Tea at the deli, the pub, the cafe …..

White fine bone china
White fine bone china
Striped teapot for one with cup beneath removed
Striped teapot for one with cup beneath removed

I have now been visiting, reviewing and recommending good tea rooms for over twenty years. In that time, the question of what a tea room is, is one that I have often been asked to comment upon. Today, more than ever, this is an interesting and multi-dimensional question. Let’s start, however, by going back in time as history can help us to understand where we are today and, perhaps, why.

According to britainexpress.com tea shops originated at The Aerated Bread Company where, in 1864, the manager began to serve food and drinks to customers; she gave tea to those she favoured so the story goes. This began a craze and they quickly popped up all over Britain. In those times, of course, they provided a safe haven for women to meet with their friends unchaperoned without loss of reputation. Going back even further, however, coffee houses were responsible for the introduction of tea as early as the 1600s. Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org) cites Thomas Twining as opening the first known tea room in 1706, at 216 Strand, London. Already you see we have different names for places where tea and food may be served; tea shops, coffee houses, tea rooms. Herein lies the multi-faceted factor and may begin to address the dilemma of what a tea room is. Most dictionaries seem to define the term tea room as small cafe or restaurant serving tea and other light refreshments. Some also say these are also known as tea shops.

When I began my research into tea rooms of Britain (and sometimes further afield), I felt I needed to consider not only the above factors but, also, what potential readers would be looking for in a tea room. As well as having been asked the question, “so what IS a tea room?” myself, I have also asked the question of many other people to ascertain their views on the subject. The answers have been as interesting as they have been varied. Some consider a tea room a very traditional affair with lace tablecloths, fine bone china cups and saucers, classical or 40s music playing, table service, loose leaf tea and glorious cakes, whilst others may have a wider view that incorporates delis that serve good tea and good food; chic, modern and comfortable places where they can meet with friends. What I have found over recent years is, as new tea rooms emerge, the values remain traditional but the set up may vary. There has been great interest recently in all things vintage and shabby chic; this has provided popular for many establishments and makes a great style. Interestingly, thinking about the safe haven for women back in history, many offer a haven for parents with young children; a safe place to go with young children, meet up with other parents or simply feel comfortable on your own as a man or woman.

What I have found fascinating over, perhaps, the last 8-10 years is the emergence of deli tea rooms. At one time delis were largely places to buy quality food and drinks but not a place to consume them. Nowadays, the deli tea room, or cafe, seems to be ever growing in popularity and most that I have visited serve wonderful food and loose leaf teas. With a range of home baked cakes always on display also, it would be hard to argue that these were not, in fact, tea rooms in all but name. I have also visited a number of places such as converted pubs serving a range of food, including cakes, that serve loose leaf teas as standard. Though these may not be considered tea rooms, they certainly seem popular and are holding up the torch for good tea in food establishments, which I applaud. On Twitter, @brewteapub is taking tea drinking seriously by raising funds to open somewhere with the feel of a pub that serves loose leaf tea by the pot, alongside tea cocktails; now that’s innovation.

History has shown us that tea rooms, cafes, tea shops, coffee houses have in common the serving of fine food and drinks. In the 21st Century we are continuing that trend, whether we call it a deli, tea room, cafe … And then, of course, there is the pop up tea room, which is another whole blog in itself . . .

A quick word about tea

Sri Lankan Teapot and caddy
Sri Lankan Teapot and caddy

Sometimes my blogs are for making a pot of tea, sitting down and relaxing over. Others, like this, are a quick read but please do still have a cup of tea because having a cup of tea whilst reading a blog about tea is, frankly, the only way to go.

So, a quick word (or two) about tea. The more I read about tea, the more tweets there are about tea, the more I try different teas, the more I learn about different tea customs and traditions, the more I fall in love all over again and am inspired to try even more, learn even more …

What inspires you about tea?

If I could share a pot of tea with ..

Pottery teapot with cups and saucers; just enough for two.
Pottery teapot with cups and saucers; just enough for two

I have asked the question, “If I could share a pot of tea with ..” to a number of different people via Twitter. I posed four questions:

Who would you want to share a pot of tea with?
Why this person?
Which tea would you choose?
One question you would put to them.

It was brilliant to read the varied answers and I felt I learnt a little of the contributors through their choices.

Starting with Northern Tea Merchants – http://www.northern-tea.com @TeaMerchant
“It would have to be Stephen Hawking because of his amazing mind and, therefore, we would need the largest pot of tea. We would need to drink something quite heavenly so I’d choose a high grown Chinese Green Tea from the Wuyi mountains so that it would have a bit of character. I would have so much to ask him but would start by asking him about the trousers of time and whether they were flares : )

Rutland Tea Company – http://www.tea-time.biz @RUTLAND-TEA-CO
Would share a pot of tea with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, as the greatest engineer. Sikim tea would be the choice of tea. And the question? What was his favourite engineering discipline – railway, ships, bridges, tunnels?

Anne Mulhern, owner of The Willow Tea Rooms – http://www.willowtearooms.co.uk @willowtearooms
Anne would share a pot of tea with Charles Rennie Mackintosh because she loves his work and it would be just amazing to spend time with him, talk to him and hear his thoughts on why he did what he did. The tea would be Pekoe Tea – this was CRM and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh’s favourite tea and is one of the blends of Willow Tea Rooms.  Charles and Margaret enjoyed this tea with a meringue (Willow’s signature cake). The question Anne would ask is ‘What is the favourite building that you designed and why?’

Photographs courtesy Anne Mulhern – Willow Tea Rooms

Willow Tea Rooms - Owner Anne Mulhern and waitress Kendal Morgan.
Willow Tea Rooms – Owner Anne Mulhern and waitress Kendal Morgan.


Sarah Bailey – author of the CookerEbook http://www.facebook.com/pages/sarahs-cooker-ebook/207009059423702 @layingthetable
Sarah would like to share a pot of tea with Jenny Eclair and says this is “because she is someone I could sit down with over a pot of tea for a good old natter and a laugh. In her zany way Jenny talks a lot of sense.” Sarah would choose Iron Goddess of Mercy Tea and would ask Jenny; “Can you think of a better way to put the world to rights than over a shared pot of tea?”

Little Yellow Teapot – a little yellow teapot that tries new teas and reviews them http://www.accargill.wordpress.com @LittleYelloTpot
“I would share a pot of tea with me Mum, who was a British made fine bone china teapot and alas did not survive an ocean voyage to go visit the folks back in the old country “across the pond.” Why: She taught me everything I know about steeping a good cuppa for my humans, so I’d like to show her that I had learned well.
Tea: Lots of options here. For Mum, it was usually a good strong English Breakfast blend, but I think she’d like a nice roasty oolong or even a Second Flush Darjeeling.
Question: “Mum, why did you think you could go waterskiing behind that big ship?”

Barbara Howard – collector of and blogger about tea towels http://www.myteatowels.wordpress.com @myteatowels
“I’d share a pot of tea with Audrey Hepburn because I found her to be an enigma and delightfully charming. I can imagine her drinking out of fine bone china cups. We’d have Lady Grey tea and my question would be how did she keep so slim?”

Brenda Flannery – Independent Tea Consultant http://www.mysteepedtea.com/enjoymyteas @flannery-brenda
Brenda would share a pot of tea with her husband on Valentine’s Day. The tea would be Cinnamon Hearts and she would ask him; “do I still make your heart flutter?”

Croft Tea Room – a catering social enterprise http://www.crofttearoom.co.uk @crofttearoomcic
Croft would share a pot of Lapsang Souchong Tea with Muhammed Ali because he was an inspirational and principled fighter in and out of the ring. The question to him would be; “would you do anything differently?”

I would be happy to add to the blog and look forward to hearing from more contributors. In the meantime … from me
Margaret Thornby – tea room researcher and loose leaf tea only kind of woman http://www.teastuff.wordpress.com @TearoomGuide
I would share a pot of tea with Anne, Duchess of Bedford, because she is recognised as the creator of the British tradition of Afternoon Tea. We would share a delicate Margaret’s Hope, my namesake, (Darjeeling Tea) and I would ask her if her lifelong friendship with Queen Victoria was nurtured over tea.

From D to TEA – the tea exchange

I like having fun with words, especially if they are words associated with tea. With this in mind I am creating my own tea dictionary. “From D to TEA – the tea exchange” is about swapping the first letter of a word to make it TEA, for example DELICIOUS would become TEALICIOUS, with the meaning ‘a good pot of tea’. So, here goes with my list for today. If you would like to tweet or comment with your own, please do so. Have fun.


TEACON – a minister of tea

TEALERSHIP – a tea franchise

TEATOX – drinking tea to flush away the trials of the day

TEABATED – talked heatedly about tea (over a pot of tea, obviously)

TEACANT – the art of pouring tea from pot to cup

TEAFLATED – travelling miles to a recommended tea room only to find it is now a burger bar

TEAFUSE – the art of calming a situation down (over a pot of tea, obviously)

TEAGENERATE – leaves left in caddy with metal spoon (go back to tea lessons)

TEAHYDRATED  – not had a cup of tea for at least two hours

TEALAYED – tea order hasn’t arrived

TEALECTABLE – good quality tea

TEACOY – lure someone away with the promise of a cup of tea

TEACREE – order that someone must drink at least 4 cups of tea a day

TEADUCE – work out the tea you are sampling by smell and taste alone

TEADED – left all tea and tea paraphernalia to friend in will

TEAFEND – sticking up for your local tea room

TEAFIANT – sticking to loose leaf tea because its what you love and believe in

TEACATHLON – trying 10 different teas in a 2 days (no problem)

TEACEIVE – telling customers you sell loose leaf tea when you don’t (grr)

TEACENT – keeping to the standards of behaviour expected for Afternoon Tea

TEACLARE – admitting you love tea (go on, you know you do)

TEACIDE – agree on where to go for tea

TEACLINE – turn down the offer of a cup of tea (highly unlikely unless it was just plain bad tea)

TEACOMPOSE – the art of composting your tea leaves

I do hope you enjoyed this light hearted tea dictionary? Watch out for more exchanges – maybe F will be next, or B, or R . . .

Not for all the tea in China . . .

I was sitting in a tea room today when I heard one young woman say to another:

Oh no, I wouldn’t go out with him; not for all the tea in China. No way.

I had to smile to myself though the thought that she was 18 going on 40 only made me feel rather ancient so I just smiled instead and deleted those thoughts from my mind. Anyway, to the point, it got me thinking about how many different sayings there are like that related to tea and what they all mean/ their origin.

NOT FOR ALL THE TEA IN CHINA (according to phrases.org.uk) originated in the late 19th/ early 20th Century, coming from the fact that China was known for the large amount of tea it produced and, thus, basically, the phrase means, as my young woman pointed out at the end of her sentence, no way, a determination not to do something. Hard luck to the lad of whom she spoke!

She might have said he’s NOT MY CUP OF TEA – the positive of this (it’s my cup of tea) has been in use since the late 1800s when British people used the term to describe things they liked. By the 1920s ‘not’ had been added to describe the opposite. (bloomsbury-international.com)

Then there is a STORM (OR TEMPEST) IN A TEACUP – making a situation seem worse than it really is. This particular saying’s storm has had a number of locations, from storms in cream bowls to glasses of water, to a hand-wash basin no less. The  TEMPEST IN A TEACUP is more commonly used in the USA, the British version becoming a storm.

Know any more? Tweet me or comment and we will keep adding to the blog together . . .

The ABC of tea …

A IS FOR ASSAM, a tea-producing state in the North Eastern region of India. Assam tea, which is a black tea, with a malty flavour is often used in strong blends such as Irish Breakfast Tea.

B IS FOR BERGAMOT, a natural flavouring used in Earl Grey tea.

C IS FOR CAMELLIA SINENSIS the species of evergreen shrub from which leaves and buds are picked to produce tea.

D IS FOR DARJEELING in the West Bengal state of India and famous for its tea production. Often referred to as the ‘champagne of teas’, the Tea Board of India lists some 87 tea estates in the region.

E IS FOR EARL GREY the tea named after Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey who was Prime Minister of the UK November 1830-July 1834.

F IS FOR FORMOSA, an oolong tea from Taiwan. The name formosa means beautiful in Portuguese.

G IS FOR GREEN tea to which many health benefits have been attributed due to the belief that the leaves are richer in antioxidants. Even the NHS (www.nhs.org) wrote an article on the topic: “Green tea: the elixir of life or just hype?”

H IS FOR HIGH TEA about which there has been much debate as to the differences between this and Afternoon Tea. High tea is believed to have evolved among the working classes in industrial areas of Northern England and Southern Scotland. It included tea, bread, vegetables, cheese, meat, including pies and was eaten at the ‘high’ or dining table rather than the lower tables associated with afternoon tea.

I IS FOR INDIA, home to the famous tea-producing regions such as Nilgiri, Darjeeling, Sikkim, Assam …

J IS FOR JASMINE, a tea produced generally from green or black tea with jasmine blossoms, creating a light flavour that is subtly sweet and highly fragrant.

K IS FOR KENYA tea from the African continent, often used in blending and known for its bright, coppery colour.

L IS FOR LOOSE LEAF tea of which there are a vast range from single estate, rare, blends and flavoured teas from around the world.

M IS FOR MINT TEA, traditionally made with green tea to which fresh mint leaves are added. A favoured all day tea in hot countries such as Morocco, hence Moroccan Mint Tea.

N IS FOR NILGIRI, the literal meaning for which is blue mountain referring to the range of mountains forming part of the Western Ghats of India. Nilgiri tea is the tea produced in this region.

O IS FOR OOLONG, a traditional Chinese tea produced through an unique process with different processes used for different oolong varieties. It is sometimes referred to as Black Dragon from its Chinese meaning.

P IS FOR PLANTATION – the Cambridge English Dictionary (online) describes a tea plantation as a “large area of land where tea plants are grown”.

Q IS FOR QUALITY, an important word in the tea trade where it is short for ‘quality cup’ referring to the quality of the liqour.

R IS FOR ROOIBOS, whose meaning is ‘red bush’ and refers to the broom like plant of the legume family. Although described as a tea, Rooibos, Red Bush, Red Tea does not come from the tea plant Camellia Sinensis.

S IS FOR SUGAR about which there is continued debate as to the addition of this in our tea though many people still add a spoonful (or more).

T IS FOR TEA, which according to Wikipedia is the most widely consumed drink in the world after water.

U IS FOR UVA, a province of the tea producing country Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon until its independence in 1948.

V IS FOR VERBENA, a herb sometimes blended with black tea and other herbs to create a flavoured tea. It is also produced as a herbal tea or tisane – a drink made from herbs, spices, etc.

W IS FOR WITHERING, which is the first stage for most tea production and is the process whereby fresh leaves from the Camellia Sinensis plant are withered to reduce the moisture content.

X IS FOR XIAMEN, which will host its 6th International Tea Fair in October this year (2015).

Y IS FOR YUNNAN, the tea producing province of South Western China. There are different varieties of Yunnan tea including Yunnan Pure Gold, Yunnan Gold and Pu-erh.

Z IS FOR ZIMBABWE, one of Africa’s tea producing countries. Most of the tea from Zimbabwe is sold to the UK for tea bags.

Getting your tea message across

Those people who have followed my quest to write about and share recommendations for good tea rooms and good tea will know there are many reasons why I love, and promote, good tea rooms and loose leaf tea. Going back to when Whitehill Publishing ‘took on’ my Guide to Tea Rooms of Britain and, from here, we developed Margaret Thornby’s tea and tea room talk magazine, I have enjoyed celebrating the best of tea rooms and tea.

Our original website housed all sorts of facts and information about tea, tea rooms, tea paraphernalia, as well as having a shop in which we sold the Guide, Magazine, tea and merchandise. I was delighted when Whitehill Publishing decided that one of those items of merchandise would be a tea towel and was asked to lead the design of this. After much deliberation, we came up with a simple design that put across the message about loose leaf tea.

Imagine my delight to see that Barbara @myteatowels http://www.myteatowels.wordpress.com has featured this tea towel in one of her latest tea towel blogs (she has a lot of tea towels!) She shows how tea towels can be used to get your message across and waxes lyrical about the one we created. Please do go and read her blog; I may be biased because of my tea towel being mentioned, but I do think this is a fascinating blog and a great read.

Mine’s a Loose Leaf Tea Towel With thanks to Barbara myteatowels.wordpress.com for the image

Now that we are using this blog as the main contact point for all things tea and tea rooms, the ‘old’ website will, at some point, become obsolete (ahh) but I do still have 6 of the tea towels. Would you like one? I am offering one free of charge to the first 6 people who sign up to teastuff.wordpress.com  Sorry, but you will need to be in the UK to qualify as the postage costs preclude me sending them further afield. I look forward to hearing from you.

Signing off and remember; “Mine’s a loose leaf” every time  . . .

What’s in a teapot?

Moroccan Teapot
Moroccan Teapot
White fine bone china
White fine bone china

I recall some years ago, when we (Whitehall Publishing) were publishing Margaret Thornby’s tea and tea room talk magazine, Doug Hawkes telling one of my colleagues that he had been ‘marked down’ by the Tea Council for using metal teapots at Bird on the Rocke Tea Room (Clungunford). The Tea Council visited tea rooms every year to select what they considered the best tea rooms in the UK. Is a metal teapot of less value than a china one; should they be bone china rather than ceramic; are some teapots intrinsically better than others? (I should point out that the metal teapots where Doug and Annabel Hawkes then ran their tea room were not of the cheap, badly pouring type but rather stylish, art deco style that poured perfectly and had little ball shaped legs). I had visited their tea room myself (incognito of course) and thought they were wonderful; they also fitted the theme and style of the tea room.

As with many things associated with tea, I find, personally, that I have a liking for different teapots at different times of day and for different types of tea. I have gathered quite a collection of teapots over the years (my friends always know what to buy me!) Included in the range I proudly own, I have fine bone china, ceramics, metal, cute, quirky, small, large; even a Brown Betty. I do have some teapots with internal strainers; not those little internal ones that don’t allow the tea leaves the freedom to breathe and move but ones that give the tea the space to brew properly.

I do use my different teapots and I very much enjoy seeing the different ones in the many tea rooms I visit. In the past I have visited Eastern Europe and loved the amazing tea sets I saw. There were teapots, cups and saucers in different shapes, including triangular. There were cups and saucers but also teacups without handles or saucers – more like a small bowl. In Prague, I remember seeing a teapot that was square; somewhat reminiscent of the cube teapots designed for the cruise ships (keeps them from breaking in the cupboards, apparently).

Anyway, I digress. I will talk you through today’s teapots. I was at home today – a day off – so was using all my own teapots. This morning, I had a nice pot of my own Margaret’s Morning Blend of tea at breakfast time. Generally, in the morning, I use one of my Chatsford® teapots. This has an internal strainer and is a great design. I guess I use these in the morning because I am coming to terms with the day; easing into it without too much ceremony (though just enough, of course – there is always a ceremony with tea). Later, around 10.30am, I had a Kenya tea and opted for my little Brown Betty, using a tea strainer that I bought in Sri Lanka (it is shaped like a teapot). A strong little teapot to hold a lovely, bright Kenya tea. At lunchtime, I decided on a lighter tea and felt like spoiling myself so I used a Wedgwood fine bone china teapot. It is small and pale yellow in colour. I thought a silver tea strainer was in order for such a posh event!

I was out for a while in the afternoon and, on my return, had a pot of Lover’s Leap Ceylon tea; a real treat. The leaves can become quite large in the pot and get trapped in the spout on emptying, so I used a small bone china teapot with internal strainer (again a large enough strainer to let the leaves wander at will). A short while ago, I made myself a pot of English Breakfast tea (yes, I know, it’s not breakfast time but English Breakfast is good any time of day). I was inspired to make this in a ceramic teapot I bought from a pottery in Cumbria. I love to use this; it reminds me of a lovely holiday with friends and always brings a smile because it is such a lovely teapot.

How does she cope with all the washing up, I hear you say. Having a system helps, such as not leaving them all to pile up. I don’t own a dishwasher so it’s hand washing for me; I would dread the thought of losing the vibrancy of colour on some of my favourite teapots. In some ways, the washing up and putting away of the teapots is part of the ritual; I love my teapots and they deserve my care. And the teacups used? Well, that’s a blog for another day …

Memories are made of this (breaks into song!)

Pottery teapot with cups and saucers; just enough for two.
Pottery teapot with cups and saucers; just enough for two.

What is your best, or most memorable, cup of tea? I want to start a blog, to be added to along the way, with tea drinkers’ recollections of a cup of tea that was memorable to them. It can be a happy or sad occasion, one of those ridiculous moments, or a special celebration. Please let me know, either via Twitter @TearoomGuide or by email to margaretvthornby@gmail.com or by commenting at this site, and I will add some of the thoughts to this blog.

Jean Smith says her most memorable cup of tea was “sitting on a verandah in Sri Lanka, overlooking the river where the elephants had gone to bathe, drinking a pot of Ceylon tea. There was something about the light on the elephants and the water, the verandah where I was sitting and being in a tea producing country that made it quite magical”.

“Afternoon Tea on the Orient Express,” says Martha Grewcock, “it was enchanting”.

“The first cup of tea after I’d given birth to Lucy … I’ll never forget it.”

Jane Walker

What are your memories? ♥

Here are some great additions on 4 June 2015. Thank you to everyone who has sent me their best cup of tea stories so far: what a wonderful and varied range. I look forward to many more …

“Best tea memory-tasting tea with remote tea farmers in Taiwan. Turned into a right party with all the locals!”
eteaket tea boutique @eteaket

“My most memorable cup of tea was not a particularly nice one – it was made with a teabag in a plastic cup. However it was the first cup of tea I had drunk for nearly three weeks, when I was in hospital following a stomach operation. I had been dreaming about tea all that time and it tasted like nectar.”
Gwyn Fraser @GwynFraser

“Sipping green mint tea with a good friend in our students days in her little app in the north of France sitting on sheep skins from her homeland, enjoying a nice shisha with apple tobacco and listening to Moroccan music. We have parted ways since then… but the memories are still there :) Tea and friendship memories last forever :) “
Mado @Madoblan07

“Best cup of tea so far would be Earl Grey de la Creme.”
Brenda Flannery @flannery_brenda

Probably my favorite memory about tea would have to be the one of my husband’s and my wedding reception on the evening of May 31st, 2007.  We were married in the garden of The Woodrow Wilson House, which was the residence of President Woodrow Wilson after he left The White House. The house was originally a plantation, but has remained decorated in an Art Deco style, as it was when he lived there.  A terraced garden in the back looks out on much of the rest of the neighborhood, as it is located in the hilly Kalorama neighborhood of Washington, DC.  One walks out of a portico, through a screen door, onto the lawn, as many have throughout history, for grand events grand and private moments, and it was through this door that I walked to join my soon-to-be husband and our best man at the far end of the lawn, while about 35 of our friends and family looked on.  After the ceremony, everyone returned to the upper terrace closest to the house, which we had decorated with art deco vases of purple and white calla lilies and strings of white fairy lights down the middle of the one large table where everyone was seated.  We had a samovar ready with hot water and tea bags, however, admittedly, most people chose the iced tea selections instead, as it was a typically hot and humid Washington evening!  The caterers had prepared a beautiful tea for us all: traditional egg salad, cucumber and smoked salmon sandwiches, but also open-faced sandwiches of crab & artichoke and brie & fig jam, perfectly ripe fresh fruit slices and tiny desserts of every type and description including tiny fresh fruit tarts, chocolate mousse cups, chocolate dipped strawberries and heart-shaped shortbreads.  Our best man was also our DJ and played a CD we had compiled of our favorite atmospheric and romantic songs by Cocteau Twins, Sade, Kate Bush, Cibo Matto, Lamb, Massive Attack and others, while flurries of fireflies dancing on the lawn completed the scene.

My second memory occurred a year later when my husband and I spent our first anniversary in Paris.  Neither of us had ever been and we spent six lovely days, just wandering and getting lost in the sights and sounds of the city. One day found us wandering the beautiful and lush Luxembourg Gardens.  When we were done there, as we left, we spied the bright pink awning of a tea shop across the Rue de Medici called Thé Cool.  We took seats on the outdoor terrace in front and decided on what we would have for a “goûter”. My husband chose a tea flavored with citrus and I chose one flavored with caramel.  We shared what was possibly the tallest piece of lemon meringue pie I had ever seen!  This was the first time I had ever tried caramel tea and as I sipped it, I looked inside at the very Marie Antoinette-inspired decor of the tea-room.  The walls and furniture were decorated in shades of cotton-candy pink, lavender and orchid and from the cream-colored, ornately carved ceiling a brilliant chandelier lit the interior perfectly.  Unfortunately, this tea-room is now closed, but as in some Proustian dream, it lives on in my memory each time I take a sip of caramel tea.

My final tea memory comes from a very snowy day in Washington, DC.  In the record store in my neighborhood, I had been given a promotional postcard from the alternative record label 4AD.  It was advertising an upcoming event at a club in Adams Morgan and the event was called “Sugar Hiccup”, the name of a Cocteau Twins song, one of the most popular bands from the 4AD label. The event was to be a tea, held in the bar on a Saturday afternoon, while videos from 4AD artists were played and promotional materials were given away.  When that cold February afternoon arrived, I walked up to the club, stood in line, paid my $5 cover fee and was grateful to be inside where it was warm.  After climbing two flights of stairs, I arrived at the tea, which was being held in the bar on the top floor of the building.  Waiting on the bar was a gleaming silver samovar filled with hot water, a silver tray covered in many types of tea bags, silver creamer and sugar bowl and cups.  I prepared a cup of Tazo Earl Grey and surveyed the pastry tray.  I took a couple of small pastries and took a seat.  Through the skylight, I watched the huge fluffy snowflakes accumulate in what turned out to be a snowstorm of historic proportions.  The tea was perfect, however, sadly, I must admit the pastries were disappointing.  Oddly enough, it was that highly anticipated, yet slightly disappointing experience which helped me attempt to improve upon it for our wedding!  I recently learned that the singer Marc Almond is a big fan of afternoon tea, a fact which continues to inspire me when thinking about how could tea and music be blended into a very special experience!

 Betty Parker-Knowles @GossamerTearoom

Please visit Betty at

The Gossamer Tearoom blog  –  http://gossamertearoom.blogspot.com/,
The Gossamer Tearoom Etsy shop  –  http://www.etsy.com/shop/TheGossamerTearoom
Mirabella Morello vintage Etsy shop  –  http://www.etsy.com/shop/mirabellamorello
Velvet Revived digital collage sheet Etsy shop – http://www.etsy.com/shop/VelvetRevived

Also…now on Pinterest – http://pinterest.com/gossamertearoom/

Why do they do it?

Chatsford® Teapot with internal strainer: great invention
Chatsford® Teapot with internal strainer: great invention

I am a self confessed loose leaf tea lover. I am also a big fan of tea rooms. I accept, and understand, that some really good tea rooms only serve teabags. This can be for many reasons; the usual one is that they think it is easier and less messy but some tea rooms specialise in home made and absolutely delicious they are and tea is not the priority.

However, these days, never does a cup of coffee in a good tea room, involve a spoon of instant coffee and hot water. More often than not, there is the sound of a Gaggia machine in the background; sometimes there are a variety of coffees served in cafetieres. Coffee has a bit of a ceremony attached to it – latte, espresso, cappuccino, Americano, hot milk, cold milk, flavourings, sprinkles …

I like the ceremony of loose leaf tea. It may come in a china pot with a tea strainer, or a floral pot with internal strainer; loose leaf tea can be served in a cafetiere, a glass teapot, all manner of things. What I can’t stand, and do not understand, is why some tea rooms state, on the menu, that they have loose leaf tea but still serve teabags. It’s not consistent. It makes no sense at all. You end up going through this process of trying to work out which teas might be loose leaf; you can ask a waitress, who will say, “I’ll go and ask”.

Last week I went to a very nice deli tea room; excellent food, amazing home made cakes and a separate tea menu. I got really excited. I ordered loose leaf English Breakfast tea and was served a teabag in a pot. I said to the waitress, “don’t you serve loose leaf tea? You’ve go a tea menu.” “Sorry,” she said, “I’ll check.” She returned to say they only had enough English Breakfast tea for one person and, because there were two of us, decided to give us teabags. In the end we sent back the teabags and shared a pot of tea for one.

My friend and I talked about this and came to the conclusion that, sometimes, staff were just not trained to understand loose leaf tea, the varieties, etc; however, you do have to be trained to use a Gaggia machine. Is it about a lack of commitment, understanding; trying loose leaf tea because it’s ‘trendy’ but not ‘getting it'; why do they do it?

Anyway, thinking it was a shame not to raise this with the tea room, not as a complaint but as a reflection, I emailed them. I said that I thought they offered quality food, explained what had happened and expressed the view that the issue of tea – loose leaf or teabags – was very confused in the way they were dealing with it. They replied very speedily saying their supplier was “having problems getting English Breakfast tea” (what supplier runs out of English Breakfast tea; Rwanda maybe but not English Breakfast). They did say they had 10 other varieties of loose leaf tea but we were not offered this. In response to why they had both teabags and loose leaf tea on the menu, they said some people didn’t want to “pay the extra for loose leaf tea” thus still had teabags.

For me, tea rooms offer an experience different to that you have at home. Many people don’t drink loose leaf tea at home but greatly enjoy the ceremony of it in a tea room. This is part of what makes it special, that warm and comforting feeling that cheap teabags or mass produced cakes can never achieve.

David Pogson, Northern Tea Merchants, once said that no one ever asked for a teabag in his tea room. If you know what you are doing and have trained your staff well, there is no problem; it works. The reality is that loose leaf tea is not cup for cup more expensive than teabags; I have tried this at home.  If you are committed to quality, people will pay for it but you need to recognise that not all quality loose leaf tea is expensive. For an ‘ordinary’ tea room or deli that is not somewhere specialising in rare or single estate teas, there are many suppliers out there; many, I would suggest who don’t ‘run out of supplies’ of the popular teas such as English Breakfast or Earl Grey.