High Tea at the Empress
December 4, 2007
By Andreas Schwarzer
Every year I’m on a quest to expand my horizons in the industry.
Every year I’m on a quest to expand my horizons in the industry. This year I decided to visit the historic Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia. Victoria is Western Canada’s oldest city. The city was established in 1843 as a Hudson Bay Company trading post, named in honour of Queen Victoria.
Since the summer in Calgary this year has been a cool and rainy one, sunny Victoria seemed to be a good place to spend a bit of time. Of course it wasn’t just the weather that inspired my visit; it was also the operation of the pastry shop at the Fairmont and the huge daily production its pastry crew faces. For me this was a great opportunity to be able to experience this kind of production firsthand. Once again, I travelled on my motorcycle through the Canadian Rockies all the way to Vancouver Island, a marvelous 2,500 km round trip to the Canadian west coast.
The Empress, build back in 1908, is known around the world for its afternoon teas. The ancient ritual of tea originated in China, where the making of tea is revered as an art form. Later, Japanese Buddhist monks used Zen-like appreciation of tea drinking to express their own meditative philosophy. By the 19th century, the Duchess of Bedford, who experienced “a sinking feeling” around five in the afternoon, asked her friends to join her for tea, buttered bread and little cakes.
Afternoon tea, as we know it, was born.
The Empress hotel has 475 rooms, over 600 staff and serves an average of 2,000 meals a day and approximately 500 people a day for afternoon tea. D’Oyen Christie, the executive pastry chef at the Empress and his 12 staff prepare most of the afternoon tea goodies on a daily basis. Christie immigrated from Jamaica to Canada about 17 years ago and took his professional pastry and baking training at George Brown College in Toronto. He has a passion for chocolate, which is reflected in the dessert menu offered at the Fairmont Empress: three quarters of the desserts offered contain chocolate.
Christie’s latest chocolate signature dessert is “Coastal Chocolate Delight.” It’s a dark, decadent chocolate mousse made with Valrhona chocolate and decorated with a dark and white chocolate Orca whale (see page 54 for the recipe).
One of the morning duties of the baker is to bake 750 scones, 500 for the afternoon tea alone. At 7 a.m., the morning shift arrives and starts to put together the other pastry delights for the afternoon tea. On my first day of work at the Empress, I assisted John Timpa with the afternoon tea preparation. I really had no idea just how many pastries this team produces on a daily basis. We started off by preparing 650 fresh fruit tarts. We filled the two-inch sweet paste shells with pastry cream, strawberries, kiwis and mandarin oranges. After that, Timpa glazed 650 lemon tartlets which had been baked the day before. I really liked the way the tarts were made; first the lemon custard was baked in the tartlet and, after baking, the tarts were topped with a lemon curd. This really gives the tarts a well-balanced, lemony flavour. With the tarts finished, we commenced the task of filling 650 éclairs with a chocolate pastry cream. Again, all of the éclair shells are baked the day prior, along with the pastry cream used to fill the éclairs. Luckily we didn’t have to slice each éclair in order to fill them: we used two proportioner funnels to fill the éclairs.
It is not all production work in this pastry shop: one day I helped Jaideep Tanaja prepare room amenities, a very time consuming chore. The Empress has more than half a dozen different room amenities to choose from. One example is a specialty plate decorated with white and dark chocolate whales, consisting of pastries such as tuxedo strawberries, and chocolate truffles. Jaideep Tanaja also produces mousse cakes in large quantities on a daily basis, which are used as part of a lunch buffet in the Empress’ Kipling’s restaurant (named for Rudyard Kipling, who was a frequent visitor to Victoria).
It is safe to say that the daily production exceeds 50 cakes, torts and flans. More than 600 chocolate truffle cups are also served on a daily basis, all prepared the previous day. Christie’s recipe for the chocolate truffle cups is a heavy chocolate ganache that is piped into one-inch chocolate cups (these are purchased). And we are not finished yet! The other sweet served for afternoon tea is fresh blueberry cups topped with chantilly cream – yes another 650 portions of these are required. I was very impressed with the organization and the teamwork in this union-run pastry shop (they’re part of the Canadian Autoworkers Union). Also, I could not resist sampling many of the delicious baked goods. I must have gained a few pounds during my week-long stay. This I find amazing: after being in the industry for so many years, I still enjoy tasting most of these treats, especially the yummy delectable lemon tarts. It just goes to show, you can never tire of simplicity, freshness and quality ingredients.
There is no afternoon tea without sandwiches. The Fairmont Empress has a wide selection of tea sandwiches, including smoked salmon and cream cheese, carrot and ginger, and cucumber. These sandwiches are produced in the main kitchen by two cooks who do this every day, 365 days a year. A local bakery supplies the uniquely shaped bread loaves, which come ready to be filled and cut into individual portions.
The china used for the afternoon tea is exclusively produced for The Fairmont Empress by Royal Doulton. The pattern was originally presented to King George V in 1914 to commemorate the opening of the Booth factory in Stoke, England.
To top off my week at the Empress, executive chef Takashi Ito and D’Oyen Christie invited me for afternoon tea to experience it first hand. Afternoon tea has always been a time for socializing and the most important ingredient is conversation. It was a very positive, memorable and educational trip for me and one for which I thank Takashi Ito and D’Oyen Christie and his team immensely.
I have another memorable experience from my trip I’d like to share. I was stopped by an RCMP officer just east of golden British Columbia. I passed a semi truck on a double line, and, unfortunately for me, an RCMP cruiser came from the opposite direction and decided to pull me over. This was the most positive police officer I’ve ever met. He used phrases like, “You will like this fine, don’t worry it is not as much as you think,” and gave me a big smile. After handing me the $109 ticket, he said, “Now I have even better news for you. When you pay this ticket within 30 days you get an
additional $25 off the fine and you pay only $84.00. Best of all, you get no points taken from your drivers license.”
Despite being pulled over by a police officer, I actually felt good when he drove off. What happened? Just like my experience at the Fairmont Empress, a positive surrounding, approachable supervisors and well-trained staff makes any experience a good one.
Andreas Schwarzer is an instructor with the Baking and Pastry Arts program at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. He can be reached at email@example.com
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