Christmas in Victoria, Fit to a Tea

Explore the tea-time tradition of this Western Canadian City
Christmas in Victoria Fit to a Tea

These days the word “charming” has become a little like “sophisticated.” After years of abuse and misuse by salesmen and real estate agents, it has come to imply the opposite of its meaning. That dumpy, lightless studio in the worst neighbourhood in town? It’s got charm. That 12-hour bus tour through crime-ridden small cities? It’s full of charming village atmosphere.

Save, that is, in the case of Victoria. This is a city that ought to be shrunken down into a miniature and used for toy train sets all over the world. Especially at Christmas, when the windows of the woolen and lace stores along Government Street shine like ye old shoppes from a Dickens’s novel. Double-decker buses rush by. People bustle through the sidewalks laden with packages. After a full day of serious holiday purchasing, there’s no better treat than to do as the locals do and break for a lavish afternoon tea.

The tradition of afternoon tea goes back to the late 1700s in England when the Duchess of Bedford complained about a "sinking feeling" in the late afternoon and began hosting friends for a pick-me-up snack. Like so many traditional English customs, tea was adopted by the loyal citizens of Victoria and cherished to the point that the city now hosts an annual two-day tea party in June.

Christmas, however, is when the city’s festive teas are served, complete with holiday decorations and once-a-year nibbles that cannot — and must not — be missed. We found the hottest pots in town and the tastiest treats, as well as developed several fail-proof ways to negotiate the ritual without blowing your healthy lifestyle. Buttery scones and savoury meat pies, after all, aren’t exactly low-fat fare. But there are a few easy tips on how to manage these mini meals:

Portion control: Most sandwiches, pies, quiches and cakes in a tea are served in miniature sizes. So enjoy just a few miniatures, deciding how much you’ll eat of each before you sit down (there’s usually a sample tea tray at the entrance). Then stick by your decisions.

Share: Split the mini savoury snacks (quiches, sandwiches, meat pies, small desserts, etc.) between two people, when allowed. This makes portion control all the more easier, too.

Start with fruit: A lot of teas are served with fresh berries or fruit. Eat that first to fill you up, skipping any heavy creams or sauces. Or, if you’re eating tea in a restaurant, considering ordering a side salad before you begin grazing on the miniature cookies.

Make special requests: Call in advance and see if the restaurants can help you with your eating goals. Many are happy to, especially in health-conscious Victoria.

Remember your tea: The whole point of a tea is, of course, tea. A no-calorie, hot, flavourful drink, tea will leave you feeling warm and cozy without doing one bit of damage to your eating routine.

So drink up, eat up, and enjoy the spirit of the "Teason"…in Victoria.

The Empress

Possibly the most famous spot for tea — and anything else in Victoria — is the Empress Hotel. This celebrated historic beauty pulls out all the stops for its Christmas teas, decorating its lobbies and hall with hundreds of trees designed by local businesses — look for the one fashioned into a champagne bottle, complete with celebratory balloon “bubbles”. And that’s skipping any mention of the Tea Lobby, bedecked in garlands and gilt chandeliers, where you’re seated at tables fashioned from the hotel's 100-year-old former parquet floor.

Tea here starts with tropical fruits like pineapple (a fibre-rich, safe bet) then moves on to a variety of sandwiches like curried mango chicken salad or carrot, cream cheese and ginger. The famous candied fruit-studded, rum-soaked Christmas cake, which is actually made a year in advance, rounds out the experience, as do mincemeat tarts, sour cherry truffles and the checkerboard-patterned Batenberg cake.

Book a table on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or Boxing Day, when carolers dressed in Victorian-era costumes serenade you during the tea. And be sure to ask what’s available for healthier, lower-fat or calorie options (for example, forgoing mayo on your sandwiches); the hotel is very understanding.

(721 Government Street, (250) 384-8111, tea served noon to 3:45, $54 per person, no sharing)

White Heather White Heather Tea Room

This small, unassuming but elegant spot in Oak Bay packs in the regulars, as well as repeat visitors. Why? The food. Everything is baked on-premise, usually under the practiced eye of owner Agnes Campbell, who affirms, “Anything you put in your mouth, we make.” The feel here is cozy, with lots of white linens and fine grandmother-style china.

For its festive tea, the White Heather creates traditional favourites using seasonal, holiday ingredients. Look for roast turkey pinwheel sandwiches and sweet potato biscuits stuffed with ham. Patrons also swear by the tourtiere—a French Canadian meat pie served in Quebec only during Christmas.

But you’ll want to leave room (and PointsPlus values) for a key lime truffle, homemade buns, or (gulp) a buttery shortbread sandwich called a Melt-in-the-Moment. Make your decisions before sitting down. There’s not a lot of tinkering with the menu, so portion control is key. Luckily with 22 kinds of tea, you’ll have plenty of varieties with which to pace yourself.

(1885 Oak Bay Ave, Victoria, BC, 250-595-8020, $20 per person)

Point Ellice House Point Ellice House

Don’t miss the tea at this preserved Victorian home, fully restored to its original turn-of-the-century glory, overlooking the scenic Gorge Waterway. While you can drive there, the best way to arrive is by taking the ferry from the Inner Harbour downtown to the property.

In summer, tea is served in the garden. But during December the house is where you’ll be served — in rooms decorated in period British style, with holly and ivy garlands cut from trees on the grounds. A Christmas tree is bedecked with strings of popcorn, cranberries and rosehips. And here and there you’ll find letters from the O’Reilly family (who once lived here) describing Christmases past. For example, a little passage from the boy, Frank, discusses the present his big sister gave him — a little toy boat.

To eat? Why, there’s original shortbread from an 1800s recipe, made with homegrown lavender. Start with a filling, low-fat soup like the tomato-basil, if it’s on the menu, or request a special clear soup bullion (if the soup of the day is fatty). The tea itself is, a dark Chinese blend that was researched for historical accuracy. Or try the hot tea punch — a cup of philosopher’s brew herb tea plus a cup of hot cranberry-apple or raspberry juice. Scones made with holiday pumpkin or cranberries follow, as well a mini-quiches, fruitcakes and berries. Feel free to ask for a half-tea — the easiest way to keep to your eating goals.

(2616 Pleasant Street, Victoria, BC, (250) 389-1211. Winter season: tea served from Nov. 28 to Dec. 21, Fridays and Saturdays only, at 12, 1, 2 and 3 p.m.;; reservations required. $18 for whole tea, $11 for half)

Buchart Gardens

Butchart Gardens

The No. 1 reason for taking tea at this 104-year-old home is the view, which spans over festively decked lawns and gardens, through a thicket of pine trees, to the ocean. Like at the Point Ellice house, you can — and should — arrive by ferry, which lets you step off into the wonderland of the historic grounds.

All through the house, flowers and red felt ribbons trail over window sashes and mantles. Book a table in the conservatory area with its wobbly old glass windows and a view of Jenny Buchart’s private garden. Or try a table in the main house which looks over the marbles of the Italian garden. Either way, our advice is to wait until the late afternoon when the lights on the trees twinkle on (take the last seating at 3 p.m.). And be sure to stroll the grounds afterward, where the buildings stand covered in cedar boughs, blooming with hot red poinsettias and tropical flowers.

Like at the other venues, tea comes stacked on elegant tiered silver plates. Here, however, the menu has been developed to use local ingredients whenever possible. So that’s wild-caught BC salmon in your sandwich, smoked in the Butchart kitchen. Order a green salad on the side to help satisfy your tummy then finish it with just a small taste of the berry trifle thickened with layers of sponge cake and Chantilly cream. If you’d like some help planning healthy options, feel free to call in advance. The staff here is familiar with dietary needs.

(800 Benvenuto Avenue, Brentwood Bay, BC; teas served from 1 to 3 p.m.; $26.95 a person)

And for those of you who can’t make it to Victoria this year, why not sit down with your own tea. Here are some hints to start you off!

The perfect cup of tea

  1. Start with fresh cold water and bring to a rolling boil.
  2. Warm teapot to help keep tea hot longer.
  3. Use one teabag for two cups of tea. Be sure to choose a quality blend!
  4. When water has boiled, pour over teabags in teapot. Cover and let steep for 3 to 5 minutes.
  5. Remove teabags. Pour and sip!