Sunday, September 28, 2014

On tea: A Tale of Two Teas

Having reached the general mid-point of this series, if you’ve followed along, you’ll have some idea about some fairly decent, mainly work-a-day teas.  It’s now time to step it up and have a look at the other side of tea (not the breakfast necessity/non-alcoholic nightcap side). 

This week I had the pleasure of going to tea with two of my besties, on separate occasions.  Hey, this is livin’!  For those who have never been to afternoon tea, the first thing you need to know is this is not a little nibble.  Afternoon tea (the whole do with tea sandwiches, scones, fruit, and chocolates) is a meal.  A big meal.  I skipped breakfast before both and was still stuffed for most of the day after tea.  You can easily spend two hours drinking and noshing so be prepared to make a day of it (I haven’t the foggiest how the vaunted Victorians ate half as much as they did in a day, the upper class ones who didn’t work at any rate). 

For definitions of “afternoon tea,” “high tea,” and “low tea,” consult the first piece of this series here

So, then, let’s get on with it. 

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You set the strainer over the cup and pour the tea through.
It catches those lovely leaves.
All afternoon tea service begins with selecting your tea.  Once you’ve gotten that sorted, your tea arrives in individual pots and you can pour (don’t forget the strainer – these are loose leaves brewing in that little pot).  Your first cup is going to be weaker than the last (and your server will likely top up your pot with more hot water at some point).  If you find the last cup too strong, try a little cream and/or sugar. 

Then the food comes around.  Every tea service has a different combination of goodies, but generally starts with tea sandwiches – usually a line up including some combination of chicken salad, salmon, cucumber, egg, and seasonal or regional specialties.  They are likely to vary from visit to visit, too.

Then there are scones.  Again, the make-up of the scone will vary.  They usually will be served with Devon cream, a thick, sweet cream that is somewhere between cream cheese and sour cream, and a jam.  You usually can’t get black currants in the US, more’s the pity, but there will often be red currant or something similar.  Fruit, chocolates, and other little pastries vary from place to place. 

Monday afternoon tea at the William Penn

Wm Penn "Palm Court" where tea is served.
Two for tea
On Monday, I met my dear Coty at the Omni William Penn, a beautiful old, Gilded Age style hotel in downtown Pittsburgh that offers a haven both luxurious and cosy in the middle of a city that can still be fairly gritty at times (most modern “high end” hotels have missed the comfort-factor for the Spartan-clean aspect, in my opinion).  I’ve had afternoon tea at the William Penn a couple times before with friends and always enjoyed it immensely.  It’s a real treat, something relaxing and delicious that makes you feel quite special. 

Tealeaves Darjeeling with sandwiches.
The William Penn serves tea by Tealeaves and as a nice consideration offers a tea chest of sample leaves so you can be really picky about your brew.  I almost always have a Darjeeling when out to tea, but they had quite a variety of flavors (including chocolate!) which were tempting.  In the end, I stuck with Darjeeling as an old favorite.  Coty selected a cherry green tea that smelled delicious. 

Sweets, fruit, scones.
Our tea service included chicken Waldorf, hummus (which I’ve never had at tea, but were a great idea), and smoked salmon-cucumber (to die for!) sandwiches.  The scones were cranberry (and warm and soft!), with a crème-fraiche take on Devon cream.  For sweets, there was local macarons (raspberry and passion fruit), chocolate petit-fours, and a lemon mousse in chocolate cups.  Sliced melons for fruit.  That raspberry macaron with very-slightly-creamy Darjeeling was one of the flavor combinations that makes your eyes roll back. 

Entirely lovely, as always!  Full marks here – 10/10 – plus a bonus point for the setting and one for the company as well – 12/10

Saturday afternoon tea at the Frick

Have your driver pull right up, our man Jeeves will see to your hat and coat!
Saturday, my awesome girlfriend Judy and I met for a girls’ day out at the Frick Mansion and Museum in Pittsburgh’s east-end.  “The Frick,” as the complex is called, stars the home and art collections of the family of Henry Clay Frick, major player in the Pittsburgh steel industry back in the day.  Without going into the history too much, they had gobs and gobs of money and liked paintings, a lot.  Frick’s daughter, Helen, frequently stayed in the family’s Pittsburgh mansion and saw to it that the house and grounds were made a museum after her passing, including her art collection. 

Requisite Victorian glass-house.
The art and car/carriage museums, glass-house, and general grounds – and the sprawling public park adjacent to the family’s house - are free to the public (car museum is currently undergoing renovations) and the house is shown by tour (for a reasonable price).  They also operate a café on the grounds in the building which was the family’s carriage house.  Like the William Penn, the Frick is a real oasis of beauty and class in the midst of hustle-bustle.  Before tea, Judy and I walked through the grounds and art museum and had a look at their current exhibition of Degas (et al) sketches and etchings. 

Ladies who lunch
I only recently found out that the Frick serves afternoon tea and having enjoyed tea at the William Penn, I was eager to try their service as well, especially as the Frick is one of my favorite places to stop for an hour or so on a quiet afternoon when I need a mental break.  It always makes me want to write something historical.  We’ll see about that.

The Frick serves Harney & Sons tea, which you’ll remember from the last installment on the Hot Cinnamon Spice (in that temporarily temporally-locked tin….)  Again, I opted for their Darjeeling and Judy had the same.  I’ll talk more about Darjeeling particularly later in the series, but to me, it is one of the best representations of the over-all quality of a tea brand.  If they do a nice Darjeeling, they probably do everything else pretty well. 

Our tea etajere included chicken salad, salmon, a sort of spicy-corn something sandwich that I quite liked, and egg salad.  Not being a fan of eggs, I passed on that particular item.  The scones were blueberry (soft and warm, again, fortunately – nothing is worse than a stale scone!) with a raspberry jam and good English cream, and the little cookies, pastries, and berries had a chocolate sauce for dipping.  Nice!  The Frick also offers the option of doing just tea and scones - aka “cream tea” or Devon/Cornish cream tea - if you’re planning to eat anything else the rest of the day!

Afternoon tea on the terrace at the Frick on a warm autumn afternoon with a fantastic friend?  It really doesn’t get much nicer!  Touring the house after tea was a great way to finish the afternoon (you need a post-prandial perambulation, trust me!)

Full marks, with bonuses for setting and company, once again – 12/10! 

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