Eating like a bird

Afternoon tea at the Raffles Hotel is something of an institution, and now I’ve been institutionalised.

We took our tea in the Tiffin Room, a high ceilinged hall where a harpist plays contemporary pop songs. Every few minutes this would make us pause as we attempted to recognise the melody we heard, plinking away.

I’ve been to afternoon tea in England (the Dorchester), Malaysia (the E & O in Penang) and now Singapore, and it’s only in Singapore that I enjoyed a limitless supply of cucumber sandwiches. At the Dorchester, yes, you’re waited on hand and foot, as if you were both very rich and very incapable. At the E & O, there is a beautiful view of the sea. But in both cases, the sandwiches are strictly rationed, as if they were so expensive that you could bankrupt the hotel by demanding just four more square inches of white bread and a slice of cucumber. At Raffles, as long as you keep asking, the sandwiches keep coming.

Unfortunately, just as the food is constantly replenished, so are the drinks, and I made the mistake of drinking an entire pot of hotel coffee, that black beverage consisting of caffeine and pure despond in equal measure. I didn’t feel at all stimulated by it; I just crashed severely a few hours later, wishing the world would come to an end.

That was a self-inflicted injury, but you would think the hotel would have some duty of care to its guests, to not let them drink too too much of the too too coffee. I suppose the staff were too busy bringing me sandwich after sandwich to keep an eye on my conspicuous coffee consumption.

Raffles’ munificence stretches to a buffet of extra cakes and fruits that you can serve yourself. That would be an affront to the Dorchester, which elevates laziness to the highest aspirational quality, but it does provide more value (or quantity) for money. However …

One other thing the Dorchester lacks is a group of sparrows, congregated near the ceiling of the room, and swooping down to pick up crumbs. I sauntered over to the cakes, and cut myself a slice of pear and almond pie, and was then approached by an elderly woman.

“Excuse me,” she said, “I hope you don’t mind me saying, but -”

I wondered what she was about to say. Was she going to suggest my beard wasn’t smart enough? That I’d eaten too many of the cucumber sandwiches? That I was acting improperly by having afternoon tea with two pregnant ladies? I braced myself for the worst.

“- those birds have been pecking at the edge of the cake. I wouldn’t eat it if I were you.”

Truly, England is not defeated if an elderly lady feels she has to save you from bird-bourne disease in an apologetic manner. What other nation would have inculcated such mannered diffidence, where instead of complaining to the staff about a possible hygiene infraction, you waited for people to go near the suspect cake, and then told them, as shyly as you could, that it wasn’t the best choice for them.

I felt warmed at this display of generosity and helpfulness. I felt rage at the sparrows (although not a single fly appeared on any of the fruit, so perhaps they were doing their bit to remove insect pests from the room). I felt slight worry that the staff hadn’t been on to this, but like I may have said before, they had their hands full with my cucumber sandwiches.

I also felt giddy and nauseous from all that coffee, but that was nothing a hundredweight of cucumber and bread couldn’t cure.

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