There is a pride and distinction among tea drinkers-and they do not hesitate to describe their first cup of tea!
I was introduced to the world of tea during my childhood in Bermuda. On that island full of British customs, an elderly Mum by the name of Gussie invited me to join her for a “spot of tea and crumpets.” Believe me, it wasn’t the tea I was going for- it was those English cookies called crumpets. But Gussie had me hooked: hooked on the pretty teapot, the real-china set and the enchanting stories. And thus, I experienced the transformation, the enlightenment, the spiritual awakening that come to those who sip this mystical brew; I became a tea drinker for life.
My ongoing experience with tea, however, was probably like most of us: buy a box of tea bags at the grocery, plop the bag into a mug of water, microwave it for a minute or two and off you go. Well, hang on tea drinkers. Let me introduce you to the real world of tea.
In our area-and across the country-tearooms, shops, bars and salons are growing in number. I began this tea journey on the northshore, followed by a quick trip across the lake to visit the créme-de-la-créme, The Ritz Carlton and The Windsor Court hotels.
Andree Fortier, owner of Covington’s Le Petit Chou Chou and instructor of Delgado’s course, “Taking Tea,” was the first stop in my travels. I knew Fortier was a whiz in the pastry kitchen, so I presumed her crumpets had to be better than my dear Gussie’s. In her historic train-depot café, Fortier educated me in preparing the proper pot of tea: warm the teapot with hot water; heat fresh cold water; discard water in teapot; place one teaspoon of loose tea per cup in the teapot; pour boiling water over tea leaves; replace lid and steep three to five minutes for black tea, four to seven minutes for Oolong or red tea, and two to five minutes for green or white; and pour tea through a strainer held over the cup. Fortier not only served scrumptious sandwiches and scones- she also provided recipe handouts.
My next destination was the English Tea Room in Hammond, owned by Tim Lantrip and managed by true English natives, Stephen and Nicky Thomson. The name speaks for itself, as it offers the amenities of an authentic English tearoom, with shelves adorned with English teapots, china and tea accessories. The Thomsons are sticklers about serving a proper English tea; every table is decorated with English china. A three-tiered cake stand is presented with cheese savories on the bottom, finger sandwiches on the second ring and mini-pastries topping the tray. Nicky prides herself on the ambiance of the tearoom. “Everyone loves it here. They like the fact it’s small, like coming into someone’s home.”
Be sure to ask Nicky about the Mad Hatter tea parties, and visit staging.englishtearoom.flywheelsites.com for an encyclopedia of tea facts. Lantrip and the Thomsons are excited about their new combination Tea Room and English Inn opening this summer in Covington on Rutland Avenue.
My next stop along the path of tea kingdoms was Vianne’s Tea Salon and Café in old Mandeville, owned by Michael and Kerri Blache. As you stroll into Vianne’s gingerbread-style cottage, the world of tea comes alive. The Grand Salon honors the English and French tastes, while the Oriental, Russian and Turkish rooms capture their own sensibilities. Inspired by her visits to European tearooms, Kerri’s mission statement and menu blend together in a cadence of poetry. She invites her patrons to escape their busy lifestyle and enjoy the serenity of a pot of tea, or share a stimulating discussion with others. Vianne’s chef, Valerie Stafford, is equally passionate about tea, and blends the herb with the foods she prepares. She says, “We built a bistro-style menu witch has an international appeal that complements the teas.”
As the food brings a new dimension to Vianne’s customers, so do the monthly salons. Like the tea salons once used in France, they offer an opportunity to engage in the art of conversation with noted authorities on many different topics. The first salon, “Influence of 18th Century European Salons on Political Discourse,” was led by Michael Jones, who has a doctorate in history. More than 30 participants enjoyed the evening, including the gourmet teas and desserts. Check www.viannes.com for details on upcoming events.
Another key element in the art of tea is the social appeal, and teas at New Orleans’ Ritz-Carlton and Windsor Court hotels rank among the best in the country. The Ritz Lobby Lounge sets the stage for a refined tea among turn-of-the-century antiques, with a harp’s majestic music soothing the senses. Our server was most cordial with a Champagne greeting; he detailed each serving of our savory treats. The table was graced with gold-rimmed china, silver cake tiers and lion-head crystal and silver, the Ritz-Carlton’s mark of distinction. After a grand afternoon, relax and celebrate with cocktails on the exquisite Ritz patio.
The Windsor Court Hotel brings a more European flair to Le Salon. The walls are draped with 16th and 17th century paintings of noble patrons savoring tea. A trio of classical musicians serenades Windsor guests with heavenly music. Our gracious server and tea connoisseur guided us to peach mango, a superb full-flavored herbal tea served in Wedgwood china. The Windsor Court tea truly redefines elegance and artistic pleasure.
All of the hosts in my tour of this stately ritual we call tea were very generous with their knowledge, teas and pastries as they introduced me to a new dimension of culture and inspiration. As author Henry James once said, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”