Friday, April 29, 2011

Afternoon Tea, The Mount Nelson Hotel, Cape Town

Afternoon Tea at the Mount Nelson in Cape Town is somewhat of an institution. The hotel is said to not only serve one of the greatest teas in South Africa, but one of the oldest. Since the turn of the century, the royal and the rich alike have met at the Mount Nelson to partake in this age old tradition. Today, all walks of life come together to indulge in this British tradition that sets apart the day and allows ultimate relaxation.

It was a beautiful and sunny Friday afternoon that I set out with my American counterparts to the Mount Nelson. We traveled on foot as the hotel was only a fifteen minute walk from our accommodation in center-city. The occasion was also very special because I would be meeting with a friend I went to high school with but hadn't seen for over three years! She has been studying at the University of Cape Town and we got in touch. The last time we were together, we were wearing our graduation robes and now here we were sitting down to tea in South Africa! That is the magical thing about taking tea; it brings people together.

The Mount Nelson is beautiful. Old colonial elegance set against lovely and flourishing gardens. This alone was enough, but as we were led through to our reserved seating on the terrace, I knew the afternoon would be perfect. White porcelain cups and saucers waited for us next to linen napkins and a gorgeous view of the grounds made for the perfect setting. Before long, our server Sydney came to chat with us. I want to applaud Sydney for being one of the best servers I have had to date. His knowledge and friendliness made the experience so much more memorable! I will hopefully return to meet him again one day!

The Mount Nelson is nontraditional only in that instead of the food being served on tiered stands, it is set up as a buffet with unlimited access. None of us were complaining. And the extensive tea menu with over thirty teas to choose from, and unlimited coffees and drinking chocolates were all at our disposal. And for the price of R165 (about $24) you get so much more than what you pay for.

View from the Terrace

My first tea selection was the Mount Nelson Blend. The blend is made up of Assam, Ceylon, Darjeeling, Keemun, Kenyan, Oolong, and Rose Buds. I knew it would be enjoyable from the exciting mixture alone. All tea at the Mount Nelson is served in glass, see-through Nigiro teapots. These beauties allow you to watch as your leaves unfurl and alter your boiling water. I also appreciate that each table is equipped with a time to allow for appropriate steeping. Sydney all showed us how to work the glass pots. The glass infusers stick right into the pot and there is a side plate waiting for them after steeping is complete. My first sip was perfect. No milk, no sugar and all taste, the Mount Nelson blend was true and full-bodied triumph. For any black tea lover, this should be at the top.

Mount Nelson Blend Steeping

As it was a proper afternoon tea, we decided to explore the buffet table. Although some of my friends decided to take what they pleased as they pleased, I wanted to maintain tradition in the order of sandwiches followed by scones followed by sweets. The sandwich selection was quite impressive. I munched on cucumber sandwiches, egg mayonnaise, and roast beef. I loved that all the finger sandwiches on offer with presented on your choice of brown or white bread. I chose brown for each sandwich. I also picked up a miniature quiche which was divine and I munched on a bite of a friend's mushroom pie.

As my Mount Nelson blend began to diminish, I ordered a fresh pot of tea from Sydney. This time I went for Ceylon Dimbula. A pure, unblended Ceylon with a lovely, rather oakey taste. I did add sugar to taste, but only a very small bit. This was my tea for the scones. I had one of each, a plain and a fruited, and spread with the fresh cream and apricot jam, they were splendid. These were probably the best scones I have had in South Africa yet!

Tea and Scones (and some milktart)!

Already feeling full, I took a bit of a break, but knew I wanted to sample some of the sweets on offer. Although I couldn't handle everything, I picked what was most appealing to me. I chose a miniature milk tart, a mini lamington, a mini Cape Malay koeksister, and a slice of the banana bread. All of this paired with a fresh pot of Rooibos tea made for a sweet ending to a particularly perfect Afternoon tea.

Beautiful Hibiscus Tea Steeping

We all sat and chatted, basking in the ambiance and beautiful weather as Sydney came by frequently to chat and replenish our teapots. The afternoon could not have been more perfect. Before we knew it, it was getting close to 6:00 PM and the last diners were leaving. We all said our goodbyes, but not without a picture with Sydney first.

The American Crew and Sydney

All in all, it was an afternoon tea above and beyond what you might get somewhere else, and a fraction of the price you would pay in Europe or the States. Bravo to the Mount Nelson for providing such a great experience all these years down the road.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Chai Tea, Biesmiellah Restaurant, Bo Kaap, Cape Town

Cape Town has a very interesting and diverse culture. During the Dutch occupation of South Africa, the Dutch brought slaves over from Indonesia and Malaysia who would form what is today called the "Cape Coloured" or "Cape Malay" group of people. Although the people look very similar to their Malaysian ancestors, they speak Afrikaans as their first language and their connection to Southeast Asia is only really through blood. Bo Kaap in Cape Town is the Cape Malay quarter where traditionally and to this day, Cape Malay people still make their homes. Colorful houses and Halaal restaurants line the streets.

On a Friday morning, I ventured into Bo Kaap with a friend just touring the area on foot. As we had afternoon tea planned later on that day, we didn't want to eat too much of a breakfast, so decided to grab something light at Biesmiellah Restaurant, a Cape Malay favorite in Bo Kaap. Although delicious favorites like chicken curries and bobotie lined the menu, I just wanted something simple and delicious. Cape Malay food is a mixture of Malay, Indian and African and it is reflected in the spices and flavors. I ordered a pot of chai tea and a potato wada, a deep-fried potato snack of Indian origin. My friend ordered a Cape Malay koeksister. The koeksister is a South African twisted donut, but the Cape Malay variety is a bit different. Cooked in brown sugar syrup, it is then adorned with desiccated coconut.

My chai tea came promptly, smooth and milky with just the right level of strength. Real cardamom pods and other spices were found in the pot among inspection and the tea was hot but not too hot. It was so nice to sit their sipping a local blend in the midst of Bo Kaap, taking in the magnificent amalgam of culture so vividly displayed in the people and their cuisine.

Rooibos Tea, Timbuktu Cafe, Cape Town

After an 18 hour bus ride from Johannesburg to Cape Town, I wanted to see the city, but first, I had to re-energize. Of course this, for me, means finding a nice cup of tea and a cozy place to sit down. Timbuktu Cafe, located on the upper level, nestled within Cape Town's Pan African Market ended up being the perfect spot. Despite being called "Timbuktu" the cafe serves traditional Ethiopian Fare in a relaxed and bohemian environment. As much as I do enjoy Ethiopian Coffee, I ordered a pot of rooibos tea.

The tea is served in fine china pots, with a mismatched cup and saucer, or in my case, a glass see-through teacup. My teapot was adorned with Japanese geishas and flowers. A simple, yet robust rooibos is presented with a side sugar bowl. After one sip, I knew I'd be just fine for the night ahead. As I sat sipping the earthy blend, full of naturally sweet notes, I chatted with my friends as the sun began to set over Cape Town's Long Street. A perfect welcoming.