High Tea at the Mount Nelson - a Pretentious (but Fun!) Pastime
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
High tea is just about the most pretentious thing you can do. But… it can also be a blast! And, nowhere was this more apparent than at Cape Town’s historic Mount Nelson Hotel, a bastion of old-world, highbrow living in the heart of the city. So yeah, given the opportunity, we jumped at the chance to do high tea at the Mount Nelson.
What is “High Tea?”
Okay, so you smoke a bunch of pot and then drink some iced tea? Well, that’s not entirely accurate.
No, high tea definitely traces its roots back to much more refined British traditions. But, in doing some basic research about tea protocol, we became slightly confused. We had visions of high tea as aristocrats in goofy clothes lounging around under umbrellas in beautiful gardens, having snacks and drinking tea. Apparently that high-society version is afternoon tea, with high tea tracing its roots to us peons in the servant classes.
But, outside of Great Britain, pretty much everyone in the world who’s heard of the more aristocratic version of afternoon tea calls that high tea.
Bottom line, for us - and the Mount Nelson - high tea meant getting “dressed up” (relative term when you’re living out of backpacks) and strolling through beautifully manicured gardens before sitting in deep chairs in the shade of large umbrellas, drinking expensive tea, and picking at tiny sandwiches for hours on end.
The Mount Nelson - A Young Churchill’s Stomping Grounds
The Mount Nelson Hotel, though changing ownership multiple times, has been a Cape Town staple since 1899. And, over the years, it’s hosted quite a fair share of famous guests. For us, though, reading about Winston Churchill’s days there proved the most interesting.
During the Boer War, fought between the Brits and the Boers (descendants of Dutch settlers in the Cape Colony), the British used the Mount Nelson as their military headquarters. Naturally, that meant the hotel attracted a fair share of correspondents looking to cover the fighting - among them, a young Churchill hoping to make a name for himself. And, that he did, ultimately getting captured by the Boers, making a daring escape from a POW camp, and, obviously, writing quite prolifically about the event.
That’s a different story, though. For us, we loved reading Churchill’s thoughts on the Mount Nelson. After arriving in Cape Town - with valet, luggage, and 18 bottles of Scotch - Churchill described the Mount Nelson as, “a most excellent and well appointed establishment which may be thoroughly appreciated after a sea voyage.” Quite the way with words!
And, with a pedigree like that, it was understandable that the guard at the hotel’s elaborate front gate was quite hesitant about letting us Uber-riding commoners onto the grounds...
Strolling the Grounds
Fortunately, after some back-and-forth on the radio, the guard confirmed our reservations and - begrudgingly - allowed us to pass (but not before issuing firm instructions to the Uber driver to leave quite immediately after dropping off his fare!).
Hassle or not, the hotel’s gardens were absolutely gorgeous. We had a reservation for the 3pm tea (to accommodate demand, they have 12pm and 3pm time slots every weekend). On a friend’s recommendation, we showed up a little early to stroll the grounds - well worth it. The gardens and hotel itself are stunning, and it’s hard not to appreciate such surroundings in the heart of a city.
Different Priorities: Chipp vs. Jenna
But, seeing these beautiful grounds was ancillary to the true purpose of the day - high tea. At 3pm on the dot, we sat at our table - deep rattan chairs in the shade of a large umbrella and tall palm trees. However, we quickly learned that we had quite different priorities.
To Jenna, embracing her Ukrainian heritage, the goal for the day was to try as many different teas as possible. For a tea imbecile like Chipp, seeing a tea list that looked more like a wine list in length was strange, to say the least. Jenna loved it.
Chipp, on the other hand, was there for the food. Our waiter, a friendly guy who talked us through the whole traditional aspect of the tea session, eventually brought us a two-level tray of absolutely delicious mini sandwiches (probably not the technical name for them). And, he emphasized that, if there were any sandwiches we liked, he’d be happy to bring more (remember, this was a three-hour event). That was a mistake.
The top level of this delightful tray included cold sandwiches, while the bottom level included a delectable spread of hot sandwiches.
Waiter, seeing our empty tray: “Can I get you any more sandwiches?”
Chipp: “Yes sir - how about backing us up on the bottom tray, please?”
Waiter, confused: “Um, excuse me?”
Jenna, terribly embarrassed: “Sorry about that, what my husband meant to ask was for you to bring some more of the hot sandwiches.”
Waiter: “Oh yes, right away.”
Don’t offer if you don’t mean it... And yeah, Jenna certainly got her money’s worth of tea, while Chipp left gluttonously full - takes a lot of mini sandwiches to get there, but he was up to the challenge!
A Note on “Tea Service” in Prohibition South Africa
Somewhat of a non sequitur, but this is as good a post to write about it as any.
In prohibition-era South Africa, ordering alcohol at restaurants was inherently not allowed. As an alternative, you could sometimes get “tea service.” Recognizing that, financially, they wouldn’t survive a ban on booze sales, many restaurants opted for a work around. With a wink-wink, some places would let you order a “white tea” or a “red tea.” In a wonderful coincidence, a ceramic teapot just about perfectly holds a bottle of wine!