My 10 commandments for Afternoon Tea and where to go for it in Montreal.
It's a bit weird coming for Afternoon Tea with a Brit in Canada. It's like coming out with the tea inspector. I'm chatting to my friend but she is watching me as I lift the lid off the tea pot and fish about in it with a fork looking for tea leaves. I keep smiling and talking as if I'm not actually doing anything weird. Then later, when I have to ask for milk and it arrives I touch the side of the jug to check if it is cold, as my friend is talking. She is watching me and probably wondering what the hell I'm up to. She is thinking of having the scone. But it has blueberries in it, I say. It's not really right. She looks puzzled. The truth is I have certain standards when it comes to Afternoon Tea or High Tea as they inexplicably call it in Canada. So would most Brits. Here are my Ten Commandments for an Afternoon Tea and the best places to enjoy it in Montreal.
Vintage tea cups at Salon de Thé Cardinal (my favourite)
1. THE TEA COMES IN A POT AND IS FRESHLY BREWED LOOSE LEAF TEA. It is not tea bags. We are not paying top dollar for tea bags (are you listening Ritz Hotel Montreal?) It is a large pot so we can have multiple cups of tea. If you must serve a tea bag then boiling water must have been poured over it. It should not be on the side like a lettuce garnish. There is a certain comfort that comes with a large pot of tea. It can take away all your worries just looking at it. Which leads me to my next commandment......
2. THERE SHOULD ALSO BE A POT OF HOT WATER for topping up our tea. There should be so much tea you could swim in it. This is the essence of a good afternoon or high tea. We haven't even got to the food yet. Even no 3. isn't about the food.
|Excellent shortbread at Cardinal but no tiers.|
3. THERE SHOULD BE A PROPER CHOICE OF TRADITIONAL TEAS when you order your Afternoon Tea. Sturdy choices such as Earl Grey and English Breakfast should be amongst them. Non of your daffodil and yoga mat flavours. And there should be lots of them not just a sad list of three. If Earl Grey isn't on there it isn't really an afternoon tea. Leave this cafe immediately.
4. CHAMPAGNE EARNS YOU EXTRA POINTS. This takes the Afternoon Tea to another level -having a glass of champagne before the tea arrives. I am now officially in heaven, drinking champagne and anticipating cakes..........
|An Afternoon Tea in England|
5. IT SHOULD ALWAYS BE SERVED ON A TIERED CAKE STAND. When the server carries this to your table it should cause an intake of breath. It is part of the drama of an Afternoon Tea. You can also hide behind your sandwiches and scones if someone comes into the restaurant who you don't want to talk to. You can have the nicest cakes and treats in the world but if they are spread out on the table like a picnic it is NOT Afternoon Tea as far as I am concerned. It is some cakes and treats. The tiers consist of at least three plates - usually with flowers on them and if they are vintage - even better.
|The best scones in Montreal at Gryphon D'Or|
6. THE SANDWICHES SHOULD BE CRUSTLESS AND CLOSED. They should also be freshly-made and probably should contain cucumber, cheese, ham and egg in some form. (no, not all together) I would also allow smoked salmon. Don't ask me why - this is just how it should be and when I am confronted with chicken or tuna I always feel they are wrong. At the Salon de Thé Cardinal they actually serve Cheddar and Branston pickle sandwiches which gains them bonus marks. The sandwiches can be small triangles or rectangles but they should never EVER have crusts and the bread should NEVER be toasted. (Birks Tea Room you have been warned)
7. THE SCONES: It isn't afternoon tea without scones. They should be served warm. Traditionally you should have two choices of scone - plain and fruit (no, not blueberries and cranberries but dried fruit ie sultanas.) However I am willing to accept that the North American taste palate likes these little puppies in their scones so I will not make a fuss so long as there is a plain scone option. My personal favourites are cheese scones (a good sharp cheddar) and something I have not seen since leaving England - the wholemeal date scone. A little piece of heaven. Room temperature butter please (and I shouldn't have to ask for it as an extra).
|Vintage cups are the business|
8. JAM AND CREAM The scones should be served with jam and ideally clotted cream. Spray cream doesn't cut it. The cream should NEVER be sweet. If you haven't got clotted cream hand-whipped cream is acceptable. The jams should include strawberry and my favourite, raspberry, but I am willing to experiment here and I did love the Montreal Ritz Hotel's rose petal jam. Arguments rage over whether or not you put the jam or the cream on first. I have always put the jam first so the cream sits on the top in a big blob but I am willing to accept that others do it in reverse (how do you get the jam to balance on the cream?)
9. THE CAKES: You might be getting the impression that I am a traditionalist and you'd be right. I don't really want a dessert on my afternoon tea - I want cakes not glasses of mousse or anything which needs to be eaten with a spoon. I don't really want macarons if I'm honest. I want cake. Real cake. Fruit, ginger, walnut buttercream, lemon cake. All of the above.
|My fave - the Cardinal Tea Room|
10. THE PASTRIES: Apple tarts, jam tarts, custard tarts or traditional things like rock cakes, macaroons (different to macarons), fondant fancies or flapjacks. This might be controversial but I don't really want to see any chocolate on my Afternoon Tea. (especially not in a scone which will send me apoplectic if I read it on a menu). There is however a place for biscuits - traditional shortbread, flapjacks or Grasmere gingerbread would make me happy. (well done Gryphon D'Or and Cardinal for your fine shortbreads). I would say shortbread is actually compulsory in a proper Afternoon Tea. I've tried to be flexible on this one but no, I cannot.
I selflessly tried out afternoon tea at these five Montreal establishments and here are my marks out of 10 for each.
Gryphon D'Or: Probably the best British-style baking on the island of Montreal. They serve tiered plates and warm scones, make their own jam, excellent pastries but the atmosphere is a bit lacking. Small cafe with uncomfortable wooden benches. Only served if reserved 24 hours in advance. Good price at $25 per person. Very popular 7/10
Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel: Good tea selection with an actual trolley so you can sniff all the teas on offer, tiered tray, champagne, good scones but again the atmosphere in a dark underfilled restaurant (at tea-time) slightly lets it down. Would be better if they had a separate room for afternoon tea. $26 per person or $35 with sparkling wine. 7/10
Salon de Thé Cardinal: My favourite. Absolutely perfect interior with mezzanine floor, chandelier, velvet sofas, vintage furniture and tea cups, great atmosphere, just like a tea-room of old. They sell all the ingredients for an afternoon tea including excellent shortbread, scones and warm apple pie but weirdly they don't offer it as an option. So no tiered trays. You have to order everything individually. Please Cardinal consider it (though your sandwiches would have to be smaller). I am available for consultation. 8/10
Birks Cafe: (sadly now closed) The Tiffany's of Canada is a jewellers with a pleasant and popular tea room on a mezzanine level. They offer afternoon tea but on a flat plate and, wait for it, the sandwiches are toasted. Yet it was delicious and buzzing with customers. Bag of macarons to take home. $26.50 per person with option of wine or champagne extra. 7/10
Le Parloir: Delightful small tea room in the Plateau with tiered trays, good scones, full list of teas, charming decor and friendly owner. I am even forgiving them for the warm milk. They bring you egg timers set to different speeds so you can time your tea before removing the leaves. A first for me. They often do private parties and their sandwiches, although open faced, (foie gras anyone?) were excellent. $24 per person. 7/10
As this is one of my most popular posts judging by the stats I wanted to throw in another couple of stellar tea spots in Canada. One is Chateau Laurier's Zoe's lounge in Ottawa and the other is the Prince of Wales Hotel Drawing Room in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The latter might have just been the best afternoon tea of my life. Read more about it here.
Read my Top Five Canadian Destinations