For me, it started with a pot of Darjeeling at Harrods. Playing tourist for the day in London, I had gone for High Tea one afternoon with some friends. Somehow amidst the plated silver tea service, the tiered tray of scones and finger sandwiches, the dainty pots of clotted cream and rose jelly, I realized I had found a part of myself — my inner Mary Crawley.
Since that time, I have become an habitué — scoping out the tea service at grand hotels and tiny tea rooms on three continents and counting. When I am not traveling, afternoon tea is a ritual my whole family looks forward to after a hard day of commuting back and forth from work and school. I am no Martha Stewart, but I like to think I have assembled some knowledge on where to find the components of a successful afternoon tea. If you are interested in building your own signature ritual, I hope this list will help.
1. It all starts with the tea. The west coast of the United States is filled with some amazing artisan tea manufacturers, and I am honored to call some of them my friends. But when it comes to my own tea habit, I shop further from home. It has to be organic, of course. And loose leaf. And I am partial to a strong Earl Grey, with a healthy, but not overpowering, dose of bergamot. I have tried every brand out there, and by far the best I have found is Arbor Teas of Ann Arbor, Michigan. They have Black, White, Green, Oolong, Herbal, Rooibos - in caffeinated and decaf varieties — and everything is organic, compostable and fair-trade. I’ve never met them, but I regularly send them fan letters with my orders. You will too. (www.arborteas.com)
2. A good tea pot makes all the difference. There’s nothing worse than steeping a fine tea in a plastic pot. Mine is by a French company called Guy Degrenne. The insulated Salam teapot is porcelain on the inside, with a stainless steel mesh strainer in the center to hold the tea leaves. It comes with its own insulated cover to keep the tea hot long enough to last through a civilized conversation. It comes in various sizes from 2-cup to 8-cup versions and is available at fine retailers including Williams Sonoma in the US. (www.williams-sonoma.com)
3. What to serve the tea in? Of course English bone china is divine. But all too often, it’s still chock full of toxic lead. My teacups? A classic set of white Denby China. The Denby Company has been making stoneware, glassware and china since they started in Darbyshire, England, more than 200 years ago. All of their manufacturing has been certified lead-free. (www.denbyusa.com)
4. Afternoon tea lovers tend to incorporate personal touches or fetish items into their afternoon rituals. Mine would have to be my silver tea strainer from the Savoy Hotel*. I stay at the Savoy once a year on family business — it’s one of my homes away from home. But when I am home, I always have this little token of the Savoy with me. Also available online at http://www.shopatthesavoy.com/
5. Scones, Scones, Scones! Finger sandwiches be damned, a true tea service isn’t complete without a good scone. If your town is like mine, you will find it challenging to locate a good basic scone — and no Starbucks doesn’t count. For emergencies, I stock my cabinet with a basic scone mix. Bob’s Red Mill makes a Scottish Oatmeal Scone Mix and has other recipes on their website. King Arthur makes 23 varieties of scone mixes ranging from Gingerbread to a classic Cream Tea Scone Mix. Williams-Sonoma carries Garvey’s Scone Mix online — and they certainly have a knack for introducing us all to the secretly cool and authentic brands. Scones are not terribly complicated to bake at home, so if you want to make your own, I would suggest BBC Good Food’s recipe at http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/4622/classic-scones-with-jam-and-clotted-cream
6. What’s the ideal spread for your warm, crumbly scones? It’s been described as a perfect cross between the cool meltiness of butter and the sweetness of whipped cream and — more than the tea itself — it is what got me hooked on Afternoon Tea in the first place. Whether you call it Double Devon Cream or Clotted Cream, you can find it if you ask at Whole Foods Market or other discerning grocers. In a pinch, you can find it online at World Market: http://www.worldmarket.com/product/somerdaledouble-devon-cream.do
7. The creaminess of Devon Cream pairs perfectly with a good marmalade or jam. From lemon curd to kiwi jelly, exploring the possibilities of jams, jellies, marmalades and conserves could take an entire lifetime. Three of my go-to favorites are Premrose Edibles’ Organic Rose Petal Preserves, (http://www.premroseedibles.com/ ), June Taylor Jams’ Seville Orange Marmalade (http://www.junetaylorjams.com), or Organic Morello Cherry Jam from Crofter’s or Le Pain Quotidien (http://pantry.lepainquotidien.com/organic-morello-cherryjam.html).
If you have yet to experience formal High Tea, you might find one in your own backyard. There are hundreds of little English and other tea rooms all across the U.S. and Canada that are only a Google or Yelp search away. However, if you have a taste for historic grandeur and a wandering spirit as I do, I recommend booking a room at one of the magnificent old hotels in the Fairmont Hotels & Resorts collection. Named after the iconic Fairmont Hotel atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill, this hotel group has been restoring some of the most historic and elegant old hotels in the world, updating them to meet the exacting expectations of the 21st century luxury traveler. Being a proud President’s Club member, I try to stay with them wherever I go — partly because most Fairmont Hotels are known for their afternoon tea service. (www.fairmont.com)
*The magnificent Savoy Hotel is part of Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, and no, I have not received monetary or other compensation in exchange for my reviews of any of the companies or products listed here :)