Afternoon tea at The Hotel Windsor is a quintessential Melbourne experience for many, and for locals as much as tourists. While afternoon tea may currently be in vogue — it was inevitable it would follow on from the cupcake fad — the Hotel Windsor has been serving its traditional afternoon tea continuously since 1883, and it’s as popular as ever. Reservations are essential.
While we rarely partake in the ritual ourselves — there’s very little time between lunch and dinner as it is (and on the day we did partake we’d had lunch at the Middle Park Hotel and were due at Cutler & Co for dinner!) — we had to find out what the fuss was all about.
And we can see the charm of the thing. Afternoon tea at The Hotel Windsor is served in an elegant dining room with mirrors on the walls, chandeliers dripping from the ceiling, colossal flower arrangements, and white linen and silver on the tables. It starts with flutes of sparkling, followed by the arrival of a traditional tiered silver stand of dainty sandwiches, pies, scones, and cupcakes, along with a choice of fine teas.
Waiters in smart black suits serve guests who have gone to some trouble to dress up for the afternoon. On the day we went a couple of young women wearing cocktail dresses and little hats and carrying tiny handbags tottered between their table and the dessert buffet in their towering heels.
Grandmothers wore pearls and heady perfume, while little girls skipped about in flouncy white dresses and bows in their curled hair. An extended family spanning several generations spent the afternoon sharing stories and laughs over scones that were just like nanna used to make. It was all very civilized and old-fashioned and it was heartening to see.
We had to find out more — to find out why Melburnians have for so long embraced afternoon tea at the Windsor, whether I should have been wearing high heels, and how do you make a great cup of tea. We consulted Joseph De Rozario, butler at the Hotel Windsor for 37 years.
Interview with butler Joseph De Rozario on Afternoon Tea at the Hotel Windsor
Q. Why makes afternoon tea at The Hotel Windsor so special?
A. It’s famous because we’ve served traditional afternoon tea for the longest time in Melbourne and people like the atmosphere and sense of history. Afternoon tea is an old tradition so it’s nice to enjoy the experience in equally historic surroundings. People come and relax, enjoy a glass of bubbly when they arrive, and they like the choice of tea, which is unique to the hotel, which we give them in individual pots. People also like the freshly made scones and pastries. We make everything here at the hotel daily so it’s always fresh. The sandwiches are very good — people particularly like the cucumber ones.
Q. Do you think it has changed much since 1883?
A. The three-tiered stands are different today than they were when I first started serving afternoon tea. The china plates now were silver plates back then and the actual stand was slightly different, though still silver. We didn’t have a dessert buffet back then. We had a trolley of gateaux and pastries, and we used to go around with that trolley and serve the guests individually. Guest started with scones then sandwiches and finished with pastries, now people tend to start with sandwiches. We used to serve afternoon tea from 3-5pm. We also served morning tea as well from 10.30-11.30am but we don’t serve that anymore. It consisted of muffins and finger sandwiches and was popular with ladies who came to Melbourne on shopping trips.
Q. Afternoon tea seems to be fashionable again.
A. Afternoon Tea is more popular than ever at The Hotel Windsor. We’ve even started serving it twice a day now to keep up with demand. I think people like taking the time to enjoy good company, some bubby and great food. Everything else is so rushed these days. Coming in for afternoon tea is special, it’s not something you rush through like you do lunch.
Q. What should traditional afternoon tea include?
A. Oh yes, cucumber sandwiches are a must, along with scones with jam and cream, chicken sandwiches, a variety of pastries, and of course the bubbly as well.
Q. Was sparkling wine traditionally required?
A. Bubbles are not an essential part of afternoon tea but it’s a nice touch. I’m not sure if other hotels offer it but it’s always been on the menu at the Windsor. Sparkling should be served on arrival, as it gives guests time to relax and enjoy it, and then finish with a hot cup of tea or coffee to their liking.
Q. So coffee is allowed?
A. Coffee is allowed but most people will drink tea in the afternoon to relax them a little bit. After a hard days work people like a cup of tea. As the saying goes “if you are cold tea will warm you up, if you’re heated it will cool you, if you’re depressed it will cheer you, and if you’re excited it will calm you.”
Q. What sort of tea should be served?
A. For afternoon tea it’s better to serve English Breakfast which is full bodied and not so strong and is a really relaxing tea for the afternoon. Darjeeling tea too. At the moment we have our own brand that is called the Windsor Blend, which is a blend of English Breakfast and Darjeeling Tea and is specially made for the Windsor. You can’t buy it anywhere else.
Q. What’s the secret to making perfect tea?
A. You have to boil the water first — make sure it is cold to start with and don’t over-boil it because it will kill the oxygen in the water — and make sure you have a porcelain or china pot. First you pour the loose tea in the pot, one teaspoon of tea for the pot and one teaspoon for the cup. Then pour hot boiling water over the loose tea and let it sit for 3-4 minutes depending on how strong you like your tea. Always add your milk to the cup before you pour in the hot tea. Because it’s a fine china cup and the cup might crack with the boiling water so the milk cools the tea as it enters.
Q. Afternoon tea at home?
A. If I’m having afternoon tea at home I would definitely have a china tea set and china plates to serve the scones, pastries and sandwiches on. But I don’t think the tiered stand is essential.
Q. Should the butler or host always pour the tea and serve food?
A. The correct protocol would be that the butler serves the first tea and coffee and then goes around with the savouries and pastries, and then offers a second time to see if they would like more tea and coffee. If they refuse then leave the guests be. We only offer them the second round. If they accept this round then we let them help themselves a third round if they wish.
Q. Dress code?
A. At The Windsor it’s neat clean, tidy casual dress, no shorts or thongs.
Q. And what if afternoon tea never ends and guests don’t want to go? Invite them for *high tea?
A. Ha! Ha! That’s a good idea! In the last session of our afternoon teas we sometimes get people not wanting to leave and once we have cleared the tables and it’s approaching the end of the day we politely inform them that we need to prepare the room for dinner service.
The Hotel Windsor
111 Spring Street, Melbourne
* There is a misconception that afternoon tea and high tea are the same things, however, high tea in Britain was traditionally an early working class dinner — which explains why Australians of our grandparents’ generation referred to dinner as ‘tea’.