An unknown author once captured the essence of the high tea occasion in writing, “Strange how a teapot can represent at the same time the comforts of solitude and the pleasures of company. ” High tea was originally as much a social, sometimes fashionable occasion as it was a light, mid afternoon snack. The Duchess of Bedford – Anna Maria Stanhope – one of Queen Victoria’s ladies in waiting, is said to be the originator of the tradition of Afternoon Tea. Her apparent motivation was to address the ‘sinking feeling’ she experience mid afternoon, in between lunch and dinner. Throughout the evolution of high tea, the enjoyment of tea lay at the centre of the occasion. Yet as High Tea experiences a renaissance, the emphasis has shifted, and the array of cakes, pastries and sandwiches that are usually a part of High Tea are most often accompanied by tea only as an afterthought.
The Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge was inaugurated by the Fernando family in Colombo in 2007 with the objective of ‘putting the tea back in high tea’. ‘Real’ is a reference to tea that is made in the traditional way, that is handpicked, withered, rolled, fermented, and baked to ensure the quality of the tea. The Challenge seeks to share knowledge amongst hospitality and culinary professionals on the style, character and variety in tea. The several thousand different natural flavours, textures, characters and distinctively different personalities of tea grown in Sri Lanka comes from a single plant – Camellia Sinensis – the near infinite variety is a function entirely of nature. With this realisation comes the understanding that tea and gastronomy are perfect partners. Not only does the tea offer a natural and healthy ingredient for sweet and savoury food and beverage, it gives Chefs an opportunity to produce inspiring pairing, with tea complementing cheeses, desserts, and food of all sorts.
Beyond the sensorial reasons for combining tea with food and beverage is a very rational one – tea began as a medicine, and modern science confirms most of the benefits attributed for centuries to tea. Amongst these, protection from diabetes, cholesterol, cardiovascular disease and various other lifestyle diseases. In this lies reason why tea is in many ways the beverage of the 21st Century. In offering protection from many of the diseases that are a part of a modern lifestyle the relevant of tea goes beyond pleasure.
The Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge seeks not to replicate decades old notions of high tea, but instead to redefine the high tea occasion, and frame it in the present context. In searching for the perfect Real High Tea, the Culinary and Tea Judges will assess contestants for the quality of their presentation, and their understanding of the High Tea occasion and its social aspects. They will evaluate the understanding of tea in terms of its brewing, the story of each tea, the manner in which each is served and how well paired with a High Tea snack. The Judges will also test contestants understanding of the versatility of tea in the quality of tea mixology, the use of tea as an ingredient and the knowledge of tea that is shared with the Judges in presenting the event.
Dilmah believes that family values of integrity and ethics and the passion for quality that a producer would usually have, are fundamental to ensuring a sustainable future for our world. The criteria for judging contestants in the Real High Tea Challenge therefore rewards the use of local produce made by artisans, and family or owner operated businesses. Ultimately the Judges will assess how pleasurable each participating team’s High Tea suggestion is, in relation to the values it embodies, the knowledge its shares, the quality and harmony of flavour that is represents.