Savoring the remains of the day -November/December 2010

Tea revives one in a way that no other beverage accomplishes

by: M.R. Stanton

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

There is no better pick-me-up at the end of the day than a cup of steaming-hot tea. Whether coming in from a brisk walk with the dog at Sanford Farm, where the winter wind has whipped your cheeks red, or following an afternoon spent indoors, tea revives one in a way that no other beverage accomplishes. It is soothing, stimulating and fragrant all at once.

I have always been a tea-drinker. By the time I was old enough to say goodbye to my childhood breakfast of cocoa and cinnamon toast, I switched to tea. It's likely I was influenced by my father, who was an inveterate tea-drinker with his own routine at home that involved taking the saucer from the bottom of the teacup and placing it over the top of the freshly-poured cup of tea to keep it piping hot while the tea steeped. A teapot serves much better.

Over the years I have acquired a taste for a variety of teas, from herbal chamomile at bedtime to Darjeeling, Lapsang Souchong and now my new favorite, Smoky Earl Grey, which I discovered at Fortnum & Mason on a recent trip to London.

As much as I love settling down with a cup of tea at home while relaxing at the end of the day, or even while watching the Patriots on a Sunday afternoon at home – yes, tea for me, beer and chips for my husband – there is nothing like going out for tea, or preparing a tea ceremony for friends or one's grandkids.

I remember very well the first time I "took tea." It was many years ago and we were in Ireland, staying at the very charming, ivy-covered Old Ground Inn in Ennis, the first real town outside Shannon. It was May and unseasonably warm, yet there was a fire blazing in the hearth and the promise of "Tea served from 3-5." I quickly became excited at the prospect of having a real, proper tea, in a real, proper tea-drinking country, and told my husband we'd have to plan to be back at the hotel in time for tea. He thought I was nuts.

"It's 80 degrees out! I don't want tea. Let's get a drink."

But we did have tea, and what I remember – along with sweating next to the roaring fire as we drank our tea – was the delicious brown bread and butter we were served. There is nothing like real Irish soda bread – the brown bread – not the one speckled with raisins served on St. Patrick's Day. Until John Keane opened the Hen House, you couldn't get it on Nantucket. He brought that and good tea served in a proper teapot to the island a decade ago. There's a recipe for Irish Brown Bread at the end of this story. It's easy and makes two loaves: one for you and one to give away.

Traveling to Boston in the winter I have always been a fan of the afternoon tea at the Four Seasons overlooking the Public Garden, and during December they have a Teddy Bear Tea geared toward youngsters, where you donate a teddy bear that goes to a needy child in Boston. My oldest daughter and I would always make a point of stopping there for the civility of the moment and the delicious mother-daughter time spent together, catching up over tea, finger-sandwiches and beautiful little pastries after an afternoon of shopping.

When my younger kids came of age, I tried the same routine with them, but my son balked at going out to tea. "Kevin, it's dessert. You'll love it. You can have hot chocolate." And he was sold.

Whatever you are doing, teatime with sandwiches and all comes at that part of the day when you need a little break before heading on to the remains of the day.

The English tea is an experience you won't forget. The top spot for tea is, and always has been, the Palm Court at the Ritz. It's memorable and you can expect to pay top prices – about $100 a person – for that memory. My better bet is the St. James Tea Room on the fourth floor of Fortnum & Mason, near Picadilly Circus. It's absolutely beautiful, with friendly service, soothing décor with lovely piano music and three menus to choose from. Choose your tea, or hot chocolate if traveling with kids, and then decide if you want the tea service with sandwiches, scones and pastries or high tea, which replaces the sandwiches with a hot dish such as Welsh rarebit or a savory tart.

This is a great option for pre-theater dining. Fortnum & Mason also serves a delicious sparkling lemonade, and I've included a recipe here.

It is always a good idea to make reservations for tea if you know that's what you want to do. Sometimes, though, you just hit it right, and can walk in off the street and get a table with no problem.

This spring my youngest daughter and I were in Paris and after an afternoon of shopping, which included getting some macaroons to bring home, stopped into the flagship Ladurée on Rue Royale. While we waited in line (I have waited in the past up to 45 minutes to get macaroons) we noticed that tables were open and that we could have tea while our order was filled. The French tea is different from English tea in that you have the most exquisite pastries to select. It is truly where they excel, and a trip to Paris must include at minimum a pastry a day, along with a bottle of excellent wine each evening. Plan for the Spartan diet when you return and up your exercise regimen, but don't deny yourself this pleasure.

Ladurée's dessert menu is a host of impossibly beautiful and delicious architectural creations from the Saint-Honoré Rose-Framboise, a beautiful puff pastry filled with rose-petal custard, and topped with more puff pastry, rose fondant, whipped cream and raspberries; to a simple Millefeuille Praliné, layers of puff pastry with praline cream, almond cream and hazelnuts. You'll be spoiled forever after taking tea and pastries here.

As much as I enjoy going out for tea, there is nothing like planning a tea party at home for your kids or grandchildren. It's easy to do, and doesn't require a ton of money or time. While you can bake your heart away in preparation, you can also go to your nearby grocery store and work a little magic with some store-bought pastries, whipped cream and hot chocolate.

Last winter I had such a party and the kids, ages 3 and 5, were mesmerized when they came to the table and saw the array of sweets on cake stands and fancy plates. They kept trying to sit next to the prettiest tarts. The menu was simple: finger sandwiches of peanut butter and jelly and cucumber and cream cheese, homemade miniature scones with lemon curd and raspberry jam, chocolate cream-filled jelly rolls (bought) and sliced into spirals, and chocolate-dipped strawberries. Tea for adults and hot chocolate for the kids. The caveat for the kids was they had to have sandwiches first, then sweets.

For kids, tea is all about dessert.

Marianne Stanton is the editor and publisher of Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket's newspaper since 1821.

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