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Afternoon Tea at the Mount Nelson
A blend of old-world charm and modern flourish
It doesn’t feel quite right to include afternoon tea at the Mount Nelson Hotel, one of Cape Town’s oldest and most esteemed options for five-star South African accommodation, on a bucket list. Buckets are uncivilised, they’re sloppy, and they’re reserved for things like growing tadpoles into frog princes and building sand castles big enough to defy the Atlantic (if your childhood was anything like mine).
On the contrary, afternoon or morning tea within the Mount Nelson Hotel’s sumptuous sitting room, elegant observatory or even on its sprawling and perfectly manicured, green lawn – where you take your cake and eat it too is your choice – is luxuriously indulgent and artfully refined.
So, rather than clopping it in the bucket with all the other odds and ends, let’s just start by saying afternoon tea at the pink lady, as the hotel is affectionately known, is simply and beyond a doubt, not to be missed.
That said, the opulent affair is still approachable, family-friendly and as appropriate for a 21st birthday party as it is for a 50th wedding anniversary.
Today, I have the pleasure of celebrating neither, but that’s also the beauty of an afternoon or morning spent sipping one of the 24 blends and sampling the superb savoury and sweet treats. You don’t need a reason to nibble cucumber sandwiches or to pretend that more than one slice of decadent baked cheesecake is perfectly reasonable.
“I’d recommend starting with a black tea, specifically our signature Mount Nelson blend. It’s blended from six different teas, as well as rose petals taken from our very own garden,” explains Shahieda, our server and a more devoted fan of the hotel’s fruit infusions. “My favourite is the forest berry infusion [a combination of elderberry, bilberry, raspberry, blackberry and strawberry], it’s lovely over ice on a hot day, but it’s very sweet,” she admits after we press her further.
We order a pot of each, settle into our high-backed chairs and let the pianist’s classical take on John Lennon’s “Yesterday” complete the transformation from the present to the past.
High tea was originally created in Britain as the bridge between morning and evening meals in an era when eating twice a day was standard practice. The name takes its inspiration from the height of the table on which the light snacks were served, and it wasn’t long before what was simply something to tide the hungry over until supper became a ritual that centred on entertainment.
The Mount Nelson has carried on the tradition with a flawless style; marrying historical elements with modern flourishes. The centrepiece of the sitting room is a table bejewelled with confectionary delights, South African specialties and classic English finger foods: there’s salmon and cream cheese sandwiches, spinach and feta quichelets, multi-coloured macaroons, petite milk tarts, lemon meringue pie, chocolate éclairs, clotted cream, fresh fruit, ciabatta with rare roast beef and olive tapenade and silver tray upon silver tray of the 115-year-old kitchen’s delectable creations.
We pile our plates high and resume our perches just as Shahieda returns with two elegant glass tea pots and our chosen teas. She explains the brewing time appropriate for each selection, flips the timer and then inserts the tea-filled glass pieces into the open mouth of the delicate pots.
From the forest berry infusion the water blushes and slowly becomes a deeper crimson; while the Mount Nelson blend leaves my tea pot a hazel colour that complements the creams and beiges that adorn the room. Sydney, a server that looks as if he’s part of the furniture here at the iconic hotel, shows us how to swirl the pot and inhale the perfumed fragrance of the blends.
Though we’ve ambitiously attempted to sample all of the tea tables treasures, we resign ourselves to seconds and finish off with a pot of oolong tea, a blend sourced from the mountains of China.
High tea may have once been a simple affair with a practical purpose, but at the Mount Nelson, expect a sensory feast that’s great entertainment, rain or shine.
Morning tea (a lighter version of the afternoon tea)
Daily, 9:30am to 12:30pm
Dress: smart casual
Daily, 2:30pm to 5:30pm
Dress: smart casual
*Contact the hotel directly for price
Tip: Begin with a black tea to balance out the sweetness of the pastries, cakes and biscuits, and above all else, come hungry.
By Stephanie Katz