With the coronation of King Charles III today and Mothers’ Day right around the corner, it’s high time to talk about high tea and afternoon tea.
While there may be differing levels of engagement when it comes to afternoon tea and the new King, it’s a certainty that tea rooms and tea houses are gearing up for what will be their busiest day of the year: Mothers’ Day.
I was surprised to learn of the number of tea houses in the province. According to her research, Alyshia Bestard says there are over 40 tea houses in Ontario serving the traditional tea service with scones, clotted cream and classic savouries like cucumber and cheese sandwiches. That number doesn’t include restaurants that may serve an occasional afternoon tea.
Bestard, owner of Queen of Hearts Tea House and Gift Shop in Kitchener, points out that there is some confusion about the Victorian terms “high tea” and “afternoon tea,” which are often (and historically incorrectly) used interchangeably. Some venues may refer to their afternoon tea as high tea, she says.
“High tea was served later in the day, and it was more of a working-class meal. Workers came in from the fields, and they wanted to eat. They’d have a robust meal that might include a meat pie, scones and sweets. It was what we would consider supper and was served at high tables like in a dining room which is where it got its name,” Bestard says.
Alternatively, afternoon tea was a fancier affair created by women to tide them over before the more formal dinner.
“It was taken mid-afternoon and would be dainty and fashionable and eaten at lower tables in a parlour, perhaps. You can picture the doilies, the armchairs and the pink velvet,” says Bestard.
With more than 40 venues that specialize in afternoon tea, the tradition has embedded itself into the food culture across Ontario.
The New Dundee Emporium has been a long-time restaurant serving afternoon tea both in-house and take-out, and offers a gluten-free version as well. Their “Coronation High Tea” will be served, by reservation only, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m on May 6. The menu features more robust dishes such as “Quiche Royal,” or coronation quiche, and house-made pork sausage rolls, befitting a high tea.
In New Hamburg, Imperial Market and Eatery also serves an afternoon tea “on fine china,” Wednesday to Saturday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. with 24-hour reservation notice. Gluten-free options are available.
“On Mothers’ Day, we’re serving our regular high tea offerings plus some elevated sweets and treats as well as Prosecco cocktails to celebrate mom,” says Imperial co-owner Sabrina Hutchison.
At Queen of Hearts, there are no doilies or frilly décor features for the popular tea service: customers want good quality sweets, savouries and tea in a relaxed setting. That, Bestard says, is how afternoon tea has evolved in Ontario – away from aristocratic formality.
Bestard says they serve a variety of sandwiches such as cucumber and cream cheese and egg salad along with sweets and scones on a traditional three-tiered tray, but in a casual and relaxed setting. Though it’s a dining “ceremony” that remains steeped in tradition.
According to Bestard, afternoon tea distinguished itself during the pandemic disruption.
“People wanted a different food experience,” she says. “We sold thousands of teas for pickup and delivery.”
‘It’s something you come for and relax’
Protocol and tradition might dictate that you eat from the bottom tier up – sandwiches first, then scones with clotted cream and finally sweets – but there are no hard-and-fast rules, says Bestard.
In fact, she says that what we do here in Ontario, according to her travels, is something uniquely over and above how it is done in England.
“During a trip there last fall, I had a number of afternoon teas including at basic pubs. They’re more robust in their offerings and don’t cut off the bread crusts on the sandwiches, for instance. It was not dainty. I think here in Ontario we have created our own version of afternoon tea,” she says.
In Guelph, despite afternoon tea’s perceived formality, Brenda Tremblay has a similar attitude to taking the casual approach – and given that her Boathouse Tea Room and Ice Cream has been serving sweets, scones and tea sandwiches for 26 years, the proof is in the pudding.
“It’s something you come for and relax,” Tremblay says. “You get your sandwiches, your scones, desserts and tea and there’s no rush. We’re not fussy or sophisticated. Just chill out and relax with your cup of tea. It’s a casual thing.”
When it comes to the clotted cream, it should be noted that it suffers the slings and arrows of supply-line fortune. An essential part of the tradition that accompanies scones, Bestard cites import quota restrictions and a single Toronto company getting the rich condiment from across the pond.
“Currently, clotted cream is being imported into Canada and we can get it,” she says but adds that there is a far more crucial issue around the cream and how it should be eaten than dairy quotas and international tariffs.
“Depending on where you are in England, it will dictate whether the cream goes on first or the jam goes on first. That’s a pretty controversial topic.”