It started as a token of hospitality to guests. With a warm cup of tea, Jennie welcomed friends and strangers to The Butchart Gardens’ flower-filled paradise. Little, rustic serve-yourself tea houses were scattered around the property, supplied with hot water and tins of tea. More than 70 years later, Jennie Butchart’s welcoming gesture has bloomed into an award-winning afternoon tea experience.

Although it is about a century too late to be personally served by Jennie, the tradition lives on in the Dining Room Restaurant. Executive Chef, Travis Hansen, explains, “Mrs. Ross, Jennie’s granddaughter-in-law, opened the Benvenuto Tea House (what the Dining Room was called then) in the original family residence in 1946 and we’ve been serving guests ever since.”

Book Now: Seattle to Victoria Overnight with Tea at The Butchart Gardens

If your vision of an afternoon tea experience looks like a scene straight out of a Victorian-era movie, stepping into The Butchart Gardens’ elegant Dining Room Restaurant might feel a little different.  While still a white cloth experience, the restaurant’s cheery, sunlit rooms offer none of the stuffiness of bygone eras.

Relax in Jennie Butchart's stunning former Dining Room. Credit: The Butchart Gardens
Relax in Jennie Butchart’s stunning former Dining Room. Credit: The Butchart Gardens

Hansen says, “Our philosophy is to be welcoming, warm and comfortable. You don’t have to get dressed up super formal to dine with us. Tea at The Butchart Gardens is designed to be more casual, like you were invited to our house.” Surrounded by a combination of potted plants and trees as well as fresh-cut flowers, the Dining Room Restaurant feels like you’re kicking back in a friend’s window-laden sunroom.

A Ritual Steeped in Tradition

The current Butchart Gardens’ chefs are vital to maintaining the quality and traditions of the Dining Room Restaurant.  A veteran staff member of 27 years and Vancouver Island native, one can immediately sense the pride Hansen feels about his chosen career path. He states, “I was born up the road and had a passion for food, so working here is a natural extension of how I grew up.”

The other mastermind behind The Gardens’ impressive tea time creations is Pastry Chef Keith Tran, who has spent a whopping 30 years at The Butchart Gardens. Tran explains his arrival as to the staff as a happy accident. He says, “I stumbled into pastry because I loved sweets. Prior to working at The Gardens, I got involved in a kitchen by filling in for someone who was sick. Eventually, I ended up in the kitchen at The Gardens. I fell in love with the process and freedom of creating.”

Pastry Chef Keith Tran (left) and Executive Chef Travis Hansen (right) are the masterminds behind the mouth-watering treats served at The Butchart Garden's Afternoon tea. Credit: Scott Meis
Pastry Chef Keith Tran (left) and Executive Chef Travis Hansen (right) are the masterminds behind the mouth-watering treats served at The Butchart Garden’s Afternoon tea. Credit: Scott Meis

Talking to Hansen and Tran reveals three things: their deep appreciation for their guests, a passion for food and an unending loyalty to The Butchart family traditions. The culinary team is always proactively working to create menus for the season ahead.

Tran explains while this process is one of the challenging parts of being a chef, it’s also the most rewarding. He notes, “The fun part is developing menus coming up with items that can potentially satisfy millions of guests. You can’t be everything to everyone, so you try to be the most things to the most people.” The key to success? Keeping the focus on The Gardens’ founders, The Butchart family. Hansen says, “Legacy is our grounding word. We strive to pick items that are going to showcase the island best while sticking to family recipes.”

An incredible amount of care and preparation go into creating these tasty treats. “One day of tea service takes approximately two days of preparation. Everything is baked in batches in the days prior, all on the property,” says Tran. Incredibly, all of the pastries are made from scratch. A gigantic mixer, four times the size of your standard countertop version, hums, churns and whirs for eight hours a day to whip up the dough for light, fluffy Swiss rolls. On the opposite side of the room, a bank of ovens stand at the ready to crisp up sheets of melt-in-your-mouth wildberry chocolate meringues.

The Butchart Gardens culinary team works months in advance to create menus that are conscientious of seasonality and vegetarians. Credit: Melissa Sitrin
The Butchart Gardens culinary team works months in advance to create menus that are conscientious of seasonality and vegetarians. Credit: Melissa Sitrin

In the summer, about 120 people comprise the kitchen staff, with 12 people on the pastry team. The group works together in a highly choreographed routine, cranking out at least 300 versions of each treat during peak season. Tran says this is one of his favorite parts about his job, explaining, “Working at The Gardens gives the staff the chance to be creative. Every year we want to come up with innovative elements while maintaining our traditional tea that was part of Jennie Butchart’s legacy.”

Culinary Magic Delivered Through Seasonal Eats

While stopping for tea is a quintessential Victorian tradition, it is also the perfect opportunity to give your feet a rest after wandering through the 55-acre grounds. The season will dictate what type of tea service you experience. Hansen says, “We want to be able to give people seasonality with the two different tea options, afternoon tea and high tea, so they can get a taste of Victoria.”

From October to March, high tea is served, featuring more substantial eats and warm, savory pastries. Afternoon tea is served from April to the end of September and is lighter, fresher and more fruit forward.

 Feast on three-tiers of tasty eats while being surrounded by a variety of gorgeous blooms. Credit: The Butchart Gardens
Feast on three-tiers of tasty eats while being surrounded by a variety of gorgeous blooms. Credit: The Butchart Gardens

No matter the season, there’s one thing you can count on to happen at tea every time: a gorgeous layered English trifle arriving minutes after settling into your chair. This signature item starts with a bed of Chantilly cream, followed by a light sponge cake and berry compote, topped with yet another dollop of cream. Simply put, heaven in a glass. While dessert may seem like an unusual choice as a starter, the reasoning is simple. Tran states, “It’s part of our heritage. Jennie Butchart used to serve the treat to her guests and we want to keep the tradition alive.”

Before you know it, the next course appears, a three-tiered platter stacked with an abundance of sweet and savory treats. House-made sausage rolls as well as a variety of sandwiches, such as Cowichan Valley chicken curry, Berryman Farms ham and wild caught B.C. smoked salmon are heaped on the bottom layer.

A lineup of locally-sourced finger sandwiches will leave you dreaming of more. Credit: Melissa Sitrin
A lineup of locally-sourced finger sandwiches will leave you dreaming of more. Credit: Melissa Sitrin

One level up lies a smattering of sweets. The treats range from strawberry lemon Napoleon to peach vanilla pound cake to a bergamot chocolate truffle, loaded into a tiny white box and embellished with a gold The Butchart Gardens logo. It’s obvious just how much love and attention goes into the very fine details.

Everything is delicious and locally-sourced. Hansen says, “I realize how spoiled we are by where we live. We partner with a variety of local producers to source our food. The chicken, ham, eggs are all from the island, within a 30-mile radius from The Gardens. I can point out their farms on the ride from Victoria to The Gardens.”

Sweet treats such as a Bergamont chocolate truffle, lemon tart, strawberry lemon Napoleon, peach vanilla cake and wildberry chocolate meringue. Credit: Melissa Sitrin

Hansen adds that he even sources some items with his own two hands, saying “I always get excited about food. I love harvesting sea urchin and prawns, fresh out of the water.” Tran adds The Gardens boast their own edible flower program, with blooms like nasturtiums, grown on the property.

On the top level of your platter lies the pièce de résistance, Butchart’s signature ginger scones. Hansen says, “Consistently our most popular treat, we serve these candied ginger scones with house-made preserves and Devon-style cream. We found the original family recipe for this scone while researching our archives.” The tea service is designed to be comfortable, with no prescribed order for eating the goodies on your platter. These tantalizing scones, however, are hard to ignore. Warm, fresh and straight from the oven, we won’t blame if you dive right into them first.

Slatter your scones with seasonal fruit preserve and Devon-style cream. Credit: Melissa Sitrin
Slather your scones with seasonal fruit preserve and Devon-style cream. Credit: Melissa Sitrin

Sensational Sips

The Butchart Gardens’ culinary team is just as dedicated about crafting their loose-leaf tea as they are about creating their phenomenal eats. With a diverse array of nine offerings, ranging from the sweet, fruity Teaberry blend, a black Ceylon tea flavored with strawberries, blackberries, currants and stevia to the floral Rose Congou, a Chinese Congou tea scented with rose petals, there is an aromatic beverage for just about any palate.

Cozy up with a cup of the delicious Bachelor Button. Credit: Scott Meis
Cozy up with a cup of the delicious Bachelor Button. Credit: Scott Meis

Hansen says, “Our most popular tea is our 100th Anniversary blend, which is a combination of Darjeeling, black Hunan and gunpowder. We created this tea in 2008 to celebrate the Gardens being 100 years in bloom.” He elaborates, explaining “We worked with a team to create this special anniversary blend. It took six months of tasting different flavors, cuppings, etc. It was a very involved process.”

Having trouble deciding what brew to choose? The helpful staff can point you in the right direction. No matter what brew you choose, the most important part of afternoon tea is just taking time to indulge in the process and enjoy the experience.

Grab a seat on the veranda and gaze out at the Italian Garden. Credit: The Butchart Gardens

While their combined experience is measured in decades, Hansen and Tran make it clear they never tire of seeing the satisfaction of their guests, as it is a key indicator of a job well done. Tran says, “I try to think about how do we create memories for people, so that even people from around the world come back to visit. When I see people taste a dessert I’ve created and their face lights up, that’s what keeps me motivated day after day.”

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Feature Photo: Lucas Anderson