Catherine Day and High Tea at the NGV

It lives!

Once again, I am emerging briefly from the insanity that is my work this year to give this whole blogging thing another try.  I suspect that this will be a one-off again, as my next event is only four weeks away and right now I don’t have much time or energy for cooking, let alone thinking of new recipes, but you never know.  Also, while I am boringly not talking about food, a quick admin note – I’ve recently switched to a new webhosting provider, because I got tired of waiting 40 seconds for a page to load, and figured that you were probably tired of it too.  Hopefully the site is now running a bit better, but if you notice any issues (or broken links), please let me know!

Today was Catherine Day at the National Gallery of Victoria.  This event was announced about a week ago, in honour of the current exhibition of works from Catherine the Great’s Hermitage.  Anyone with the name Catherine or Kate (any spelling, middle names count) could get into the exhibition for free.

The greatest of Catherines, in a rather crooked photo because the gallery was full and it was hard to get near enough to the portrait for a photo without someone standing in front of me!

As someone who has spent her entire life in the middle of a crowd of Catherines and Kates (and who regularly signed her letters ‘Catherine the Great’ as a teenager), with the only benefit to date being the inability of anyone to ever guess the spelling of my name correctly (a pox on all those people who call their daughters Kathryn!) this was absolutely irresistible.  So I informed my longsuffering lab heads that I was taking the day off for a Very Important Event, and this morning I hied me forth to the gallery at 10am to see just how many Catherines would show up to a Catherine-centric event.

The answer was… quite a lot.  About fifty of us were milling around the door before the gallery opened (“Is this the Catherine area?”  “Are we all Catherines?”  “Well, he certainly isn’t!”), and by the time we were gathered for a photo, there were at least a hundred, maybe even double that.  When they grouped us together in front of the big portrait of Catherine the Great, we filled the area all squashed together (“Tall Catherines at the back!” one Catherine suggested “OK, which Catherine blinked?” asked another).  It was highly amusing.  The premier’s wife, Catherine Andrews, came around and greeted us all and asked us whether we were Catherine with a C or with a K, and high fived us for being C Catherines (something tells me that she, too, has suffered from the tendency of everyone to always assume K.  I blame L.M. Montgomery).  Other guests looked at us askance, evidently not aware of the event and rather wishing they had picked another day to visit.  We were photographed by several newspapers and a couple of TV channels (nice and well-deserved publicity for the NGV), and then released into the wild to enjoy our Catherine exhibition.

It was a good exhibition.  I’m terrible at art galleries, because I don’t really understand art very well, and my interest in staring at a picture for a long time (which I think you are supposed to do) is limited.  But there were a lot of portraits and paintings of mythical figures and such, and paintings with people in them always appeal to me.  And I discovered that I do quite actively like Rubens and Titian and an artist with the unfortunate surname Duck.  I think.  I liked the layout of the exhibition, too – very beautiful, with each room painted in a different, rich, colour, and decorated with moldings in the style of the Hermitage.  I think.

(Rather than inflict my terrible photos on you, here, have a look at a partial catalogue that contains some of my favourites. I’m also rather taken with this one and this one)

There were a few paintings that brought to mind The Toast (seriously, scroll down and open some of the ones on Western Art History… and there goes the rest of your day, oops), which also added something to my enjoyment, though probably not the thing the artist intended.

But this is a food blog, not an art blog, and a good thing too, because I’d make an awful art blogger.  So I decided that what this Catherine needed after all this culture was high tea at the Gallery Tea Room.

This was a really nice little cafe on level one of the gallery, with baroque vocal music playing in the background, which is basically the ideal music for my taste, so already I felt right at home.  The staff were lovely, too, and were happy to inform me that yes, they do vegetarian high teas (though not, alas, vegan or gluten-free ones).

The menu included savouries, sandwiches, scones and cakes, and came with a big pot of tea of your choice (T2 tea, if I don’t miss my guess) and sparkling wine or a soft drink.  It arrived incredibly fast – the tea within about two minutes of me ordering, and everything else within maybe five minutes of that.

The jasmine tea came in a big glass infuser, with enough for about four cups, I think.  It was lovely, especially with the scones.

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I started with the savouries.  There were three – two hot and one at room temperature.  The mushroom tart was very, very mushroomy.  If you like mushrooms, this is the perfect tart for you.  The pastry was buttery and flaky and altogether a promising start to the meal.

The little chicken and leek pie was a bit less exciting – the same good pastry, but I could take or leave the filling.  The last item was a blini with beetroot mousse and smoked salmon.  The menu had threatened smoked eel, so I was quite please to learn that they couldn’t get any eel today.  I would have tried it, but I’m fairly sure I draw the line at eel.  The smoked salmon was smoked salmon – I am not sufficiently au fait with the subtleties of salmon to say whether it was good or bad, just that I liked it.  The beetroot mousse was a brilliant pink and had an inky, hot sort of taste that I think was horseradish.  I liked it a lot.

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Next to the sandwiches.  This high tea had, incidentally, a very British feel to it – the sandwiches were very classic, and the pastries, both sweet and savoury, likewise.

The ribbon sandwiches were great.  They were all quite plain, one or two ingredients left pretty much to their own devices, on nice, soft bread.  They weren’t trying to do anything fancy, and thus they made a really nice contrast to the richness of the savouries.  A really good combination.  There was a refreshing cucumber sandwich, a lovely egg and cress sandwich, a smoked salmon sandwich, a coronation chicken sandwich that had all the flavour and delight that the chicken pie had not quite had, and a cheese and chutney sandwich, which I had not expected to like at all and which turned out to be my favourite – the chutney was sweet and spicy and just right.

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I then moved on to the scones, which were really excellent – the best I’ve had at a high tea in a long time.  They were soft, light, buttery, and with a nice crust to them.  Just about perfect.  They deserved a better jam, though – I thought the strawberry was a little too sweet, which was a pity.

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By this point, I was definitely flagging, but this, my friends, is where the waitress came by and did the Best High Tea Thing Ever.

She asked me if she could take away any of the empty trays, and then she said “We can pack things up for you to take home if you like.”

I’ve never met a high tea that did doggy-bags, let alone one which offered them unasked, and they really, truly should.  I love high teas, but I hate wasting food – yet there is usually far too much.  One winds up weighing one’s future regret if one does try everything against one’s present despair at not getting to find out what everything tastes like (and potentially missing the best bit of the meal).  And in my case, I generally opt for future regret.  And, predictably, regret it.

So big, big points to the NGV for letting me have my cake and eat it too!  This is something that more High Tea places should do.

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Part two of high tea therefore takes place in the comfort of my home, while I wait for the cool change to arrive (seriously, Melbourne, what the hell?  This is October!).

The orange mustard tuile was basically a really fine, crisp brandy snap.  I tried in vain to find a mustard flavour in there, to no avail.  The orange was quite strong, however – I think there might even have been some very finely chopped candied orange peel in there.

The Swan was a little chou pastry swan, filled with chantilly cream and salted caramel.  Again, very good pastry – clearly a specialty of the house – but I found the caramel a little sweet.  I’m not sure what it is about some caramels that gives them an almost artificial taste (it isn’t anything intrinsically artificial, because I’ve achieved this affect at home with natural ingredients on occasion), but it had that, which was a pity.

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I’m not a fan of flourless orange cake – it’s often very dense and too bitter for me – but this one was more like a friand.  Very orangey, a little syrupy, and a good example of its kind.  Still not quite my thing, but that is my failing, and not a failing of the cake.

There was a teeny tiny Mille-feuillle, which the waitress called a Napoleon and compared to a vanilla slice.  She shouldn’t have because it was approximately 1000 times cuter than a vanilla slice, and much, much nicer – caramelised crisp buttery puff pastry with just enough vanilla cream between the layers to spurt out the other side and try to attack your hand.  Not too rich, either.  Possibly my favourite of the desserts.

Oh no it wasn’t, because here comes the black forest cake (why yes, I am typing this while I eat dessert, pausing periodically to wash cream off my hands).  The cake looked a little unpromising, what with the lurid red maraschino cherry on top, but it was far beyond what met the eye.  The chocolate cake managed to combine the lightness of a sponge with a proper chocolate flavour – I want that recipe! – and there were lovely big sour cherries in the cream filling.  Fantastic stuff.  (Also, I secretly love fake, fake, lurid red maraschino cherries, so all is forgiven on that score, not that any forgiveness was required.)

The other nice thing about the dessert, incidentally, was that all the pieces really were two or three bites, with the possible exception of the orange cake.  While I simply could not cope with them after the savouries, scones and sandwiches, they made a nicely sized little afternoon tea.

Overall, I really enjoyed this high tea.  It felt old-fashioned in a very good way – the dishes were chosen because they were classics that the chef knew how to make well, rather than because they were adventurous and new.  This is the sort of place I could take my mother in law, who is an excellent cook with very conservative, Anglo-Australian taste in food, and she would enjoy everything and be happy.  It’s a good choice for an art gallery tea house, where the clientele is, I suspect, going to be on the conservative side too.

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And, lest I was insufficiently clear, I loved, loved loved the way they offered a nice little box to take my cakes home in.  It meant that I could have a tasty lunch that wasn’t too insane, and then a nice, special little afternoon tea a bit later – extending the treat and making it far more enjoyable.  I’m even listening to my Carolyn Sampson ‘Victorius Love’ CD while I eat, to keep the whole ‘baroque vocal music with yummy art gallery food’ vibe going.

The NGV Tea Rooms are located on Level 1 of the NGV building at 180 St Kilda Road, South Melbourne.  High Tea costs $57, and no pre-booking is required.

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One response to “Catherine Day and High Tea at the NGV

  1. lucky you! I saw the exhibition (and paid the megabucks for it) and was surprised at how much there was. I’ve got some photos for the blog coming up but my favourite was that monumental tea setting!

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