Tea became the rage in England in 1662, when Charles II, nicknamed "the Merry monarch," married the Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza. As part of her dowry, she brought with her to England a large chest of tea, drunk in China for millennia, but newly introduced in Europe. It was so expensive, only royalty could afford it, but the servants would sneak used tea leaves out of the palace and re-brew them, and before Jack could say Flash, it became a national obsession that continues more or less today, according to The London Ritz Book of Afternoon Tea.
. By 1773, the British were making money from taxing tea, but American colonists would have none of it, and thus, the Boston Tea Party launched us on our own national obsession with its alternative, coffee.
Meanwhile, in Britain, tea time became a more and more elaborate ritual, usually taken between 4 and 6 p.m., and designed to enliven the long, dull space of time between meals, according to the book. Americans for many years eschewed the strict culinary rituals associated with English tea time, but now we seem to be developing a new interest in it, more as a light lunch, rather than at its conventional time in the afternoon or early evening.
In the interest of promoting such a healthful drink, allow me to suggest a few places that offer a leisurely tea with all the frills.
Rosemary Cottage Tea Room
This tea house has cultivated an enthusiastic following among the chic socialites and savvy businesswomen of Tampa. Its front section serves as a boutique, displaying a whimsical selection of tea gear, fancy Christening dresses for children, knickknacks, books and Victoriana.
The restaurant is located in the back. Owned by Angela Heath and Beth Andersen, it does three tea sittings per day, with a fixed menu that changes weekly and costs $12.95 per person. Its decor is a creative mishmash: funky old chandeliers, rose petals strewn upon tables, lace curtains and cloths and unmatched Victorian-style pieces of indeterminate ancestry.
Make reservations well ahead, especially on Fridays and Saturdays, which are heavily booked. On a recent day, I tried the 1:30 p.m. sitting, where they served Southern Lady brewed tea; an excellent chicken salad set on croissants; traditional English cucumber sandwiches — crustless and sprinkled with herbs — and a ball-shaped spinach concoction; and orange-almond scones, served with Devonshire cream, an English specialty similar to whipped cream. We finished with meringue cookies swathed with cream and raspberry jam, and a single, tiny bite of eggnog creme brulee topping a graham-cracker crust.
Its feature drink is pretty close to authentic since the chef brews it fresh from real tea leaves rather than using the subversive tea bag, which among aficionados is considered an unacceptably hopeless concession to convenience and a serious breach of culinary etiquette.
Ladies like Rosemary Cottage Tea Room because its structure enforces a leisurely meal; they are not saddled with a huge, calorific pile of food; they get to talk with their friends in a pretty, civilized place where they can shop afterward.
Inn at the Bay Bed and Breakfast & Tea Room
A comfortable bed-and-breakfast that doubles as a tea house, the Inn at the Bay sits right downtown in St. Petersburg, providing a nice stop during a shopping expedition or visit to one of the city's museums.
Owners Dennis and Jewly Youschak, innkeepers, do all the cooking and serving, providing guests with a friendly, chatty snack in the compact dining room set at the front of the inn.
It has a simple, modest feel to it, with a few tables covered in deep green cloths, surrounded by big windows looking toward the quiet street, and a sitting room with comfy couches and chairs.
The day we took tea there, Mrs. Youschak brought us our choice of different teas, from herbal to English Breakfast Tea, brewed from loose tea and strained in the kitchen. The drink arrived in little pots, followed by chicken salad finger sandwiches; cucumber sandwiches; apricot scones with clotted cream; and a new, one-bite dessert she was experimenting with that was made with peanut butter and chocolate. Delicious. It cost $12 per person.
Tea time is a social affair. Part of its charm is its slow pace, which is dictated in equal measure by custom and in the way the food is served: It arrives on a two- or three-tiered tea caddy, with each course set on a plate located on a different level of the caddy. (Yes, it is similar in function to a golf caddy, as it allows one to carry a number of items using only one hand.)
In the proper spirit of tea time, Mrs. Youschak took a few moments to chat, explaining how she and her husband bought an old boardinghouse located in a big, three-story mansion that was built in 1910. They spent two years renovating, and now operate it as an inn with 12 guestrooms and a big garden out back. In the mornings, the tea room doubles as a dining room where inn guests may breakfast before sporting about St. Pete.
Oxford House Tea Room This tea room also spotlights an historic home, built in 1860 by early residents of Tarpon Springs. Diners may sit on its big, double-decker porch, or inside, at tables covered with cloths done in colorful, floral motifs. Antique quilts hang upon the walls, and big, heavy breakfronts hold the dishes associated with tea time.
Oxford's menu is more comprehensive than the other tea rooms', offering a good selection of light sandwiches, soups and salads in addition to two versions of "tea."
We passed on the "cream tea," hot or cold tea and a simple scone with preserves and Devonshire cream, along with assorted tea desserts ($5.95). Instead, we ordered the more comprehensive "Afternoon Tea for One" ($10.95).
The tea room offers 35 different types of tea, the hot variety accomplished with tea bags, but brought in a teapot; when you order it iced, it comes, frigid, in a glass goblet. We had trouble choosing which tea might do, as there's everything from jasmine to Ceylon decaf to flavored black teas, like Indian chai.
That day, the restaurant featured a cup of broccoli soup; scone with Devonshire cream; ham salad and chicken salad finger sandwiches; and three types of desserts, including a tiny wisp of lemon square, one bite of chocolate pudding and a single pecan ball.
The pecan ball was my favorite, made from a buttery dough punctuated with pecans, and then rolled in powdered sugar. It has such an interesting texture, crunchy nut versus crumbly dough.
For years during my childhood, we made them by the dozens for friends and family, leaving clouds of powdered sugar in our wake. And on Christmas Eve, that starry-eyed night in the life of a kid, we left a snack of pecan balls set daintily upon a tiny plate near the tree for Santa, along with a hot cup of tea. Contact Sara Kennedy at sara.kennedy @weeklyplanet.com or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.