The origin of "high tea" (which, to be honest, sounds like an orange pekoe break for hippies) treads somewhere between "great moments in the history of eating" and "gastro-historical quasi-urban legend" but nonetheless is staunchly part of British (and, by extension, a fair bit of North American) mealtime traditions. Tea - as a meal and not just as the beverage - may be as simple as a cuppa and a biscuit or as ornate as miniature sandwiches and sweets served on towering pedestals. For the latter, it is worth a trip to the Empire Ballroom in the ever-statuesque Hotel Macdonald.
Afternoon tea commences with a delicate flute of finely chopped strawberries and melon crowned with an icy orb of minty sorbet. These frosty morsels awaken the sleepy palate and sharpen the tastebuds for subsequent indulgences.
A basket of blueberry-lavender scones follows and is accompanied by butter, berry preserves and clotted cream. Though one may argue at the veracity of clotted cream found in Canada, Empire's version is unbelievably fluffy and buttery. The berry preserves are vividly flavourful, but I have difficulty detecting the lavender promised in the scones.
A quartet of elfin sandwiches arrives on a triple-tiered pedestal. Divinely smoked Nova Scotia salmon reclines on hearty rye bread and is topped by sparkly sprinkle of tobiko roe. Rich duck breast is tempered by fruity pineapple-tomato relish. A goat cheese and black olive tartlet steals the show with its duality of savoury salinity and sweet creaminess. Organic egg salad on brioche is also present, but I must confess that I have a significant aversion to the texture of hard-cooked eggs.
Dessert includes chocolate macarons (not bad but Mirabelle Macarons are better), lemon-coconut shortbread (too full to try and hence no verdict), banana-hazelnut-caramel tarts (alas, my satiety prevented sampling), and chocolate cupcakes with an amazingly light and smooth orange icing.
The portion sizes are deceptive; eating a lot of miniature sandwiches quickly adds up to one very large sandwich. Nonetheless, the sumptuous setting of the stately Empire Ballroom perfectly underscores a very fancy - and yet not snooty - afternoon tea. The Empire Strikes Back. In a good way.