Few things scream—or should that be discreetly whisper—high society quite like high tea, but it’s a tradition that’s thought to have been established by the 19th-century British working man. While most of the upper classes traditionally enjoyed their main dinners around midday, those involved in manual work were forced to wait until later in the afternoon for their steaming treat, often while seated on high stools rather than around a dining table, hence the expression ‘high tea’.
‘High tea’ and ‘afternoon tea’ are now often used interchangeably, but, historically, they are quite different. According to Bruce Richardson, a historian who specialises in British tea, afternoon tea was established around 1840 as a social event by the duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria Russell. In his book, A Social History of Tea, Richardson reveals afternoon tea was sometimes referred to as ‘low tea’, with participants reclining in low slung armchairs, their tea accompanied by crustless fingers of sandwiches, scones and macaroons.
Etiquette forbids any kind of splashing, the clinking of spoons in cups and most certainly the licking of fingers during the taking of tea, and, contrary to popular belief, nor should pinkies be raised while sipping from that fine china (Richardson says that it simply makes the drinker appear pretentious). Armed with such knowledge, here follows a selection of some of the best spots to enjoy such a social event around Auckland.
My hour for tea is half-past five, and my buttered toast waits for nobody.” Wilkie Collins
Cornwall Park Bistro
The wonderfully restful setting of Cornwall Park Bistro makes for the ideal spot to indulge in tea and treats—and they offer some of the most tantalising in town. Premium loose leaf teas including black, rare whites, oolong, herbal infusions and Japanese greens courtesy of Harney & Sons—family-run for three generations—are served alongside the likes of wild mushroom with oat crackers, prawn Mary Rose sandwiches, crepes and buttermilk scones with vanilla cream and preserves.
Huami restaurant offers a sophisticated, modern take on the high tea tradition, with a decidedly Asian twist thanks to offerings of dumplings—steamed or fried—and red bean mousse served in a classic birdcage alongside a range of premium Zealong teas. The Chinese eatery is one of the newest additions to SkyCity’s Federal Street dining precinct, some of its gorgeous dark lacquered lumber shelves are even lined with decorative teapots.
One of the city’s most renowned—and revered—high tea destinations (and hotels), Cordis guests can expect to sip their brew from fine bone china while feasting on handmade sweets, pastries and legendary fluffy scones served on a beautiful gold stand. There’s a real emphasis on Kiwi flavours and ingredients also, and savoury offerings include salmon from Stewart Island and South Island goat cheese. Executive chef Volker Marecek says that the hotel’s high tea is “all about delivering the Cordis heartfelt service while bringing a little bit of our local culture and produce to the table”. Head to the Lobby Lounge to check it out.
Choose from their Kingsland or Hillsborough locations for what Bluebells bills as “the best high tea in Auckland”. It’s certainly among the most thoughtful with its menu range including ‘pregnancy’, ‘gluten-free’ and ‘vegetarian’, featuring delicious concoctions such as herbed chicken sandwiches, vegetarian frittatas, and scones, cupcakes and tarts, all beautifully presented with floral and colourful crockery and tiered stands.
Dine with a harbour view at Ostro, whose high tea menu has been created by none other than Josh Emett and in partnership with Veuve Clicqout meaning you may swap those leaves for bubbles—or why not partake in both! Updated classics include cured cucumber served on white bread with sour cream and curried egg on eight-grain bread with shallots and dukkha, while lip-smacking sweets such as chocolate mango tart and chessecakes and scones all arrive with chantilly cream and berry jam.
Secure a seat outside or close to the sprawling windows of Bellini for a wondrous view of Waitemate Harbour while sampling some seriously sumptuous high tea ‘with a twist’. Menus include a choice of two hot beverages along with sweet and savoury nibbles such as mini tartines and flamed meringue, with options to upgrade to include cocktails or champagne. New Zealand-grown teas arrive courtesy of Zealong.
Hotel de Brett
The most stylish award must surely go to the art deco-inspired ‘Roaring 20s High Tea’ at Hotel de Brett. Jazz-era attire is encouraged—accessory packs with feather boas, long gloves and faux pearls and more can be bought for $15—as music from a gramophone fills the air. A Great Gatsby-esque feast features hand-picked New Zealand teas served alongside the likes of smoked salmon pinwheels and prawn cocktail melon salsa followed by pink pavlova with strawberries and lemonade scones with jam and cream. A sneaky cocktail—or two—wouldn’t go amiss, either.
It’s a classy—and classic—affair at the Waitakere Estate, its high tea menu comprising staples like cream cheese and cucumber sandwiches and scones served with fresh cream, jam, and butter, alongside some interesting surprises such as tandoori chicken sliders, all enjoyed from an elevated view of the surrounding rainforest with the city and Rangitoto over yonder. Ask about the Ultimate High Tea Package that includes high tea, high-end accommodation for a night and a three course dinner for two.
A Brief History of Tea
Tea has been enjoyed for at least 5,000 years, with an ancient Chinese legend telling of the Emperor Shen Nung accidentally discovering it when some loose leaves blew into his pot of boiling water.
By the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), tea was so revered that it was enjoyed as a formal ceremony. By the third century BC, tea was China’s national drink with social gatherings taking place at tea houses all over the country—a tradition that continues to this day.
Around this time visiting Buddhist monks from Tibet and Japan were lured by the mystical leaves and over the following centuries formal tea ceremonies were introduced to aid meditation.
Tea didn’t arrive in Europe until the early 17th century when the Dutch sent a shipment back to Amsterdam. Having been shipped from the other side of the world, tea’s high prices and high taxes meant that only the European elites could afford to drink it, and drink it they did.
Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza, was especially fond of the beverage and can be credited with introducing it to the English following her marriage to King Charles II in 1662. Over the following couple of centuries, tea parties became a regular occurrence among the aristocrats of the UK, the drink now served in fine porcelain and stored in silverware.
Following its founding in 1600, for the next 300 years the British East India Company snowballed into the world’s largest trading company, shipping the likes of cotton, sugar, spices and silk, as well as opium, and, most shamefully, slaves. By the 18th century, however, tea was among its most prominent and profitable of cargoes.
On 16 December 1773, a protest erupted at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston, USA, over frustration at unfair “taxation without representation” imposed upon the Americans by the British. More than 300 chests of British tea were dumped into the harbour, the beginning of a series of acts of defiance that would escalate into the War of Independence. That first protest was bestowed the title of the Boston Tea Party.
By the mid-1800s, Britain was smuggling so much illegal opium into China that its sale essentially funded the entire tea trade. With an imbalance of trade that favoured the British and drug addiction on the rise, two major conflicts broke out that were to become collectively known as the Opium Wars. The Chinese lost and were forced into a free trade treaty opening up their market to the Europeans.
By the late 19th century, New Zealand and Australia had the highest tea consumption in the world, importing 3.1kg per capita per year—nearly three times the amount the English drank. Now our consumption is around 650g, placing New Zealand at 45th.
Tea is the world’s most popular beverage, consumed by two billion people each morning.
Though there are around 3,000 types of tea, 84 percent of tea consumed is black tea.
Around half of the USA population drinks tea daily, but only 15 percent of that is hot tea.
For every cup of coffee consumed around the world, three cups of tea are sunk.
By weight, tea has more caffeine than coffee. However, far more coffee is needed to make the equivalent amount of drink, meaning coffee generally comes with a far greater kick.
Proven health benefits of tea include the lowering of blood pressure and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
In 1980, a joint study by The British Tea Producers Association, Tea Trade Committee and Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, concluded that for “optimum flavour and sensation” tea must be prepared in a porcelain pot with at least two grams of leaves for every 100ml of water. The temperature should be above 60 degrees, but not exceed 85 (boiling water burns the leaves).
Milk was originally added to tea to cool it to prevent the cracking of the fine china. The trend stuck—the implication being that if you’re adding milk then you must own expensive cups!