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Tea Time

The sip that civilizes
The English habit of lingering over tea in the afternoon is gathering steam here in the land of quick coffee breaks. The Globe's DEIRDRE KELLY takes time out from her hectic schedule to enjoy a soothing pot with all the trimmings
By DEIRDRE KELLY, The Globe and Mail
Saturday, October 13, 2001

Tea table set-up at the Windsor Arms Hotel.
Photo: Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

Henry James wrote in A Portrait of a Lady that there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. I learned this when I was a university student and my college offered a daily antidote to the stresses of academic life. We called our little ritual, served from china pots on a linen covered table, Tea and Sympathy. It was a delicious respite from exams and essays and my first exposure to the sybaritic, escapist delights of a cuppa at day's end.

After graduation, I continued the tradition, stealing away after a day spent shopping to meet friends similarly laden with parcels in the waning afternoon at a posh hotel for tea. A favourite was Toronto's Windsor Arms. We would collapse into deep-seated sofas in front of a blazing fireplace. The atmosphere is what we came for, and the chitchat that would soon flow as easily as the hot, fragrant tea.

Today, the tradition is once again gathering steam as a civilized and relaxing alternative to the usual cocktail and coffee breaks. Since it reopened two years ago, the refurbished Windsor Arms is once again serving afternoon tea. Catering manager Sharon MacLeod says the Tea Room is "very busy," and not just with weary shoppers. Baby and bridal showers are ideal occasions for a tea party, whether you have them catered or hold them yourself at home. And MacLeod says the hotel frequently hosts tea-time product launches for corporations.

"It's different, a unique way to entertain, and it's easier to lure people away from their offices in the late afternoon than it is at lunch time," MacLeod says.

It all started with Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, lady of the bedchamber to Queen Victoria, in the 1830s. She felt some light repast was need to quell the hunger pains that plagued her in the afternoon. Anna persuaded the ladies of the court that tea and snacks should be served around 4 p.m. when energy reserves were low.

Tea, which was imported from China and Japan, was an expensive commodity in Victorian times, and as such provided respite only to the privileged few. Eventually, as tea from India flooded the market, prices dropped and it caught on with members of the working classes, who took their tea later in the day - around 6 - as an early evening meal that might include bangers and mash, Scottish eggs, herring or boiled beef. The term "high tea" is not, as is commonly assumed, a reference to the upper classes. Indeed, the opposite is true. It is called high tea because working families served it on a higher table than did members of the leisured classes, who served their tea earlier in the afternoon on low, decorative tables that encourage conversation. The food served at afternoon tea is meant to be discreet, below eye level. And, like the damask coverings and delicate cups and spoons, it looks light and insubstantial. Finger sandwiches are slender and crustless, pastries and cakes are delicate and lacy. Even the scones and clotted cream, though rich and sweet, seem dainty and sublime. The point is not to feast but to linger, to feel gorged instead on friendship.

Recently, I revived the practice and snuck away from the office with group of colleagues in the late afternoon to the resurrected Windsor Arms. The fireplace was still blazing and the tea flowing. We ordered the "full tea" for $27 a per-son, an impressive spread of dainty sandwiches (smoked salmon and caviar, baby greens and asparagus), petit fours, fresh scones with preserves and Devon cream, and a dish of berries with whipped cream. (For an additional $5, the "complete tea" comes with a glass of white Port or sherry.)

Pastry chef Mark Cheese likes to include all the traditional trappings, but he is not above tossing in a mildly exotic reminder of tea's eastern origins - in this case, a tiny Laotian spring roll.

Then there's the tea, a connoisseur's dream that includes a private house blend from Ceylon, Earl Grey with roses and black teas from China infused with bergamot. The menu includes several tisanes or herbal teas ranging from lemon verbena to masala mint. There is even a spicy pot of soothing milky chai on offer.

We were shy at first, caught in our conventional business relations, not sure of what to talk about. But before long, the combined balm of nibbles and tea began to work their magic, and confidences emerged, revelations unfolded. They say that in wine there is truth (in vino veritas), but make no mistake, a pot of tea is a potent lubricant; it, too, can loosen lips and inspire laughter.

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