High Tea: What It Is And Where To Have One
By David Perry
Just saying the term sounds sophisticated: High tea. Bursting with images of drawing rooms, doilies, and a butler named “Jeeves,” we’ve all heard about it, Taylor Swift even sings about it…but how many of us have actually had it?
It is not simply a culinary quickie. Like dinner or brunch the world over, high tea has tradition attached, things that have to be “done right” for it to qualify. And, along a stretch of Broome Street in Manhattan’s chic Soho section, is someone who really does it right.
Was tea the first thing to strike me as I walked up to the MarieBelle storefront? No. What about death by chocolate with a fabulously French Belle Époch theme?
Bingo! Creator and chocolatier Maribel Lieberman eschewed all modern newfangledness and returned to chocolate’s la belle vie days when it was — literally — the toast of Parisian salons. Indeed, walking in is stepping back; the interior is a lush vision of 1880s fantasy.
So where does a place that revels in old-timey, super-chocolatey Francophilia get off having that most quintessentially British afternoon snack? Actually, a lot.
Connoisseurs will know that high tea comes in two forms: English and Scottish. Regarding the latter, France and Scotland have been BFFs going all the way back to 1295 and the Auld Alliance, the the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend shmooze fest the two drummed up against England.
Even today, they act like long-lost friends. Crossovers are inevitable. This includes MarieBelle’s high tea à la Écosse.
Spilling the T
Tea as a drink is old, as in China-in-the-third-millennium-BC old, but its introduction to European (read English) palates is nowhere near as ancient. It was only in the 1660s during the reign of King Charles II that the drink finally became fashionable.
Afternoon tea is even more recent; in 1840, Anna Marie Russell, Duchess of Bedford and favorite of Queen Victoria, was lamenting the long span of hours between her noontime lunch and the oh-so-proper dinner hour of 8 PM when she had a brainwave: an afternoon snack.
Nothing heavy to spoil her appetite, but just enough to hold the munchies at bay. So, at around 3 in the afternoon, she ordered up a tray of little cakes, finger sandwiches, and tea — a tradition was born.
And hit the ground running. High tea spread throughout the British Empire like wildfire and even took on new forms.
In India, British favorites like butter sandwiches and watercress were switched out for local fare like samosa and chaat. South Africans embraced their inner sweet tooth and tossed the sandwiches to make room for more cake.
In Scotland, where Victoria built her getaway of Balmoral which is the summer residence of the British monarchs today, teatime turned into a full-fledged meal. But in the aggressively not-British United States, the concept of high tea never caught on.
Party In The Back
But don’t tell MarieBelle that. In the rear of the store, Leiberman created the CaCao Bar; with its suggestive lighting and dainty tables, it could easily pass for a parlor of old. Having high tea there is psychically mandatory.
To be sure, there is an English tea on the menu, with a plethora of assorted finger sandwiches with salmon, dill cream cheese, endive, ham and gruyere, plus the actual tea. But in true Anglo style, it is a restrained affair. It is savory and satisfying, but modest. Bring on bonnie Scotland!
I started things off with a cup of hot chocolate, a coupe of champagne (MarieBelle’s French connection shines through here and there), then on to the soup. And that was just the starter.
Then the waiter comes out hefting not only a charming kettle of Earl Grey, but also a three-tiered tray of high tea deliciousness, with finger sandwiches at the bottom, scones with jam and Devonshire cream in the middle, and mini-cakes and fondue crowning it all. Holy tartans, Batman.
But it was a true high tea: nothing heavy, nothing deep-fried, nothing to set off a food coma. Everything was light, everything was bite-sized.
For all the quality, the constituent tiers of a Scottish high tea by themselves would not even dent a hankering appetite; it’s only when everything is put down that my stomach stopped growling.
At the same time, for all the quantity, high tea, provided I have it at the traditional time of 3 or 4 PM, is still not enough to spoil dinner at 8.
Escape the Everyday
High tea is one of those cultural “daycations” I, and anyone could indulge in without having to catch a plane to the old country.
While it’s not common to find it on the menu, it remains a stand-by at more high-end eateries (like MarieBelle).
It is an especially inviting idea for on-the-go visitors in like New York, a city best seen on foot and where an afternoon chow-down after a day of hoofing makes sense.
The one thing that doesn’t make sense?
Sticking your pinky out while sipping your tea. That’s just plain gauche.
With work in the BBC and Travelsquire, David Perry has danced with the dead in Japan, raced across the deserts in Egypt, and gotten into snowball fights with Siberians. That last one is a fool’s game…