Contrary to popular belief, living in England for eight years does not make you a tea aficionado.
It makes you a tea addict - an entirely different thing. I can't remember what I used to drink at work before moving to the UK; but let me tell you, the drink to drink at work unquestionably and unashamedly is tea. PG Tips, Tetley, Sainsbury's Own... it doesn't matter. If it's in a bag, it's thrown into a cup, hot water sloshed over the top, and then presented to your coworkers with a smug feeling that you only get by knowing it now won't be your turn for tea-round again for at least a few more hours.
A good cup of builders' tea fills a hole in your heart like nothing else. It may not be a quality consumable, but if the strength is just right, and the tea-to-milk ratio is perfect - it rivals any delectable meal I've ever had.
This is completely and utterly separate to the new obsession in life. I've been taking night classes whilst on maternity leave to become a Tea Sommelier. Can you love rough-and-ready tea in a mug and still be a tea snob? I don't see why not. I still go to Ikea just so I can enjoy a cup of Red Rose with cream in it. I stop short at questioning the origin and cultivar of the black tea in the limp white bag. I can still go home and fuss over brewing a cup of Darjeeling (first flush) with a timer and a set of scales, upload my tasting notes to Steepster, and enjoy it just as much.
So armed with my new tea knowledge, and thirsting to try something interesting, I headed to the Fairmont Palliser Hotel in Calgary with some of my fellow Tea Sommelier classmates to experience their version of Afternoon Tea.
Afternoon tea is something I've mostly always been disappointed by. Many hotels and department stores in London offer it - and offer it badly. Office-worker style tea, served with a couple of dry scones pulled straight out of the freezer. The Palliser is the poshest hotel in town, so I was looking forward to their scrummy ode to this most famous of English rituals.
Beautiful company makes every event better - and my trip to the Palliser was no exception. My dear tea-snob friends and I sat down in an area reserved for us in the Oak Room and awaited our afternoon feast.
I haven't been to the Palliser Hotel in fifteen years or more, but it appears as though nothing has changed. It's a bit rough around the edges, and considering the rates they charge to stay there, it could do with a bit of an update. I couldn't fault the service at all - the woman helping us was incredibly helpful and friendly. (I'm tempted to suggest they bring in rude waiting staff to add to the authenticity of the Britishness of it...)
However, the actual Afternoon Tea itself was (keeping to tradition) completely disappointing. We were presented with a box of tea bags to choose from. Most of them were not real teas at all, but fruity infusions and flavoured teas - indicating cheap consumer grade blends. Thankfully, we were able to choose to have our teas loose rather than in a bag. (Conjuring up images of the bus-boy in the back, ripping open tea bags and pouring their contents into teapots...)
Overpowering flavours (chemical essences?), bitter tastes, and general lacklustre made our teas an anti-climatic beginning. They weren't terrible by any means, but we were expecting something a little special - and perhaps at least as good as any of the teas we were drinking at home.
And even if the teas themselves were not up to scratch, wouldn't it have been nice if some thought had gone in to the correct brewing temperature for each tea? Or if we'd been told how long to steep our tea before drinking?
Then came the much-hyped pastries and sandwiches. This is when the disappointment really sunk in. I can forgive a little if Fairmont doesn't know enough about good tea, or if their target market really does prefer "Very Berry" style infusions. But I expect... demand even... that the people in the kitchen are given proper ingredients to work with.
Dry scones, limp sandwiches, baguette with the mesh imprint from the factory showing: Not much difference in the level of quality from a sandwich tray at Safeway. Lemon meringue mini tarts with more (dry) pastry than filling. Since when does the Palliser buy commercial grade food and not hire a real pastry chef?
Surely the patrons paying a premium to dine here deserve better? Surely this hotel's place in Calgary's history demands better?
Verdict: Average. Below average if you are a Tea-snob.