Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Tea at Alvear Palace

It was back in 2007 that I met Cristina. Our legal professional practices were, and remain, mirror images - both having practiced as lawyers for many years, later as mediator/facilitators. Our cultural roots were even deeper than professional ones, with similar senses of humour, occasion, politics, and intellectual outlook. So taking tea together has become an annual ritual not to be missed.

As previously, we select the Alvear Palace Hotel as our meet venue - not simply because it is one of the two best hotels in Buenos Aires, but because of its cultural resonance, a place where Buenos Aires meets London over tea.

The English arrived in Buenos Aires in 1806 then under Spanish rule, as merchants and industrialists. By 1825 Britain became one of the first countries to recognise a newly independent Argentina, and in 1939 British investment in the country was 39% of its total economy, with rail, ports and other infrastructure being funded by the English. The Hurlingham Club was opened in 1888, and in 1912 Harrods launched their only store outside London here in Calle Florida. But for the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas crisis, ties between the UK and Argentina would have been some of the strongest international links.

So it is of little surprise that afternoon tea is of significance here in Buenos Aires. There remains a strong and wealthy  'English' population here, and 'English' English is the most popular language after Castillano. They still take tea, and to do so pass English-style letter and phone boxes in Recoleta.

Our reservation is for 5.30 pm and we meet in the hotel foyer. As befits 'afternoon tea', we meet promptly in British, rather than Argentine time. 

In Buenos Aires the culture, as with the architecture, never remains static - but evolves in an organic way. So, hugs replace handshakes - not just one hug, but several. Within moments, twelve months of absence becomes but a twelve second is as if we meet on consecutive days. And so to the Orangery. 

The Orangery is a salon, similar to those of Harrods, Fortnum and Mason or the Ritz. Waiters circulate, white gloves contrasting with their red jackets. Menus are brought by a young woman in a charcoal coloured suit. These enumerate the choice of tea and question whether Champage will precede or follow the cake. Our table is large, but the room uncluttered. Adjacent tables are distant, so as to screen conversation. Today, there are no business meets, one family celebrating a significant birthday, another relaxing together, children sipping from china tea cups as if they were born to this life.

The cake tiers rise in three plates - at the top the sandwiches, cut without crust, each containing a taste delight of cucumber, smoked salmon, and other delicacies. Below we reach the cakes, small tarts festooned with miniature fruit and dome-topped dainties , almost too small to cut.

Of course we do cut the cake - that is the reason for the knife and fork, two essentials when it comes to afternoon tea at the Alvear. Fingers are for holding the cutlery, not fingering the food. 

During this account, you, my readers have been patient, for I know that the one aspect about which you wanted to read - was the tea.

I order a blue Earl Grey, for the taste equates with the experience of afternoon tea. Cristina selects a precious blend. Stephanie - for reasons entirely obvious to those that know her well - selects 'Sophie', an aromatic infusion of roses, fruits and spices. These are brought to the table on silver salvers - bearing two pots and a strainer. The hot water from one is infused into the other where it remains for but minutes. Then the infusion is returned to the original pot via the strainer, to produce the perfect cup of tea, remaining perfect at whatever stage or temperature. 

Our china cups tinkle on china saucers; our glasses of Champagne chink in a toast to health and the occasion of taking tea together. Somewhere I sense the keys of a piano, although today the salon grand remains foresaken. Conversation ranges law, mediation, history, culture, language and family. It is unhurried, and uninterrupted from any source. 

As plates empty, they are removed quietly and unobtrusively, without sensing the hand that reaches for them. We glow slightly with the Champagne that somehow reached a spot that only Champagne can. Over two hours elapse before we conclude our tea. Now the Orangery empties as residents and others return to their rooms and homes. With the swipe of a card, we leave, descending the hotel stairs to the street and a rush of warmth. Here we stroll Recoleta, its fashionable stores and fancy restaurants still open. We part in Av Gral Las Heras as air conditioners drip through evening air to the street below.