.

The wealth generated at Melbourne during the Victorian age meant that its society learned to sip champagne from buckets as former ladies and housemaids from upstairs and down rubbed shoulders and wore diamonds and pearls.

By 1883 they were also parading around in beautiful tea gowns enjoying the festival of taking tea in the afternoon at the Windsor Hotel at Melbourne, where today the tradition is carried forward.

Today taking tea is part of an ongoing tradition in this golden town where charm, great art and culinary skills collide with exceedingly tempting menus, available for breakfast, lunch and afternoon high tea.

You can also enjoy your high tea with a choice of both the very best local sparkling bubbles or fashionable Laurent Perrier French champagne.

Presenting produce ‘sourced from paddock to plate by Australian farmers with ethical production standards’ feature in rooms that contain a vision of starched white linen, fresh flowers, fine bone china, and an elegant ambiance.  if you are coming to Melbourne, or live here, you can also indulge your love of taking tea at the Hopetoun Tea Room in the fabulous Block Arcade, entering from Collins Street.

This stunning space has been situated in the Block Arcade since 1891 and bears the name of its founder Lady Hopetoun. Decorated in sensational green flock wallpaper, the window is always packed with sweet delights and the atmosphere is high Victoriana.

A word of warning though, you will have to take your place in a queue, unless you have made reservations.

The Grand Hyatt on Collins Street offers a similar experience. On any day of the week you will find it packed with everyone from grandmothers to babies all enjoying a family outing for birthdays, Xmas and Mother’s Day, albeit in the more modern ‘high tea tradition that has the welcome addition of herbal and green teas as well as a sumptuous buffet.

Sleek Tea Room at the NGV

It was a special occasion when my son took me to indulge in afternoon tea at the National Gallery of Victoria, where they have a contemporary style room for taking tea.

Selection of cakes, include colourful and scrumptious French macarons as well as little cakes on a stick, all tasted amazing.

The ambiance was indeed second to none, the service friendly, the food fresh, wonderfully presented and my chosen tea superb and silky.

We talked about the festival of taking tea, how it came about and why it has seemed restorative in every way for centuries now.

Tea amazingly was first discovered and was being drunk by the Chinese some 5000 years ago.

Who the person was that first worked out that to infuse the small fresh leaves from one particular plant, the Camellia Sinensis, with hot water would produce a delicious drink is lost in the mists of time.

However we do know tea arrived in England and Europe via Portugal and Holland during the seventeenth century and was introduced into London coffee houses at that time.

Too divine Chelsea Teapot, 18th century English

By the early part of the eighteenth century the taking of tea was mainly the preserve of the aristocracy due to its escalating cost.

However as the century proceeded, and the mass market emerged prices began coming down and the most elegant and fashion conscious, though not necessarily the wealthiest Londoners, gathered at Vauxhall and Ranelagh Gardens to drink tea, listen to music, swap gossip and arrange assignations.

Queen Victoria’s reign began in 1837 and linked the age of the stage-coach, highwaymen and public executions to the age of the motor-car and the eve of the conquest of the air.

The Railway Age opened up the country-side and huge railway stations such as Victoria, were built using the latest technology. People from all walks of life began traveling to the countryside or down to the sea where they could also take tea.

The benefits of taking the sea waters and air had been confirmed to George IV by his physicians, who had bathed regularly when he was at Brighton at the Pavilion. This idea had now spread to the masses who arrived in droves.

Visiting friends while in residence was a pleasurable pastime and tea the drink of choice offered.

Anyone for Tea – an Aesthetic Teapot

Anna, Duchess of Bedford is attributed with starting the festival of afternoon tea.

She is said to have devised the custom around 1840, when she is reputed to have said afternoon tea, served with a little light refreshment ‘saved her from that sinking feeling’ which overcame her between  luncheon and dinner.

I must say I understand her dilemma well.

Anna took her tea in the very stylish drawing room of her home with friends and family at the delightful Woburn Abbey.

Limited-edition tea caddy Royal Collection Trust © 2013, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

In Victorian England the Drawing Room was placed so it had the best view receiving the southeast or southern sun.

The advantage of the southeast was that the full glare of the sun had passed by the time favored for visitors who came to take afternoon tea.

This was considered exceedingly important.

Drawing rooms retained an essentially feminine character and the festival of afternoon tea was celebrated between 3 and 5 o’clock.

Since that time it has become one the most enduring of all of the symbols of a leisurely Victorian lifestyle.

It was a time aristocratic children got to spend with their parents, before being whisked back to the nursery with Nanny and a glass of warm milk to settle them down for the night.

Their parents could go on to dinner and a ball afterward,  relaxing and enjoying themselves shored up by their afternoon tea indulgence.

When afternoon tea became an addition of the other meals of the day it also necessitated an additional change of costume in grander ladies wardrobes – the beautiful tea gown.

The new popular pastime also stimulated new designs in porcelain, bone china and earthenware, together with silver and the new fashionable, and cheaper, silver plate.

Teapots were regarded as a satisfying challenge for every domestic potter.

Thomas Minton’s designs particularly were well loved, appealing to popular taste, with a tea set consisting of a teapot, oval stand, sugar box, milk ewer and slop bowl.

If you are cold, tea will warm you,
If you are too heated, it will cool you;
If you are depressed, it will cheer you;
If you are exhausted, it will calm you’

This charming poem was penned by William Gladstone, Queen Victoria’s prime minister and the Reverend Sidney Smith’s comment sums it up entirely and in a most characteristic English manner.

Thank God for Tea! What would the world do without Tea, How did it exist? 

I am glad I was not born before Tea’

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013-2014

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