Whether you like it beige, black, white, green, or with a spot of milk, there’s just something about a cup of tea that demands ceremony. It can be five minutes – those few moments of bliss where you take your first few sips and taste the bouquet of flavors commanded from a simple leaf – or hours, where you also savor refined treats – but there’s no denying that the ritual of having a cup of tea is one that continues to be celebrated the world over, and for good reason.
Around the world, there are a number of cultures that celebrate drinking tea. In China, tea is said to have been discovered back in 2727 BC, when an Emperor was purifying water in the shade of a tea tree. Several leaves blew into the pot, and he fell in love with the accidental drink. In India, tales say a Prince trying to overcome fatigue tried chewing some tea leaves to stay awake. In the UK, the culture of afternoon tea began in 1840, when Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford wanted to stave off her hunger at around 4 pm, before enjoying her dinner fashionably late. In the Middle East and North Africa, the introduction of Gunpowder Green Tea to Morocco led to the creation of its famous mint tea, with Maghrebi teas now offered as part of every welcome. In Turkey, a country famous for its coffee, its sweet Apple Tea is equally as revered. Taiwan, Korea, Sri Lanka, Russia, France, Nepal, Thailand, and even the USA, all have their own tea traditions, encompassing everything from yak’s milk and pickled tea blended with oil, to fruit-infused iced teas and tapioca balls. In Japan, the history of the country’s tea-drinking culture is often traced back to monks in the 9th century, with the Japanese tea ceremony culture emerging in the 13th to 14th century as Emperors took pleasure in the drink, deeming it a one for the royal classes and encouraging its growth, cultivation, and production.
When Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, started her tradition of afternoon tea in 1840, she probably didn’t think that it would still be practiced almost two centuries later. The light meal, which was supposed to help her get through the day while waiting for a dinner normally served quite late, is now a popular and luxurious ritual.
At St. Regis, where rituals are at the heart of an exquisite stay, Afternoon Tea is a luxurious daily indulgence. From the glamour of Afternoon Tea to the magic of Midnight Supper, guests are invited to live the brand legacy daily through the experience to this day. It was Caroline Astor, mother of St. Regis founder JJ Astor IV, who elevated Afternoon Tea to a new level by introducing the ritual at dignified gatherings at her house in Manhattan in the late 19th century. Her parties were some of the most famous and sought-after occasions during the era deemed the Gilded Age, and thanks to her hand-picked, exclusive lists of the upper crust of the city’s society, their tea-drinking traditions set trends to last a lifetime and are celebrated even today. For Mrs. Astor, Afternoon Tea was a joyful occasion, and an opportunity to host intimate gatherings as a prelude to her grand galas.
Today, Time for Tea remains a quintessential St. Regis tradition, offering guests an impeccable selection of fine teas and refreshments in an inviting and intimate setting, with the ritual tailored to reflect the distinctive location and clientele of each St. Regis address. Each hotel’s Food & Beverage Director ensures that the ritual is not only executed consistently and to perfection, but that it’s adapted to suit the range of different locales, and incorporates the regional nuances, customs and traditions into it. Here in the Middle East, this is of exceptional importance, considering our deep roots in a tea-loving culture.
One of the most delightful aspects of any true Afternoon Tea ritual is the ceremony and the bespoke service that makes it an immersive experience and a delightful indulgence savored at leisure rather than simply grabbing a cup on the go. It’s savoured within the elegant ambience of a dedicated lounge, where butler-style service and a traditional menu of petit-fours, tea sandwiches, scones, and Devonshire cream complement the menu together with delectable regional delicacies, all for those who appreciate the finer things in life. Guests can choose from a large selection of loose leaf teas ranging from herbal infusions, green teas, white, black and decaffeinated teas as well as a special St. Regis Tea blend, served with a selection of white and brown sugar, sweetener, and candy sugar, as well as lemon and milk, and all with the necessary accoutrements from fine cups and saucers to teapots, the right teaspoons, tea filters, and more.
Choosing the right cutlery is the type of attention to detail that can really accentuate the experience, says Dragana Tanovic, the Outlet Manager of the Sidra and Champagne Lounge at The St. Regis Dubai in Al Habtoor City. “We serve our Afternoon Tea ritual at the Sidra Lounge. Since ‘Sidra’ means ‘heavenly tree’ in Arabic, the sets that we use to serve it consist of fine china bearing an Arabic-inspired tree design, which is then paired with fine silver cutlery sets presented in thick, white napkins,” she says, adding that this is a perfect time to use your fine silverware and tableware. “We even serve the treats on a silver tiered stand, to add to the feeling of grandeur,” Dragana adds, explaining that presentation can make all the difference.
On the stand, Chef Sameer Seghar from the St. Regis Dubai likes to arrange the treats in an order that makes sense to the guest, almost like the courses of a meal. If you’re trying to recreate this at home, try following a similar formula, by beginning with some small savoury bites to whet the appetite, followed by classic finger sandwiches – “Any traditional afternoon tea in the world should feature some type of cucumber sandwich, or a classic beef and horseradish option, for instance,” Chef Seghar says – before serving warm scones with jam and clotted cream, and a selection of sweet treats and mini desserts. “Even if you’re trying to keep it small, a good rule of thumb is to include at least one savoury item and two sweet ones, and of course, never forget the scones!” he adds. If you want to take it further, why not try a flavoured scone? The St. Regis Saadiyat Island serves a unique Vanilla and Sultana Scone, which Hyeran Do, their pastry chef, has shared in the box-out below.
Once your foods are sorted, choosing a quality tea brand to go with them is important: At the St. Regis Dubai, they opt for Dammann Freres, a French brand that was established in 1692, both thanks to its quality and the fact that its origins complement the French brasserie-style décor of their lounge. “If you are hosting an English-style afternoon tea, an English tea brand could further envelop the guest in the experience, for instance,” Dragana explains. You can also pair the teas to the type of food you are serving, or to your guests’ individual tastes, if you know what they are. “One of our most popular teas here is the Bali, which is a green tea, or the Passion des Fleurs, which is a white tea. They’re the most aromatic. Our guests who like strong flavours usually choose a Darjeeling or Earl Grey, while herbal teas are another interesting option,” Dragana continues. Pairing teas with specific types of food can help to enhance their flavour – see the box-out below for a more detailed guide.
While the main draw is always the hot teas, St. Regis does also offer a curated selection in tune with the climate, as well as inspired by the culture and traditions of the country you’re in. During cooler weather, for instance, you can try seasonal options, such as spiced ciders, eggnog and hot cocoa, or pumpkin soup shooters, grilled cheese sandwiches, and more. The key, they say, is to create a warm and inviting experience that encourages leisurely lounging.
“To create a great afternoon tea experience at home, you’ll need a pot of your desired tea, a selection of bite-sized sweet and savory treats, some colorful cupcakes for example could become a highlight, and lots of creativity. Don’t forget to bring some good friends,” says Dragana Tanovic, the Outlet Manager of the Sidra and Champagne Lounge at The St. Regis Dubai in Al Habtoor City. “Adapting the tea experience to an occasion doesn’t always need to be seasonal either,” Dragana adds, explaining that you should use your imagination: “We’ve hosted afternoon teas for every occasion, from baby showers to birthday celebrations that have involved special touches from bespoke cakes to a costumed superhero. So don’t be afraid to experiment and try and create your own special Afternoon Tea ritual with friends and family.”
Whichever way you choose to do it, one thing is for certain: Ensure that your afternoon tea is a ceremony of sorts, whether you’re laying out a sumptuous spread in a gesture of elegant hospitality for your friends and guests, or take a few moments to sit down and enjoy your afternoon cup of tea even if you’re in the office, and you’re bound to make your next tea experience a memorable one.