I look at the elaborately set table and swallow in anticipation. In front of me lie mounds of ham sandwich triangles, enough fluffy sponge cakes to feed a ravenous upper sixth, buttery scones with homemade cherry jam straight out of a Visit Britain brochure, a yolk-bright custard flan — competing in luminance with a shiny lemon tart — plus thick slices of Battenberg cake, Black Forest gateau and fruit loaf that could seduce a supermodel.
I could be in Devon — but no, I’m actually in a Welsh teahouse, 7,672 miles from home, in Gaiman, Argentina.
The year 2015 has been full of celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the Welsh settlement in Patagonia. Tiny timewarp towns like Gaiman bear witness to the taming of the wilderness: those pioneers planted poplars to act as windbreakers, dug irrigation canals along the length of the Chubut River and explored the harsh interior in adventures John Wayne would be proud of. They also consumed copious amounts of tea.
As there were no public places to meet, the settlers remained on the pews after Sunday service to chat and gossip, drinking tea and downing an assortment of cakes brought by every family. This tradition was cemented when twee tearooms started springing up, all decorated with red dragon flags, daffodil drawings and gushy picture postcards pinned on ornate maps of Wales.
One of them, Gaiman’s Ty Te Caerdydd (Cardiff Tea House), is celebrating another kind of anniversary this month, for 25 November 1995 was the greatest moment in the history of Patagonian teahouses — maybe even the Welsh colony itself. This was the day Diana, Princess of Wales, arrived in Gaiman and popped in here for a cup of tea.
The owner, Miguel Angel Mirantes, is of Spanish descent but “you’ll find Welsh blood if you look,” he says, as I listen to his reminisces distractedly, one eye firmly on those sponge cakes.
“She was supposed to spend here only 45 minutes, but ended up staying for two hours,” Miguel tells me with a tinge of wistfulness. “It was the garden that impressed her. ‘So green,’ she kept saying. Unlike anything she’d seen in Patagonia.”
I was also taken in by the grandeur of the walled garden. The lush, landscaped interior seems almost obscene compared to the arid steppe extending for an eternity only a few miles out. Diana liked the roses so much, she had one cut for her before she left.
The guestbook lies on a cherrywood lectern by the entrance next to a makeshift Diana shrine. I look at her signature; she got the date wrong. “She signed 26 November, but it was really the 25th,” says Miguel and smiles awkwardly.
He then leads me to a corner cupboard, where a phial containing the royal leftovers has pride of place along with the — still unwashed — teacup she used.
Miguel is still engulfed in the memory: “She was remarkably accessible, relaxed, calm. She was also a guest from far away made welcome in my own home. It all left a big impression on me. Everyone now comes here to talk about the princess.” He pauses for emphasis. “Up to 8,000 visitors per month.”
And on that high note, I’m unleashed unto the pastries.