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Posted on: Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Tea at Nellies

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Tea at Nellies

Tea at Nellies

I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve lived in Cape Town for nigh on six years and up until yesterday had still not had high tea at Nellies. This is a sacrilege. Even my friends, who recently came to stay from Durban, managed to make a detour to the Mount Nelson Hotel something of a priority, where after they waxed lyrical for at least an hour.  Nothing like feeling you don’t know your home city to get one motivated. Nonetheless  it still took an irresistible special offer and an organised man to get me there.

Organised he can be, but he didn’t get things off to a swinging start by interrupting my morning dressing ritual (usually a rather rushed and disorganised affair at the best of times that relies heavily on impromptu clothing combinations to feel ‘right’ for the day) with an ‘oh, and the dress code is smart-casual’. This followed closely on the heels of ‘I’ve got a surprise for you today, expect me at 12pm sharp’.

I don’t do dress codes. They make my toenails curl and bring on an immediate attack of dig-in-heels. The type of response similar to when your dog absolutely refuses to cross the threshold to go and do his thing outside because it’s too cold – that one.

Fortunately the Mount Nelson’s dress code is virtually non-existent. You probably couldn’t stroll out onto their veranda in your shorts and slip-slops (unless you were Brad Pitt and then he wouldn’t stoop to mooching around in shorts, would he?), but actually just about anything goes.

The older generation, who in hindsight had obviously done tea here before, camped out just inside the lounge area as close to the cucumber sandwiches as possible (these are the first to go, should you be interested for when you give it a whirl) still wear pretty smartish clothing (I’m sure I caught a glimpse of a couple of cravats out of the corner of my eye) but the rest of us were casual, although no-one was sporting a pair of shorts. You can safely wear jeans, though.

Tea at Nellies

Nonetheless, I didn’t take into account that we would have a scorching summer’s day in the middle of winter. I would much rather have been clad in a flowing summer skirt and cute little top number, rather than my thick corduroys and African spirit t-shirt from Mr Price, as funky as it is! Fortunately, I manage to ignore unessentials like my attire when it comes to enjoying the moment. It’s something that happens to you once you’re over 35, I believe.

My man, bless him, managed to find the special offer that combines a massage for two at the Librisa Spa with high tea. Bliss for two allows a couple to enjoy a 60 minute balancing massage for two using Africology massage balm, followed by Afternoon Tea for two in the hotel lounge. For just R1735.

What they don’t tell you, is that because you booked for a Monday afternoon, you’ll have the change room and sauna area to yourself after your incredible massage from which you will emerge five years younger and miraculously minus the worry lines with which you entered.

Then (in the changing area I mentioned) having ditched your white toweling robe with abandon, you will dart from the outside shower into the sauna, launch yourself into the heated outside plunge pool followed swiftly by a whirl in the steam room. All in the throws of thoroughly enjoying yourself.

Then you will smother yourself in Africology body lotion (www.africology-sa.com) because it has to be the most wonderful smelling stuff you’ve laid your hands on, ever, finally emerging a completely new person. All this for the price of a special massage. I can vouch for it.

Mount Nelson’s high tea is something of an institution. The rich and famous hang out there, although I confess that no-one I’d seen of late on the big screen graced the veranda. There were a couple of ladies with rather loudly dyed dark hair, obviously resident at the hotel judging by the effusive greeting they received from the maitre d’, an odd-looking gent who scoffed his petit fours discreetly down one end of the veranda, a couple of students, a few Americans and a group of Brits who looked as though they were on a tour of the hotel.

An interesting aside: the Mount Nelson was not always pale pink, and I must admit to being somewhat mystified as to why it is that colour at all. I suppose now that it has earned the nickname the ‘Pink Palace’ there’s no going back, but originally the Mount Nelson was painted pale yellow and green. After that it had a short period drenched in ochre and oxblood red, probably totally inappropriate for WWI as shortly after it, in 1923, the Nellie went pale pink.

Tea at Nellies

We could choose where to sit, inside or out, and since it was such a glorious day the veranda (it’s the ‘terrace’ to you, darling) was the only logical choice. For those of you who want an idea of the indoor décor, I could not do better than a description by the hotel:

“the mood for afternoon tea is set by warm creams, taupe and duck-egg blue fabrics, unlined taffeta curtains diffusing Cape Town’s brilliant sun, and high ceiling cornices highlighted in silver leaf and an oak floor.”

The variety of teas alone is worth footing the bill for high tea. From an incredible selection of loose leaf black, green, white, herbal and floral teas I chose the white tea, whilst my man had gunpowder with mint, a green tea. Tea is brought to us in collaboration with Nigiro, celebrated tea specialists, and John, our waitor, was thoroughly knowledgeable and could easily distinguish between non-fermented, lightly fermented and fermented teas, why these were so, and their effects on the tea drinker.

My Durban friends had already exclaimed in some detail over the Nigiro glass teapots in which the tea is served. I have been tasked with finding them one as they did not make it to the shop De Waterkant before boarding their flight (I think the tea room at Origin Coffee Roasting stocks them).

John warned that my tea would take a little longer to draw then most. The loose leaves are set in a little glass infuser within the pot that easily lifts out once your tea has unfurled and the flavour is released enough. I’m not a tea fundi and despite the warning, poured my first cup a little prematurely. Nonetheless, the tea was so different from any I have tasted before. I’m not sure that I was as fond of it as my man’s though. His was wonderful.

The menus surreptitiously disappear around the time of ordering the first pot of tea with the understanding that you need but ask for them to order another  pot. But by this stage you are knee-deep in strawberry cream cake, mini éclairs, petit fours, spinach croissant quiche, tea loaves, mini cup cakes, various sandwiches, muffins, glazed onion and tomato tarts and scones with jam and whipped cream from the help-yourself buffet. And nothing else seems to matter.

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Wanda Coustas


Wanda Coustas has written in one form or another for 10 years, seven of them as a copyblogger. She has travelled the Western Cape extensively and the rest of the country in protracted road trips that have given her both joy and an ongoing relish for experiencing what she writes about first-hand. She is a trained opera singer, poet, eurythmy dancer, philosopher, and bee whisperer.

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