Having written reviews about the Afternoon/High Teas at Grande Provence, Grande Roche, and the One & Only, I went to the Mount Nelson Hotel, which has long been the benchmark for Afternoon Tea in Cape Town, on Tuesday afternoon.
The Tea menu provides the history of the Afternoon Tea, the Duchess of Bedford inviting her friends for ‘discreet conversation and a mid-afternoon pick-me-up of tea and sandwiches’ in the 19th century. Over time her soirees became so popular that it became fashionable for high society around the world to host such tea parties. It appears that the Mount Nelson Hotel, which is over hundred years old, has been serving the Afternoon Tea since its opening, changing from a tiered stand to the buffet in 1990, I was told.
One has to pre-book the Afternoon Tea at the Mount Nelson Hotel, and it is so popular that I could only get a booking for five days later. The lady taking the booking asked if I had any special dietary requirements, which seemed somewhat of a contradiction, given the content of the Afternoon Tea. When I asked her to clarify, she wanted to check for gluten-free, diabetic and other requirements. I asked her what is served for the diabetic option, but she could not tell me. I booked it anyway, out of interest.
I arrived at about 15h15, and the Afternoon Tea had been going for 45 minutes. I was ticked off the list on arrival, and nothing further was said by the young person managing the Afternoon Tea. The lounge was almost full with Afternoon Tea guests, and I was shown three seating options – inside the lounge, in an in-between section, and outside. The seating inside is the nicest, and I had a most comfortable couch and two chairs all to myself. The coffee table was of a good height to allow one to eat at it comfortably. The serviette was a good quality material one, and the cutlery looked heavily used.
The Afternoon Tea is laid out on a central table in the open lounge, with a tall flower arrangement in the centre, and it was clear that most guests had already ‘grabbed’ their share of the treats, leaving most platters untidy looking and less than full. There is no list available of all the options one can choose to eat, and the young manager made a plan to get the Tea menu photocopied, which has a general listing of the categories of items one can expect, but this menu is not presented to the Afternoon Tea guests spontaneously, and only if one is ordering tea. Something else that was odd is that there is no description of what each item is, except for the four cakes presented in the center of the table, each of which had a name made from chocolate. So, for example, there are four different types of sandwiches, but they are not described. Only when the staff from the kitchen replenish the trays, does one get an opportunity to ask them what is inside each of the savoury items, the sweet treats being self evident. The young manager said that until about two years, each item of the Afternoon Tea was marked, and he did not know why this had changed. Strangely, there are only side-plates on a trolley alongside the Afternoon Tea table, and there is no indication that the staff will bring a serviette to the table one is sitting at. I managed to call a waiter, and ordered a cappuccino, and later a second one, and I was surprised to not have been charged for either, being included in the hefty R165 charge.
I started at the savoury end of the table, and these items in general seemed very boring in their presentation, in fact it is a general complaint about the Nellie’s Afternoon Tea . I felt that the Afternoon Tea was a placement of numerous trays of items on the table, without any care to present it in an attractive manner, and to ensure that the trays remained filled, and that accompaniment containers were refilled. The Afternoon Tea appears to lack a champion, and the young manager did not appear to check on this at all. The tongs one must use to lift an item from the tray onto the plate are uncomfortable to hold and use, and some items I picked up fell onto the table as a result, adding to the untidy look of the table.
The savoury items include smoked lamb focaccia with babaganoush; the to-die-for mushroom empanadas, which were cold when I had the first one, and nice and hot when I had the second (they are more-ish!); the salmon, cucumber, egg mayonnaise, and rare roast beef finger sandwiches are each made with brown and white bread, terribly unhealthy, but wholewheat bread probably would be very un-British!; a mini chicken burger had barely any chicken on it, and tasted strongly of the relish on it; the salmon crepe roulades looked attractive, the only savoury dish with colour appeal; the courgette fritters would have tasted better warm, but there is no warming facility on the table; a tiny butternut sage and pine-nut savoury muffin with sage sour cream; spinach croissant quiche; olive crostini; and sundried tomato grissini.
Having tried the savoury items, it was time to check with the young manager about the Diabetec platter that was meant to have been prepared. He kept his cool when I asked him, saying that they had wanted to wait for me to finish my savoury selection, and that my waiter should have told me this (there was no one checking on this, however, as it was far too busy in the lounge, and the list that the young manager was working from also did not have this requirement specified). Soon a young chef came from the kitchen with a platter, and I asked her to explain what was on it: a berry smoothie made with Bulgarian yoghurt; cheese cake; fudge and toffee (!!); cranberry, pistachio, honey and almond balls (!!); chocolate torte (!!); and fruit items. When she talked about the fudge and toffee, torte and honey, I asked her if she was sure that this was the Diabetec platter. Surprised, she said that it was the Gluten-free platter, and then returned from the kitchen with a much less attractive looking Diabetec platter, now consisting of the same berry smoothie; two fruit skewers; cranberry and pistachio balls drizzled with honey (!!); dates and dried fruit; three eclairs with whipped cream (when questioning this, I was told that the no sugar had been added to the whipped cream)!!; as well as a massive pear tart in phyllo pastry. I thought that the generous presence of honey and cream, as well as of the phyllo pastry, to be odd on a platter for a diabetic! Surprisingly no teaspoon is available for the smoothie, similar to what I experienced at the One&Only Cape Town Afternoon Tea.
The sweet treats include slices of three tea loaves; eight different petit fours; mini éclairs; scones served plain and with raisins; freshly cut green melon; chocolate and fudge; and accompaniments included whipped as well as pouring cream, lemon curd, coulis, butter, and strawberry jam, which had run out. The sweet treat slices were set up in rows, and were repeated to make the trays look fuller.
The piano was played in the lounge when I arrived, but mercifully finished soon thereafter. An hour later the piano player went back to tickle to keys. A wide selection of Teas, as well as coffees and hot chocolate, is available. The tea selection is “presented in collaboration with Nigiro, Cape Town’s celebrated tea specialist and purveyors of some of the world’s finest leaf teas”. One can order Green Tea, eight Black Tea options, Rooibos, and Chamomile tea. There is also White Tea, Oolong Teas, and Fruit Infusion Teas. In addition, there is a selection of four ‘Chinese Artistic Show Teas’ (Blooming Lotus, Princess Flower, Seven Angels and Swimming Marigolds) available, and costs R50 per pot, but is excluded from the Afternoon Tea package. I was astounded to see Morning Tea charged at R105, consisting of a beverage only, it would appear, with no savoury or sweet items indicated on the Tea Menu as being served with the tea.
I was very disappointed with the Mount Nelson Afternoon Tea, feeling it to be a ‘mass feeding frenzy’, as guests tried to get their R165-worth; it is the most expensive of all Afternoon Teas in the Cape; for the five-star status of the hotel, and its leadership in High Teas, the Afternoon Tea is unimaginative, the hotel trying to present as many items as possible, rather than focusing on fewer and better quality ones (Executive Chef Rudi Liebenberg does not get involved in the Afternoon Tea, it being the responsibility of Chef Cecile, I was told); it appeared functional, without style and class that is normally associated with the hotel and with this tea custom; it was poorly managed in terms of the table replenishment, as well as the execution of the special dietary requirement orders – I question whether the second platter would be suitable for a diabetic, and whether the Hotel understands the requirements of a diabetic; and the buffet style presentation makes the Afternoon Tea feel less special and less celebratory, compared to serving it in a tiered stand. The inclusion of all (unlimited) tea and coffee, even cappuccino, is a plus. There is a broader selection of savoury treats than at any of the other High Teas that I have tried, but they are not exciting. The tea menu listing of what is to be expected for the Afternoon Tea exaggerates the offering, a number of the listed items not presented. Last but not least, no one can reasonably eat savoury and sweet treats to the value of R165, even if they are at Mount Nelson Hotel prices!
Mount Nelson Afternoon Tea, Mount Nelson Hotel, Upper Orange Street, Cape Town. Tel (021) 483-1000 www.mountnelson.co.za Monday – Sunday 14h30 – 17h30.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage