It’s pink, it’s grand and it’s a classic. The Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel is also the long reigning queen of afternoon tea in Cape Town. From the opulent lounge with muted botanical theme, silver filigreed cornices and long table laden with cakes, petits fours and other miniature pieces of pastry perfection, you almost expect to see a saddled elephant walk by, or at least some English aristocrat with a gin and tonic in search of a good game of croquet…
Slap to the face – it’s 2015. And, I’m more interested in what’s going on behind the scenes. The kitchen is where the magic happens and it’s a team of hardworking people that make it happen day in and day out, not just one person with the title of Executive Chef – something many forget in this day of celebrity chefs.
I slip through the door to the kitchen.
The Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel Pastry Kitchen is a 20×20 meter stainless steel and tile space where fantasies become realities. Under the direction of Craig Hibbert, Executive Pastry Chef and right hand man, Pastry Assistant Gareth Flynn, it’s both busy and calm – remember, this is pastry, not sauté or grill — with mise en place, production and garnishing executed with the same precision as the piping on the petits fours.
The pastry team at “The Nellie”, as the hotel is affectionately known to locals, works on a 24-hour clock to produce the morning tea and two afternoon tea seatings. Every day they make at least 150 portions of some 36 different sweet items for the buffet table, as well as Danishes, croissants, muffins and breads for the hotel. Just around the corner is where the savouries happen: a place of intensive crust cutting to make uniform tea sandwiches and assembly of miniature quiches and pies. While the sweets are laid out on a central buffet, the savouries are brought to individual tables on stands so that the hotel can offer warm items like curry leaf fritters and mushroom empanadas.
Strawberry and apricot jams, lemon curd, marshmallow, breads, croissants, fudge: everything is made from scratch, with only a couple of exceptions, like the clotted cream outsourced from a local farm in the Cape Winelands. On any given weekend, the Pastry Kitchen will go through about 9 kilograms each of Valrhona white, dark and milk chocolate, 70 kilograms of flour, 80 litres of cream, 50 kilograms of sugar and 720 eggs (the shells are dried, crushed and ultimately go back into the garden’s soil via the Belmond Mount Nelson’s own worm farm).
The kitchen is in a constant state of production, with daytime shifts of four chefs offseason and up to nine in high season, which is summer. There are three bakers who work through the night to make pastry and bread, including several gluten-free versions. Many of the staff started working in the kitchen and have trained up; others have been schooled and worked elsewhere. Some are trainees. Craig started his pastry career at the Belmond Mount Nelson 21 years ago, then left to work in England, including a stint at the Dorchester Hotel, before returning last year.
Here’s the lowdown on the pastry buffet: there are always four cakes on the table — at the moment, they are Cashew and Macadamia Nut Tart, Citrus Chiffon Cake, Walnut Coffee Cake and Baked Cheesecake – and there are 11 different petits fours. Batches of sweets like Strawberry Marshmallow, Lemon Coconut Ice and Rose and Vanilla Pavlova fill out the buffet, along with cookies, scones, sweet loaves and sauces (lemon curd, berry coulis and chocolate sauce).
The most popular items are South African favourites, like melktart (a baked pastry case with a creamy filling), lemon meringue and hertzoggies (apricot jam and meringue tartlets). There are also traditional Malay koeksisters, which are fried balls of dough dipped in syrup and rolled in coconut.
“We keep many things traditional but also try to spice up some of the old-fashioned items,” said Craig. Case in point, the eclairs, which are filled with vanilla crème pat (pastry cream) instead of whipped cream and topped with vanilla streusel instead of chocolate. The Belmond Mount Nelson take on peppermint crisp tart, which is standard South African housewife no-bake fare, is Peppermint Crisp Slice, a petit four with layers of chocolate streusel, caramel, white chocolate sponge, peppermint cremeux and caramel chantilly, with peppermint crisp crumble, chocolate cigar and more streusel on top.
In the kitchen, everyone has their specialities. Like Nicole Matzdoff, who is the expert macaroon maker. The day I’m there, she pipes out eight sheet pans of cinnamon caramel macaroons that are baked and later filled with ganache (the other two macaroon flavours are raspberry and chocolate, and lime and white chocolate). Xolisiwe Mtshemla is dipping fried koeksisters in a sugar syrup infused with citrus and spices before rolling them in coconut. Someone else is rolling, measuring and cutting rectangles of streusel to top Vanilla Eclairs. Thin green rounds of pistachio sponges are baked, the base for the bright and beautiful Pistachio and Praline Dobos. Passion fruit ganache is piped onto strips of roulade sponge. Around the corner, quenelles of creamy egg mayonnaise are laboriously formed between two teaspoons and positioned on short croutes.
It is one person’s job to create the chocolate garnishes for cakes and petits fours, and this is done in the Chocolate Room, an air-conditioned room kept to a constant 16˚Celcius, with stainless steel drawers for each garnish, like dark chocolate with gold brush for the Passion Fruit Delice and dark chocolate cigars for Peppermint Crisp Slice.
Dietary restrictions are a necessity to cater for these days, says Craig, and the pastry team has this down, able to produce a plentiful tea that is gluten-free, lactose-free, vegetarian, vegan or diabetic friendly, for reservations made 24 hours in advance (walk-ins can expect to wait only 45 minutes). The day before I arrived, they had served a table of 6 with the following requests: one no preservatives, one no sugar, one no dairy, one no mango, one no carbs or root vegetables. Pity the poor pastry chef who only used to have to think about butter, sugar and flour.
Back to the tea, the stuff the British empire was built on: there are 20 varieties at the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel, with its own signature tea a blend of six different teas with rose petals from its garden.
Thank you to Craig, Gareth and the pastry team for letting me observe and ask questions, and for the delicious eclair I stuffed in my mouth.
The Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel serves afternoon tea daily from 1:30 – 3:30 pm, and 3:30 to 5:30 pm. Reservations recommended.