Let Me Eat Cake
The notion of high tea must be taken with a grain of sugar. The original British concept in the 1700s was a much more practical affair, where a working man would take his tea and scones while standing or sitting on tall stools; the height of the table denoting the name.
Today's interpretation reputedly owes more to the 7th Duchess of Bedford in the early 19th century, who felt peckish one afternoon and asked her maid to rustle up some tea and snacks. The social set caught on and soon it was a fashionable pastime to while away the afternoon with finger crooked and a mouthful of sweet or savoury delicacies, before an evening out at the theatre or opera. Happily the tradition continues today, and while many large hotels offer high tea packages, other restaurants and venues do a brisk trade in those tricky hours between lunch and dinner.
One of Melbourne's newest is Fancy Nance, a confection dreamed up by patissier Adriano Zumbo, in loving homage to his mother Nancy. This chic tea salon designed by architects Studio Tate, has been given a light dusting of whimsy in the striking, Alice in Wonderland murals at each end of the space which contrast with the steel shelving, hot pink concrete stairs and industrial lighting. No tiered stands of sandwich-scones-cakes or scalloped plates here; the offerings are on earthenware plates and wooden boards.
You may nibble on caramelised onions with smoked ricotta, swatches of fresh smoked salmon with creme fraiche, and a delicious nugget of osso bucco garnished with pea shoots. But make some space for the sweet stuff; linzer cake with chantilly cream, grapefruit with white chocolate ganache, and apple pie with cinnamon marshmallow. A wheel of passionfruit curd, lemongrass panna cotta and lime tapioca skids to a stop on the plate. And the fluffy scones are huge; the capsicum jam is a surprising twist.
If you like high art with your high tea, Mossgreen is a must. The tearoom set in the iconic auction house in High St Armadale is a sensory experience, with an ever-changing gallery of fine art to admire over the rim of your Butterfly Bloom China teacup. Crisp white linen provides the canvas for Peter Rowland-catered edibles including smoked salmon, cucumber and cream cheese or chicken and cheddar sandwiches, scones and petit-fours, with savoury French pithiviers or filled pies. Sip on Artisan T2 tea or a glass of Pommery Brut bubbles and lose yourself in the magical imagery of artist Kate Bergin's wildlife tableaux. There's non-alcoholic Ruby Cabernet too, lest you're tempted to acquire an artwork as a reminder of your indulgent afternoon.
But why settle for an afternoon when you can make a weekend of it away from the city? Take a drive down the Great Ocean Road to Port Fairy, where the Time and Tide Gallery Cafe in Thistle Place will make your stomach rumble and your heart sing. The bracing air awakens the appetite, and if you can tear your eyes away from the gorgeous view across the Southern Ocean, you'll be equally wowed by the delicious display on the well-stocked tiered stand. Finger sandwiches and mini rolls jostle for space with the lemon passionfruit tarts, macadamia brownies, pastries, scones and meringues quiffed in fairy floss. You'll wish you hadn't made that dinner booking; the Grand High Tea could keep you sustained for the whole weekend. The soft furnishings of lemon, white and charcoal provide calming and luxurious surroundings, and if the faces on the wall seem to be raising an eyebrow as you reach for another scroll, just crook your finger and raise your teacup in a toast. You may return time and tide again.