Warming up the British way at the Fairmont Banff Springs and Chateau Lake Louise
BY: Michael Mastarciyan
Après-tea: You’ve probably never heard the term before, and that makes perfect sense – because it was coined by my wife, Jayne, on a ski safari in Banff and Lake Louise, Alberta, last winter.
When I stumbled into my room at the majestic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel after a spectacular day of ripping up at Lake Louise and a few beverages at the Waldhaus Pub downstairs, I found my wife lounging on the bed in a fluffy white bathrobe. She was watching Downton Abbey on her laptop after a long, hard day of pampering at the hotel’s ultra-luxurious Willow Stream Spa (she’s more spa queen than ski queen). Quickly surmising that I probably had way too much “fun” down at the bar, my wife scowled at my sorry state. Pointing at her laptop, where Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, was having a very civilized, and very English, afternoon tea with her daughter-in-law Cora Crawley, the Countess of Grantham, she chirped, “Maybe tomorrow you should try a little après-tea instead of your primitive, beer infused après-ski ritual, dear.”
“Fortunately,” she added in a stern, admonitory tone channeling the Dowager Countess herself, “this hotel serves a very traditional British afternoon high tea.”
She continued in an eerily accurate English upper-class accent: “And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll meet me at the Rundle Lounge at 3:30 sharpish tomorrow after you get back from skiing – showered, shaved, and preferably in a proper shirt and jacket.”
Flash forward to the next day, when at precisely 3:29 p.m. I walked into the spectacular lounge. I found my wife sitting in front of a postcard window with a breathtaking view of the Bow Valley and a tea party fit for a queen laid out on the table.
“Nice of you to show up early, darling,” she said in a playful tone, with a twinkle in her eye. “We’re going to have tea here this afternoon, and I’ve made reservations at The Chateau Lake Louise tomorrow for after you pull yourself away from the mountain. I thought a little tea safari would class up your ski safari.”
Well, if you’ve heard the old saying “happy wife, happy life,” I’m sure you know exactly where this story is going. So, without further ado, let me tell you how amazing après-tea actually can be – and I say that with complete and utter sincerity. Here, then, are the culinary highlights of our two-day après-tea experience at The Fairmont Banff Springs and Chateau Lake Louise hotels.
For starters, I found out that the consumption of alcoholic beverages, if you are so inclined, can be an excellent starting point for an afternoon spent sipping exotic teas and nibbling scones, pastries and gourmet sarnies (a colloquial term for sandwiches my wife picked up from her Nanny Gilbert, who worked as a head housekeeper in Bournemouth, England, during the 1920s and 30s).
Jayne started with a glass of Moët et Chandon Ice Impérial, which is probably the only champagne in the world made specifically to enjoy on the rocks. Simply put – spectacular! Light and uber-refreshing with hints of tropical fruit, I got a whiff of grapefruit in my sip when I begged for a taste.
My boozy starter was a Matcha Martini, a magical blend of white cranberry juice, simple syrup, Absolut vodka, and lemon juice infused with pulverized White Kenya Lesla Matcha tea leaves. It was delicious – and good for you, given matcha’s high antioxidant content.
Next up was the après-tea moment every hungry skier dreams of – the arrival of the tiered dish of savoury finger sandwiches, buttermilk scones, and tea fancies (cakes, tarts and assorted baked goods).
The finger sandwiches did not disappoint. My favourites, two in number, were the heirloom tomato sandwich with bocconcini, pesto and butternut squash (a must for fans of Caprese salad) and the Waldorf chicken, chock full of walnuts, apples and grapes. Jayne’s favourite, the grilled vegetable sandwich, was a delicious concoction of portobello mushrooms, artichokes, and parmesan cheese.
Scones, the anchor of every high tea, are of the buttermilk variety at the Chateau and Banff Springs. They were served warm from the oven and included a savoury parmesan thyme creation and a sweet white chocolate cranberry scone. Both were amazing slathered with mogul-sized dollops of fresh cream and cherry preserves.
At the Banff Springs, the bite-sized sweeties included an incredible key lime meringue tart macaroon, a chocolate dipped pecan brownie that looked like a lollipop cake, berry mascarpone cheesecake and a scrumptious almond sponge cake madeleine.
At the Chateau, there was more divine decadence in the dessert department. The standouts: a chocolate cream mousse served in a pastel chocolate cup, a matcha profiterole, and something I’ve never seen before – a raspberry opera cake. It was the classic French almond sponge dessert reinvented with raspberry cream and milk chocolate glaze.
The high point of this two-day high tea smorgasbord was the vast selection of fine teas available at both hotels, which range from the exotic to a tea called Bubblegum for the little ones. Both hotels have in-house certified tea sommeliers with encyclopedic knowledge of all the teas on the menu.
We were guided by Berenice Gonzalez and Sophia Marie Crisol on our Rocky Mountain après-tea odyssey, and we are forever in their debt for opening the doors to a world of fine tea to which we were oblivious.
So, what did we sip – and what did we like?
My favourite was a yellowy-green infusion of Kyoto cherry blossoms called Kyoto Cherry Rose. Fantastically aromatic, this Japanese green sencha tea is a standout, especially if you are into floral fragrances wafting out of your teacup.
Another I loved was Egyptian Camomile, made from flowers grown in the delta of the Nile River. It had a lovely saffron colour with an exquisite fragrance.
One of the most popular choices at The Banff Springs is a garnet-coloured tea called Berry Berry. Slightly tart, with a hint of hibiscus, this tea is also perfect for letting cool and serving over ice – think of it as a gourmet Kool-Aid for adults on a hot day. I even enjoyed it once cold after a round of golf at the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Banff Springs Hotel Golf Course, but that’s a story for another day.
If you’re not big on tea but still want to enjoy the experience, the Ethiopian Mocha Pu-Erh is a perfect choice. It’s a tea that tastes almost like finely roasted coffee, with a dark chocolate and light caramel finish. We both loved it!
The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Organic Signature Blend was absolutely magnificent. Almost reddish in hue, this smooth-tasting tea has zero bitterness and a faint touch of Earl Grey.
Maple Maple is another tea you’ve got to try, especially if you are a patriotic Canadian. This tea has a distinct maple flavour with a velvety finish and hints of tobacco and butterscotch.
The Quangzhou Milk Oolong was buttery but still light and refreshing. It reminded both of us of the dandelions we picked as kids.
I’d categorize a couple of the teas as “energy” blends. The Brazil Green Yerba Mate, rich in caffeine, was a nice pick-me-up after a day on the slopes. The Lemon Rooibos, a vitamin C–enriched tea made from a red African bush, was both smooth
and invigorating. I’d love to fill a thermos with either of these for a day of hiking or cross-country skiing.
The most exotic and memorable tea was the Lapsang Souchong Butterfly. Think of this tea as a campfire in a cup with hints of bacon and oak – deliciously comforting and very Canadian, like warming up next to a cozy fire and then drinking it in. We bought some at home from a well-known local tea shop, and it’s like a trip to the Rockies every time we brew up a pot.