Best Afternoon Tea
The sun may have set on the British Empire long ago, but one of its key rituals continues weekdays at the Biltmore Hotel. The rapacious guardians of civilization knew that whether it be the languid tropics of the colonies or the drizzly comfort of hearth and home, nothing beats a good cuppa as the day turns dozy around midafternoon. Beneath the vaulted ceilings of this grand hotel's lobby, for an hour and half starting at 3:00 p.m., the tradition continues as high tea is served. It all begins with the raw materials from a 115-year-old English tea company. A gracious attendant wheels in a cart filled with teas accented by exotic flavors that carry names like Imperial Gunpowder, Afternoon Darjeeling, and Tippy Assam. The last of these is harvested each year, between April and June, from the Brahmanputra Valley in northeast India. Off to the side a woman plays piano softly. The server pours the tea into china cups, through silver strainers that are then placed into individual silver bowls. She brings fresh fruit and a selection of crustless finger sandwiches that range from salmon to cucumber. Next come wickedly rich scones made of fluffy shortbread dusted in powdered sugar. A dish laden with whipped butter and a complete selection of fruit preserves complements the pastries. At this point, rather than risk the perils of overindulgence, pause and appreciate the beautiful orchids atop the five tables, the plushly comfortable chairs, and, of course, more of that delightfully calming elixir. The last course arrives as if by magic, a plate brimming with confections: little macaroons, diminutive lemon tarts, and mini-pecan pies. When the $15 check comes, it seems a small price to pay for the burden of being civilized.
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