A Melbourne, London & Hong Kong dessert blog
The old Melbourne dame of high tea.
Have you been to Boston, dear readers? Have you strolled across the Boston Common? Watched a game at Fenway Park? Hopscotched from one historical building to the next along the Freedom Trail, peeping at old graveyards and old market sites on the way? Immersed yourself with the complexities of American politics at the State House? Passed the Charles River and the Harbour that divides the main city from the town of Cambridge where the renowned MIT and Harvard sits?
On 16 December 1773, British tea cargo was dumped into the Boston Harbour by American settlers in protest against English economic measures (one being the imposition of high taxes by the English). By 1775, it had snowballed from a blockade into a civil war. In 2010, against a backdrop of an increasingly large number of Americans facing increasing economic woes, a socio-political movement called the “Tea Party” came to prominence, and could now be considered as the right-wing, libertarian version of the Occupy Movements. To commemorate the 18th century tea-associated event (not the 21st century one), the Hotel Windsor hosted a Boston Tea Party-themed afternoon tea in December 2011. MoMo & Coco and a handful of friends partook in an afternoon tea at the Hotel Windsor to celebrate admission – in a tongue-in-cheek manner – into a largely conservative profession.
Designed and built in 1883 by Mssr G. Nipper and C. Webb, the Hotel Windsor is located at the so-called “Paris” end of Melbourne’s CBD, opposite Victoria’s State Parliament. With a Renaissance Revival/Edwardian aesthetic, it is a magnificent grand old building.
Delivered in an appropriately prim-and-proper fashion on a daily basis and hosted in the Grand Ballroom, afternoon tea at the Hotel Windsor has been served since opening in 1883. To cope with demand however, it has unfortunately introduced a timed-seating arrangement. One waits outside the door of the Grand Ballroom until the clock strikes.
The Grand Ballroom is a lavish space, awash in a typical Victorian palette of caramel, cream, gold and dark rouge. The ceiling is inlaid with sun porticos and art nouveau globe chandeliers. The walls are embellished alternately with elegant arches and long stained glass panels. With the weekend dessert buffet positioned at the centre of the ballroom stretching from one side to another, tables are arranged on either side of the buffet, and are well spaced, serviced by mild-mannered, heavily-accented Sub-continental staff who greet with a glass of moscato or sparkling wine and are attentive, if a little sparse, throughout the afternoon. One should be forewarned that a most displeasing surcharge applies if paying by credit card.
Dining ware was de rigeur boring white, tea served in stout silver pots and ugly chunky white mugs. Although the Windsor’s tea menu read longer than any other afternoon tea menu in Melbourne, it failed to reach the range of teas available at most London afternoon tea establishments (see here for a selection). That said, the Windsor featured the universally appealing teas of English breakfast, Earl Grey, Orange and Darjeeling, two types of green tea, a Chinese white tea (the Pai Mun Tan being a MoMo & Coco afternoon tea favourite), two herbal infusions and two novelty flowering teas. Furthermore, as in London, one was permitted to sample as many tea varieties as desired. MoMo & Coco started with the somewhat underwhelming Windsor Blend, graduating to the Earl Grey and the Pai Mun Tan, and finishing with a dancing lotus tea.
On the weekends, the traditional ribbon sandwiches and scones are served on a three tiered stand, with the sweets presented as an unlimited buffet. As correctly emulated from London establishments, the ribbon sandwiches were located on the lowest tier of the stand, with one eating her way up the tower. :) The lower tier showcased five types of classically-rendered ribbon sandwiches — a smoked salmon; scrambled egg; ham and cheesse; cucumber, sour cream and chives; and the highlight of the quintet, a creamy chicken rubbed in apple and mayonnaise. The middle tier displayed a trio of lukewarm savouries — a quiche, savoury muffin and a pie of sorts.
The top tier of the three-tiered service held two scones for each participant, one being a plain scone and another studded with raisins. Of a nuggetty rather than pillowy texture, they were served disappointingly cold. Even more underwhelming was the most watery jam that MoMo & Coco have ever beheld in any afternoon tea. Shocking really.
To the dessert buffet we go, undoubtedly the highlight of afternoon tea at the Hotel Windsor. It was an incredibly colourful, extensive spread of sweet irresistibles, crafted with some care and finesse. Scattered on a satin-covered table, there were a handful of large decorated cakes of a mousse variety, peace sponge, mud cake, swiss roll and a deflated sad thing of a Victorian sponge, all of which MoMo & Coco forgot to photograph, apologies. There were also miniature cakes a plenty, made into perfect bite size mouthfuls, of which MoMo & Coco and our dining party focused on. A Babylonian chocolate waterfall graced on end of the buffet table, accompanied with fluted bowls of marshmellows and fruit. The other end of the table was bookended with a small ice cream bar complete with wafer cones, smarties, chocolate freckles and silver balls. There was also a tray of diced fruit to cleanse the palate at the end. However, with the exception of a New York cheesecake signposted with mini-American flags and a pancake station that operated for only the first hour, the “Boston Tea Party” theme was barely expressed. Indeed, with the inclusion of mince pies, christmas fruit cake, a rich steamed pudding, drapes of tinsel, mistletoe and baubles on the buffet table and an adjacent tall decorated fir tree, it was more a Christmas-themed afternoon tea that afternoon that MoMo & Coco visited.
Although we will detail a little, MoMo & Coco will let the below pictures speak for themselves. With two and half of a plate, MoMo & Coco managed to sample all the sweet irresistibles, but for the large cakes (messy things that they became after other people had carelessly hacked their way through) and the chocolate fondue things. Our first plate from the dessert buffet consisted of nine sweet irresistibles — a strawberry cheesecake bisected by a sweet strawberry jelly; a hard meringue nest topped with lemon curd and a juicy blueberry; a green cake flecked with pistachio but yielding too harsh an almond flavour; a basic strawberry tartlet; a moist lime-coconut cake that was a highlight; a very gingerly-infused spice cone cake crusted with honeyed nuts; a very rich chocolate cake with a thick fudge texture; and an equally rich chocolate tartlet fuelled with rum and raisin and embellished with a gold leaf, and which another highlight. To end, a smooth creme brulee required less sugar and more vanilla bean, and more blow-torching of its surface.
For our second plate, MoMo & Coco selected five irresistibles – a very well-rendered millefeuille that one would be returning to the dessert buffet for another slice please; an airy profiterole spliced with coffee cream; a sweet peridot green cake with a touch of apple and green tea that was another highlight; a fruit mince pie dusted with sugar and butter and mostly bereft of its spiced tones; and the sole allusion to the “Boston Tea Party” theme, a light cheesecake.
A third plate saw us nibble at cold pancakes from the pancake station where we bypassed the whipped butter and jam preserves, and instead drizzled the pancakes with watery maple syrup. Similarly drippy, the brandy custard detracted from a quartered steamed Christmas pudding that was very rummy and studded with glace fruits and raisins. Overall, at the general expense of a full-blown flavours, it was all very pretty, very sugary.
For those who have had the opportunity of taking tea at the Ritz in London, the Plaza in New York, the Peace Hotel in Shanghai, the Raffles in Singapore or the Peninsula in Hong Kong, afternoon tea at the Hotel Windsor — in MoMo & Coco’s respectful opinion — is analogous. Although one is of course, particularly mindful that these are venerable afternoon tea institutions, one is also inclined to opine that many other venues do do it better. The food offerings at the Windsor err on the conservative side, with barely any tampering with classicism. This means that it can be, in the greatest honesty, rather boring or underwhelming. However, afternoon tea at these institutions, as at the Windsor, is less about the food as it is about generally excellent service and teas, and the unrivalled opportunity to rediscover the history, tradition and architecture of a bygone era. It’s for that reason that the Windsor remains a must-do for the tourist, for the first-time afternoon tea participant, for the traditionalists, and also, for those who have become disillusioned with the increasingly carelessly-executed interpretations masquerading and cheapening the experience. For what afternoon tea could be, one would do better to visit other equally lovely, albeit not as historical, venues (see here for a selection). But, for what it should be, the Windsor is the reminder of a fine classical afternoon tea.
- Dessert adventure checklist
- Dessert destination: The Hotel Windsor, 111 Spring Street, Melbourne CBD, Vic 3000.
- Budget: $$$$ ($79 pp)
- Sweet irresistibles: High Tea.
- Must-eat: Buffet available during the weekend; traditional 3-tier during the week, special themed events occasionally
- The short and sweet story: The old Melbourne dame of high tea.