Toronto: Tea at the Royal York

Stands the Church clock at ten to three?

And is there honey still for tea?

Rupert Brooke, the English poet who penned those yearning nostalgic lines, would surely have approved of the lavish afternoon tea served Saturdays and Sundays at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York. After all, it’s been a tradition ever since the hotel opened in 1929.

At that time, “The Dowager of Front Street’ was the tallest building in the British Empire. Winston Churchill was among its first guests, and it’s been a favorite of the glitterati ever since. Queen Elizabeth has stayed here three times — in the Royal Suite, naturally. So have entertainers like Frank Sinatra and Justin Bieber, Cary Grant and Antonio Banderas.

The Lobby dazzles still with chandeliers, travertine pillars, a hand-painted ceiling — and lots of lions, sprawling everywhere from the rugs to the pedestals. Feeling hungry rather than regal, my daughter and I climbed marble stairs to the Library Bar, a large clubby space filled with an agreeable clinking of tea-cups and the gentle strumming of a guitar.

Photos courtesy of Fairmont Royal York

Once seated, we were offered a “fine selection of loose leafs [sic] teas .“ No tea-bags here. An affable waiter soon arrived with our choice, a large pot of Empress 1908 Blend. Next came the first of three courses, a crumpet, topped with fresh berries and a drizzling of butter and Grand Marnier sauce. Then a plate of finger sandwiches: lobster and mango salad, smoked Nova Scotia salmon, smoked turkey breast, and, cucumber, of course.

The grand finale, a three-tiered tray, fairly groaned with cranberry scones and clotted cream and preserves, honey and white chocolate madeleines, and strawberry cheesecake squares.

From May to September, there’s another treat, an après-tea tour — some 14 stories above ground. Way back in 1998, an employee suggested installing an herb garden on the roof. Now the 110 cooks, apprentices, and Chef David Garcelon enthusiastically moonlight as gardeners, tending the seventeen raised beds and planters. This oasis in the sky is surrounded by high rises, which shelter it from the wind, creating an urban micro-climate.

They grow lavender, calendula, rapini, kale, rhubarb, six kinds of lettuce, tomatoes, horseradish, many herbs,, and edible flowers. They’re experimenting with two kinds of grapes and a fig tree. It’s totally organic, with compost from the garden refuse. All the vegetables, fruit and herbs are used in the hotel restaurants.

Photo by Mary Alice Downie

Three years ago, a different sort of royalty moved in permanently, in partnership with the Toronto Beekeepers’ Co-Operative. The cooks helped build and now maintain six hives with their queens. (A single summer hive may contain 60,000 bees.)

The honey is harvested twice a year. In 2010, they gathered 450 pounds – and again, with the lowest of carbon footprints, took it downstairs. The hives are green, reflecting the mood of the hotel.

Several sister properties such as le Chateau Frontenac and Hotel Vancouver, thinking the idea the bees’ knees, have installed apiaries and herb gardens of their own. And so. . . another fine tradition.