All of the guide books on Victoria, British Columbia recommend high tea at the Hotel Fairmont Empress as being the thing to do while exploring the city, and happily they cater for those of us of a gluten free persuasion. The Empress is one of Victoria’s grandest landmarks. Overlooking the inner harbour, the huge hotel dominates its surroundings, like the Incredible Hulk lining up next to a bunch of puny humans. Built in the early twentieth century in a Chateauesque-style, the hotel’s red brickwork and Gothic touches make for an imposing and impressive sight. It’s played host to numerous royal and VIP visitors over the years, so I felt it only right that I should grace the gaff with its first coeliac superhero.
Entering the grand old hotel after a stroll through the highly manicured gardens was like stepping back in time. Mum said she felt like she’d been transported into an Agatha Christie novel, thankfully nobody got murdered while we were there though so there was no need for Poirot this time. I’d dressed up for the occasion in shirt and chinos, which were the smartest clothes I’d brought with me on the trip, but still I felt hideously under-dressed. Top hat and tails would have felt like much more appropriate attire, although I would then have felt like a prized berk, so perhaps chinos were the perfect compromise.
After we were shown to our table in the majestic wooden-floored ballroom, complete with man tinkling the ivories on a grand piano, the first task was to select a tea. Now usually I’m an English Breakfast Tea man under all circumstances, but I figured that when in Rome/having posh afternoon tea, I might as well branch out and try something a bit more exotic. I went for the raspberry and pineapple leaf tea, which seemed like a good idea at the time thanks to me being rather partial to pineapple and having the world’s largest sweet tooth. However, in hindsight this was a mistake. The tea was insanely sweet, even for my taste buds. There’s just something about hot sweet beverages that I can’t quite get on board with. I’m not even a fan of mulled wine, which is an almost sacrilegious thing to say around Christmas-time in the UK. And don’t even get me started on hot fruit squash, the very thought of which almost makes me want to hurl into the nearest receptacle.
The moral of the story is just stick to normal, down-to-earth British tea and everything will be ok. Talking of which, one interesting difference between the UK and Canada was that in Britain if you order a ‘tea’ when out and about you are automatically served with English Breakfast tea. Whereas in Canada if you asked for ‘tea’ you would always be asked to specify. Me, being the uncultured swine that I am would then usually reply with ‘normal tea please’. Ok, perhaps I overstated slightly when I said this was an interesting difference, but these are the type of insightful anecdotes I’m sure you’ve all come to know and love.
After the tea fiasco things got considerably better as I was served with a stack of three plates all full of gluten free treats. It was suggested by our waiter that one starts with the scone, and not being the type of person who disobeys a man wearing a bow tie, I proceeded as advised. The gluten free scone was lovely and light and fluffy, and served with clotted cream and a boozy fruity jam. I went jam first of course, I’m not an animal. I will never understand the logic behind putting cream on a scone first. Surely spreading the jam then dolloping the cream on top is the only way to go?! The logistics of going cream first then smearing the jam on top just seems all wrong to me. I’m reliably informed by the internet that my jam first approach puts me in line with the traditional Cornish method, while those mavericks over in neighbouring county Devon can be held responsible for introducing the world to the monstrosity that is the cream first technique. If any of you need any more convincing then jam first is also used at Buckingham Palace garden parties, by order of Her Majesty the Queen (I assume). So there you go, cast-iron proof that jam first is the only way to go!
Anyway, once my scone had been thoroughly devoured, I started on an amazing array of finger sandwiches. They were all great but the highlight was definitely an incredible smoked salmon sandwich which was just divine. Whoever invented finger sandwiches is clearly some kind of genius. Why settle for one sandwich when you can have about 15 all with different fillings? Inspired. And finally, my favourite, cakes! Here I was served up a shortbread, raspberry and chocolate macaron, a squidgey chocolate cake, chocolate and fruit bark (I know I know, Masterchef called, they want their pretentiousness back), and a passion fruit compote. Needless to say, they were all amazing and I polished them all off. Overall it was definitely up there with one of the best afternoon teas I’ve ever had, and undoubtedly the best super posh high tea I’ve ever had, owing to the fact that it was the first. I love that under normal circumstances it’s generally frowned upon to eat five desserts in one sitting, but stick it on a fancy plate and call it ‘high tea’ and you’re good to go. Definitely my kind of meal.
Now as you’ve probably worked out by now, I’m not really a natural fit for the higher echelons of society. If I was a character in Downton Abbey I’d definitely be found thoroughly in the downstairs department, most likely a hapless footman who ends up chucking dinner all over any important guests. However, I can definitely get involved in the odd luxury experience once in a while if it involves stuffing my face with food. High tea at the Fairmont Empress was definitely one such occasion. If you ever find yourself in Victoria you should not miss out on this incredible, unforgettable gluten free experience! Just make sure you get out of there sharpish if a moustached Belgian detective turn up.