Their Golden Tips Tea Experience, featuring all the usual tea trimmings. Picture: Supplied.
Their Golden Tips Tea Experience, featuring all the usual tea trimmings. Picture: Supplied.

People are paying $938 for this cup of tea

There are some things that England does better than almost any country in the world. A Sunday roast with all the trimmings. Royal weddings. Books about magic teenagers saving the world. And pomp and circumstance.

 

Rubens at the Palace, a five-star hotel near Buckingham Palace in London’s Victoria neighbourhood. Picture: Supplied
Rubens at the Palace, a five-star hotel near Buckingham Palace in London’s Victoria neighbourhood. Picture: Supplied

You can sense it the second you stroll up to the Rubens at the Palace, the five-star hotel nestled in the shadow of Buckingham Palace in London's Victoria neighbourhood. A doorman in bright red livery rushes to open the - polished, gleaming - brass doors for you, doffing his cap politely. You stroll across thick carpet into the tea salon where, looking through wide windows onto the palace, you are ushered into a squishy armchair for high tea.

A towering tray of finger sandwiches (coronation chicken, cucumber, fat wedges of leg ham and cheddar cheese), scones with jam and cream and pastries, including one in the shape of the literal crown jewels, is served up to you with reverence. Like I said: pomp and circumstance.

This alone is an afternoon fit for royalty. But what the Rubens at the Palace is currently offering takes the gambit of high tea to another, delirious level. Their Golden Tips Tea Experience, featuring all the usual tea trimmings with a glass of champagne and a pot of rare, hand-picked Ceylon Golden Tips tea, is pomp and circumstance like no other. And at £500 ($A938), it's billed as one of the most expensive pots of tea in London.

Ceylon Golden Tips is a white tea grown in the highlands of Sri Lanka and harvested by pluckers with delicate hands at sunset before being sun-dried on a velvet cloth by an expert tea maker.

Rubens at the Palace’s current offering takes the gambit of high tea to another, delirious level. Picture: Supplied
Rubens at the Palace’s current offering takes the gambit of high tea to another, delirious level. Picture: Supplied

All told, it takes 85 people's work to produce a single cup of Ceylon Golden Tips.

The tea itself is incredibly rare: Tea company PMD has just the one tub in circulation, currently kept under lock and key - quite literally, customers unlock the Ceylon Golden Tips safe themselves when they book an experience - at the Rubens. In 1891, when the first lot of Golden Tips was sold, it retailed for £1260 ($2366) a pound. Today, if you want to try Golden Tips for yourself, you'll have to make your way to the Rubens.

The high tea is billed as an "experience", and it is a true one from the moment you settle into your seat. A server comes to you in white gloves to weigh your Ceylon Golden Tips on golden scales at your table. Each person receives three grams of tea, which will yield around three cups. From there, the teapot is heated with warm water so as to be perfectly primed before the leaves are submerged in just under boiling water (bottled, not from the tap).

Your pot sits for three minutes exactly - an hourglass keeps time - to ensure tea perfection.

Then, it's time to drink. "The first cup is velvety," David Silva, founder of PMD Silva & Sons explains, as we sip. "Do you notice how it hugs your mouth?"

He's right - it does. But each subsequent cup also varies from the last. The first is velvety-smooth and rich with all the luxury of a warm bubble bath after a long day. By the second, you can pick up on some of the fruitier, fragrant notes. Finally, the third cup is light and refreshing.

Ceylon Golden Tips on golden scales at your table – each person receives three grams of tea, which will yield around three cups. Picture: Supplied
Ceylon Golden Tips on golden scales at your table – each person receives three grams of tea, which will yield around three cups. Picture: Supplied

Mr Silva explains that you would never drink Ceylon Golden Tips with food. Instead, when coming for high tea at the Rubens, you will enjoy your three cups on their own. "We're so busy these days," Mr Silva says. "It's important to sit back, sip and savour."

Mr Silva is a tea man by profession and by choice. "I only drink coffee in places where I know the tea is bad," he jokes. He starts his day at four in the morning with a pot of breakfast tea and milk before switching to other brews as the hours go on.

Ceylon Golden Tips is delicious, as are some of the other brews that Mr Silva suggests for afternoon tea. Royal Jubilee Tea by Lovers Leap Estate in Nuwara Eliya - drunk by Prince Philip on his 1954 tour of Sri Lanka and, later, at the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012 - adds richness and depth to the plate of finger sandwiches.

Sipping a cup of Planters' Afternoon black, without milk, takes on a completely different flavour after a scone liberally doused in clotted cream. ("The cream acts like adding milk to the tea," Mr Silva explains. Similarly, try a tea you might usually drink with milk when eating a sandwich with lots of cheese or butter in it. Tea and dairy, name a more iconic duo. We'll wait.)

Still, no matter how delicious the Ceylon Golden Tips tea is or how ceremonious the ceremony of the afternoon tea presentation might be, is it worth almost $1000? Who is paying for such a decadent afternoon? Because, with the bountiful array of seasonal pastries, sandwiches, scones, champagne and tea, it is decadent. As well as time-consuming - because each cup of Ceylon Golden Tips is rebrewed for you, and the afternoon tea itself lasts for around three hours.

Never drink Ceylon Golden Tips with food, you’ll enjoy the three cups on its own according to David Silva, founder of PMD Silva & Sons. Picture: Supplied
Never drink Ceylon Golden Tips with food, you’ll enjoy the three cups on its own according to David Silva, founder of PMD Silva & Sons. Picture: Supplied

You'd be surprised. Mr Silva admits he initially thought he would only have to train a few, key staff members at the Rubens in how to prepare Ceylon Golden Tips. Instead, since launch in July, the demand has been so great he has trained every single staff member.

"We've had customers walk in off the street to try Ceylon Golden Tips," Mr Silva says, shaking his head in disbelief.

Malcolm Hendry, general manager at the Rubens, says around a dozen of the special packages have been sold. "That's very good," he says, noting that reviews from customers online have been glowing. "It speaks to the value in the theatre and the experience, how it feels to have the tea," he explains.

Pomp and circumstance - there's no other country in the world that does it quite like England.

"We're really shone a spotlight on afternoon tea," Mr Silva says, of the Ceylon Golden Tips experience. "And we've focused on the tea. A lot of the time, the focus is on the food. But it's called afternoon TEA, right?"

Hannah-Rose Yee is a freelance writer | @hannahroserose


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