Afternoon tea has become a mainstay at many of Hong Kong's leading eateries
Quintessentially English ritual has become a mainstay at many of Hong Kong's leading restaurants and hotel eateries, writes Tracey Furniss
Scones, jam and cream, cucumber sandwiches, chitchatting over a pot of earl grey tea - it doesn't get more British than this - and whiling away a perfect summer afternoon with friends. This quintessentially English ritual did not depart from the city with the British in the late 1990s, but stayed and thrived, and now is a mainstay at many of Hong Kong's best restaurants and hotel eateries.
Afternoon tea is so popular that queues start forming at some of the major hotels at least an hour before serving time, which can be anywhere between 2.30pm and 3.30pm, depending on where you go.
One such venue is The Peninsula, Hong Kong's oldest hotel, which claims to be the first establishment in the city to introduce the concept of afternoon tea.
"When The Peninsula opened its doors on December 11, 1928, The Lobby was a quiet tea lounge," says Florian Trento, group executive chef at The Peninsula Hotels. "But it fast became a lively, colourful 'crossroads of the East'. While we don't have a specific date in our records as to when this tradition [of afternoon tea] started at The Peninsula, the hotel was the first in Hong Kong to introduce this concept, along with popular tea dances which took place every Sunday."
Trento, who has been with the hotel since 1987, says the tea dances attracted the glitz and glamour of society back in the early days, but the celebrated classic afternoon tea has drawn people from all walks of life for more than 85 years. He believes its popularity is because "the afternoon tea experience at The Peninsula is the epitome of elegance and refined indulgence in a nostalgic colonial setting".
The tea set is also kept very traditional. "The [hotel] maintains this tradition by serving tea in cups of eggshell-thin bone china with cakes, scones and finger sandwiches elegantly presented on three-tier stands," he says, adding that the warm, buttery scones are made from a recipe that has remained the same for more than half a century. While other menu items change to incorporate seasonal ingredients, scones and cucumber sandwiches are always on the menu.
The hotel's tea items stay true to the very first afternoon snacks made fashionable by the Duchess of Bedford, who is purported to have started the custom of taking afternoon tea during the 1830s when dinner times were becoming later and later. Having a snack in the afternoon helped to fill the gap until the 7pm to 8.30pm meal time. By the 1840s, wafer-thin slivers of bread encasing thinly sliced cucumber and platters of light sponge cakes were served in the new tea gardens of Vauxhall and Marylebone, and later in the Victorian era, tea was a well-established meal with its own distinctive food such as sandwiches, hot teacakes, English muffins and scones.
Establishments that offer traditional afternoon tea items include The Mandarin Oriental, Sevva, the InterContinental Hong Kong and the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong.
Putting a French spin on a British idea is one of the newest patisseries and cafes in town, Le Café Dalloyau in Ocean Terminal. The Dalloyaus were cake makers to French royalty for generations, including Marie Antoinette, who was erroneously reported to have said "Let them eat cake", but we can understand why if a Dalloyau was baking for her. The Paris patisserie is famous for its macarons and opera gateau, but the vanilla mille-feuille and tarts are also good.
It has not just been Western restaurants that serve afternoon tea - more recently, Asian restaurants have been getting in on the act, from Thai to Taiwanese and Chinese. There is the Mango Tree tea set with Thai and Western sweet treats, while The Night Market offers Taiwanese noodles and dim sum along with typical sweets such as taro red bean balls and purple rice at their afternoon tea.
A trend has also emerged of renowned designers or chocolatiers collaborating with hotels and restaurants to design an afternoon tea menu that is usually available for a short period of time.
A good example of this was the recent Kath Kidston and Penney Pang afternoon tea set at Feast at the East, Hong Kong in Taikoo Shing. The collaboration between Kidston, an accessories and lifestyle designer from Britain, and Pang, a wedding cake designer, was an instant success, packing in the diners.
"It's a new experience for guests," says Willem van Edem, head of restaurant operations at Swire Hotels. "Certain lifestyle brands fit certain hotels well." The tea set was served in Kidston tea cups and plates, with Pang having designed some of the cakes - it was a very elegant affair.
Café 103 at the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong is collaborating with chocolatier Jean-Paul Hévin until the end of July in celebration of the 2014 Fifa World Cup in Brazil. The hotel has worked with chocolatiers several times.
"Afternoon tea with savoury bites, mini-pastries and a selection of sweet temptations has become the definitive Hong Kong afternoon tea," says Peter Find, executive chef of The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong.
"Created by The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong's resident executive pastry chef Richard Long, Café 103's chocolate afternoon teas are made even more tempting with his collaborations with some of the world's most celebrated chocolatiers and patissiers."
Paris-based Hévin is using cocoa beans from South America, incorporating them into his sweet and savoury treats on the menu, and he has created some special cake recipes just for the occasion. "I visit South American cocoa plantations almost every summer, sourcing the finest cocoa beans, and this collaboration showcases the finest fruits of my journeys with an extraordinary afternoon tea voyage," he says.
His sweet creations include crusty chocolate tart, melt-in-your-mouth orange-flavoured Madeleine pastry, the traditional French pastry La Religieuse filled with cream and topped with chocolate, a Brazilian chocolate bonbon in honour of the World Cup hosts, Peruvian "piura" chocolate macaron, Macae strawberry pepper verrine, and coffee hot chocolate that combines Brazil's most noble ingredients.
On the menu, Long presents savouries of duck foie gras pate mini-puff with Cuba cocoa nibs, smoked salmon marinated with vanilla cocoa oil on rye bread, Brazilian coffee bread sandwich with seafood and dill cream, and truffle egg mayonnaise on brown bread.
"At Café 103, we are very loyal to chocolate," Long says. "We only use the best-quality chocolates for our renowned afternoon tea. Each item in this tea set is created with an element of one of the origins of chocolate - South America - in mind, creating a set of unique southern flavours for chocoholics."