What is afternoon tea? We had to know.
“Afternoon tea,” according to Elaine Lemm of The Spruce Eats, “is a British food tradition of sitting down for an afternoon treat of tea, sandwiches, scones, and cake. Afternoon tea is served around 4 p.m. When afternoon tea became fashionable in the early 19th century thanks to Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, it was never intended to replace dinner but rather to fill in the long gap between lunch and dinner at a time when dinner was served as late as 8 p.m. Lifestyles have changed since those times and afternoon tea is now a treat, rather than a stop-gap.”
That’s good to know, because we have seen so many Merchant Ivory movies and episodes of Downton Abbey — and afternoon tea always seems to be a culinary staple for the genteel people populating those screen entertainments, which was something at once familiar [who has not had tea before?] and foreign [wait, there’s a whole cultural custom over drinking tea?].
With the latter, we take the unfamiliarity as perfectly understandable, since the Philippines never really developed a comparable tea-drinking culture complete with ceremonial flourishes, and although it must be said that the “tsa” has never been an alien component in our ancient pantries. But a heavy tea-drinking culture that is akin to that of China [where tea originated], or Japan [where drinking green tea, or matcha, is a spiritual experience that sometimes even necessitates a whole ceremony], or Morocco [where the Touareg tea, or Moroccan mint tea, is a symbol for hospitality], or Tibet [where the Tibetan po Cha, also known as butter tea, is a beverage popular among nomads to keep themselves warm in wintry climate], or Hong Kong [where the milk tea, actually known as “pantyhose tea,” originated], or India [where the Masala chai comes from]. The closest we have to tea culture, according to Lara Antonio of The Fat Kid Inside, is preparing salabat from ginger. Today, when we want tea, we simply dip a grocery store-sourced bag of it in hot water, and voila!
In Dumaguete, tea certainly could be had. Straight from the grocery shelves, of course, for private consumption at home. Or at most coffee shops which have them on hand, for those customers who stray from the coffee crowd. But we are very much a coffee city, judging from the proliferation of coffee shops suddenly mushrooming everywhere — from a brick-and-mortar air-conditioned cafés to small booths for takeout coffee to sari-sari stores that offer coffee sachets, Styrofoam cups, and hot water. You can very well say that Dumaguete’s beverage of choice is really coffee.
It’s only recently that tea has infused itself into Dumaguete’s beverage culture through the now ubiquitous milk tea, invented in Hong Kong, popularized in Taiwan, and now spreading like wildfire throughout the world: milk tea shops have captured our taste buds with their chewy sweet pearls and their refreshing coolness.
But afternoon tea? British afternoon tea, in Dumaguete? What a quaint idea!
Enter Dudley’s, a British tea shop located at MO Building along Calle San Jose Extension, in barangay Taclobo.
The route it’s on is on our regular way going home to Renz’s place, and our introduction to it were the inviting bright lights emanating from its posh interiors as we’d speed. Its show window promised delectable treats. We knew we had to stop by sooner or later. Plus it was near home.
We found our chance on Holy Thursday, and going in, we were immediately enchanted by the intimacy of the place, the chic finish of its decors, and the surprise of being told the whole thing was a British tea shop.
Of course, we had tea. And since it was the Holy Week, we decided to get their hot cross buns — a British raisin pastry decorated with a cross made from flour paste, which is traditionally eaten over Easter, to symbolize the crucifixion of the Christ. And since we were having afternoon tea, we also ordered their scone with strawberry compote, and their Amaretti cookie. But the best we had was the Japanese muffin its proprietor, Harija Joy Tan, offered us — a muffin filled with a concoction she invented, including Japanese mayo, bacon, and onions. It was delicious. [“Dudley’s” is taken from the surname of her British husband, Robert Dudley; which seemed appropriate since his parents used to run a meat shop with that name in Somerset.]
“My macarons are the best in town,” Joy told us.
Although a Dumaguetnon, Joy had spent the past years working in Dubai, where she first ventured into baking as a hobby sometime in 2018. She wanted to make bread and pastries, because she was amazed by how bread could go from being a flat mass of dough to becoming a structured form. For her first foray into baking, she turned to YouTube tutorials and made a disastrous batch of cinnamon rolls — but she continued on anyway, ultimately learning from some of the best bakers and pâtissiers Dubai could offer.
But baking was always meant to be a hobby — not a business. The reality of Dudley’s was far from Joy’s and Robert’s minds, even as they started considering retiring from their work in Dubai and settling for good in Dumaguete. When they prepared to move to the Philippines in 2020, the pandemic struck just a few days before they decided to tender their resignations — a stroke of luck that made possible their continued stay in Dubai, which also gave them space to consider what business to put up in Dumaguete. They settled on real estate.
But they also both wanted to build a simple tea room, because Joy had already been giving informal afternoon tea parties, showcasing her baked goods, for friends at their house in Dumaguete — and she had been getting suggestions to open up a small shop where people could just come in and buy her bread and pastries. But a feasibility study the couple commissioned informed them that not only would they have problems establishing a tea room in the city, they also would not be able to find a space big enough for the business to flourish. The tea room idea went to the shelf.
That is until something happened: a family member was able to rent a space at MO Building in Taclobo, with the goal of establishing an aluminum and glass shop with the couple. When they finally surveyed the space, they realized it was too small for that kind of business. Alas, the rent had already been paid. Robert suggested opening a pastry shop in its stead. Dudley’s was born.
“What I want to do is push the boundaries of modern baking in Dumaguete by introducing flavors, textures, and concepts that many Dumaguetnons might not have tried yet,” Joy said of her dream. “I also really just want to have a small shop where we can introduce British afternoon tea.”
She got her wish — a unicorn made of tea in a city full of coffee shops.
[Written with Renz Torres for Culinary Cuts]