How a hungry duchess launched a tradition that brought us today’s Texas tea rooms
Like a warm hug, a cup of tea can be transformative, and we can only imagine that for Anna Maria Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, it seemed the perfect answer to her frustration with the Victorian era’s late evening dinner hour.
As the story goes, Russell found she got hungry in the late afternoon — too hungry to wait for dinner — so it was arranged that a small meal of hot tea, sandwiches and sweets be served in her chambers at about 4 p.m. each day. Not surprisingly, Russell’s friends thought this was a good idea, and soon the practice became an important part of British life and eventually evolved into the event we know as afternoon tea.
Because this light repast would have been served in a salon atmosphere off low tables and was sweet in nature, it came to be known as “low tea” or “sweet tea.” A different sort of meal — much heartier and laid out on a more elevated table or counter — took on the name “high tea.” Sometimes referred to as the “working man’s supper,” high tea was usually served at about 5 p.m. after a farmer or laborer had come in from a hard day of physical activity. Ample quantities of hot tea were, of course, an integral part of both high and low tea.
Perhaps it was the alleged aristocratic origins that made afternoon tea the subject of much etiquette rigor, but eventually the tea table of the 19th century became the litmus paper used to distinguish one’s place in society. Victorian mothers would often invite a prospective daughter-in-law to tea as a type of audition to see whether the young lady had been adequately schooled in social graces.
How wonderful that today, especially on the Texas coast, there are numerous opportunities for enjoying both high and low tea in a relaxed and cordial manner. On Galveston Island, the Sunday afternoon teas introduced last year by historic downtown hotel The Tremont House proved such a success in their inaugural year that an expanded program offering weekend packages will begin in March.
“Afternoon tea is a wonderful fit for Galveston,” said Christine Hopkins, a spokeswoman for The Tremont House. “Not only do our hotel guests enjoy taking time out from their travels to relax, listen to live harp music and enjoy tea amid the special ambience that only a historic site like The Tremont House can provide, but a surprising number of our local citizens also are finding it a very pleasant way to meet and socialize on a Sunday afternoon.”
Based on the classic British style for a three-course afternoon tea — savories, scones and sweets — The Tremont House’s tea menu includes a variety of salads, sandwiches, breads and pastries, plus an assortment of teas from which guests can choose. Champagne, wine and mimosas also are available for an additional charge.
Elsewhere on the upper Texas Coast, there are a number of tearooms with a faithful following. Holly Berry Tea Room in League City, with its fresh bright décor and polished wood floors, is a local favorite, and the peach tea and sampler plates receive high marks.
Also in League City, the recently opened Tea House Under the Oaks offers storybook charm and traditional tea sandwiches, homemade scones and sweets. Amid an interior of picture-perfect pastels, tables are set with linen and fresh flowers, and display cabinets throughout showcase a collection of dolls, ceramics, teapots and china.
“As a child, I dreamed of being a chef,” said owner Jessica Geary, who grew up in El Salvador, where afternoon tea also is a popular activity. “Now, I am happy being the owner of a tea room in Texas and having a fabulous chef who cooks much better than I do.”
In addition to a basic afternoon tea menu, for which she used her Irish husband and his German mother as resources, Geary’s own multicultural background is evident in the additional dishes she and her chef, Kelsey Lowe, a League City native, have put on the menu. South American, Mexican, Greek, Italian and Asian influences are seen in soups and salads, and the duo also will work with customers to create vegetarian and gluten-free items.
Here are a few tea guidelines that may come in handy:
• Lemon should be provided in thin slices, not wedges.
• Don’t serve cream with tea, only milk.
• Milk and lemon added to the same cup will cause the tea to curdle.
• Don’t squeeze a tea bag as this may cause the tea to become bitter.
• The “pinkies up/pinkies down” debate is considered obsolete by many so do what’s comfortable for you.
• Some people still hold that it’s uncouth to refer to “taking tea.” One can, however, very properly brew tea, serve tea, pour tea, have tea and enjoy tea.
Tea comes in six basic varieties — white, yellow, green, red, oolong and pu-erh or black. The differences in these teas are dependent on a number of factors, including the type of tea, when it’s harvested and how it is handled from that point on. Caffeine content varies by tea. Herbal teas are not true teas, but rather infusions or tisanes, and their handling may vary widely.
All tea experts agree that tea is best when left in its whole leaf state. As tea leaves are cut, broken or crushed into smaller and smaller pieces, flavor is lost and the cut surfaces can allow bitter tannins to escape when the tea is brewed. Commercially packaged tea bags contain the smallest of pieces.
Different teas require different brewing methods. Extremely hot water should not be used in brewing the milder teas, but is essential with dark teas. Microwaved water is never a good choice for brewing any type of tea.
The flavor of any tea is maximized by starting with freshly drawn cold water, allowing about 6 to 7 ounces per serving. While the water is heating, pre-warm the teapot with a bit of extra hot water. Heat the water for the tea to the desired temperature for the type of tea chosen — this will usually be just as it starts to boil — but don’t overheat, as this will deplete the oxygen in the water and make the tea taste flat. Empty the teapot of the warming water, and refill immediately with the boiling water, then add and gently stir in the appropriate amount of loose tea leaves — 1 to 2 teaspoons for each serving — for the number of people being served. Let brew 3 to 10 minutes, depending on the tea variety and the strength desired. Serve promptly with milk or lemon, and sugar or honey.
Cranberry Orange Scones
Courtesy of The Tea House Under the Oaks in League City
3 cups self-rising flour
½ cup sugar
½ cup butter, cold
1 cup buttermilk
¼ cup orange juice, with pulp
1 cup dried cranberries
Mix flour and sugar thoroughly. Cut in butter evenly. Add buttermilk and orange juice. Mix slightly. Add cranberries and mix only enough to distribute through the dough.
Very gently transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and flatten lightly into a circle. Cut into small triangles with about a 2-inch base.
Place on a parchment covered baking sheet and bake in an oven preheated to 400 F for 12 minutes.
Serve with jam and a clotted or Devonshire-style cream or whipped cream.