The kettle began it - Tea: traditions and misconceptions

My latest column on tea (March 23) stirred up so much interest and so many questions that I am encouraged to brew up yet another on this very refreshing subject.

I have had many inquiries about the subject of high tea. The very title used to be a standing joke for British comics, the punchline being: "You want high tea? Put your cup and saucer on the mantelpiece - it's higher than the tea table."

Actually, there is a great deal of misconception over here about high tea, conjuring up visions of lace tablecloths, silver tea services and formal afternoon tea enjoyed by high society. In fact, the reverse is true. High tea is a very informal early supper, enjoyed by farm laborers and rural blue-collar workers. These folks start their day quite early, so they have their dinner at noon, and high tea provides a fitting end to a long, hard day.

The fare consists of hot dishes, which are filling and rib-sticking. They aren't served in individual courses, but all put on the table at once so the hungry diners can pick and choose. Typical offerings are meat pie, Cornish pasties, bangers and mash, stewed fruit, puddings, pies and cakes and, of course, lashings of hot, milky tea.

High tea also is a monumental Scottish tradition where the meal has to be both frugal in cost and high in filling content. The food consists of kippers, soused herring, mackerel, potted herring, griddle scones and tatties and nepps (potato and turnip pie), lots of hot, buttered toast and jam, and tea, of course, with Dundee cake and shortbread.

Let me clarify a point here: In Britain, tea and cake go together like fish and chips, strawberries and cream. Cake, however fancy, is never served as a dessert after dinner; it's very much exclusive to teatime, as are scones, biscuits and pastries. Moreover, tea is not served during or after dinner; coffee in the drawing room is the norm.

A proper English tea consists of finger sandwiches, scones with strawberry or black currant jam, shortbread, Battenberg biscuits and assorted cakes and pastries. This does not include cream teas. In Devonshire and Cornwall, in many of the tearooms, clotted Devonshire cream is served with the jam and scones. The teas served are Darjeeling, Prince of Wales or Lapsang Souchoung, all black teas that have to be brewed in a pot with boiling water, allowed to steep a few minutes and served in a china cup with a half-inch of milk in the bottom.

Milk always is poured first, no matter what anybody says, for two simple reasons. First of all, pouring boiling tea into the china cup first would crack it; second, it makes the tea taste better. Then add the inevitable one lump or two or, if you must, artificial sweetener. When brewing tea, be sure to warm the pot first, put in one spoon per person and one for the pot (loose tea) or three to four teabags for a large family pot. Relax and enjoy!

NOW WE COME TO the vast range of herbal teas. These are actually tisanes, made from a mixture of herbs, fruit leaves, stalks and flowers. Such "teas" originated for purely medicinal purposes: chamomile for the digestion, a rinse for blond hair and a sunburn healer; cenna to keep one regular; lavender to help you sleep; and carroway to alleviate the belly ache (according to Culpepper). Tisanes go way back into folklore and were used as hot infusions for medicinal reasons, and even as aphrodisiacs. Many herbs are used, and they may be mixed with ordinary tea. Here is a simple recipe for the herb borage:

To make:

1 tablespoon of chopped leaves

1 cup of boiling water

Infuse for 5 minutes.

To use:

Rich in calcium and potassium. The 17th-century diarist John Evelyn recommended it for "cheering the hard student." It has a taste of cucumber.

All of the above has nothing to do with traditional teatime. Tisanes are taken at bedtime or when the need arises.

Let us now discuss the difference between a teashop and a tearoom.

A teashop is exactly what it says it is: a shop that stocks a variety of different teas, teapots, accessories and tea-related gifts. They will brew you a cup of tea of your choice so you can try the different varieties.

A tearoom is a place that serves a set tea with all of the above goodies I just mentioned, where one may linger and relax with friends. This tradition started in England with the first Aerated Bread Company (ABC) teashops. Until ABC's opening in 1880, there was nowhere a lady could have a meal by herself in safety and respectability.

This chain of shops grew during that decade and was followed in 1894 by the first Lyons' teashop in Piccadilly. Gunter's was already established as a high-class place in which to sip tea and sample delicate cakes, when an American lady called Mrs. Fuller expressed concern at the lack of sufficient places for refreshment where ladies of the leisure class could congregate. She set up the first of the many tearooms that carried her name well into this century.

The need for teashops increased as train services offered the chance of spending a day in the large London department stores. Ladies from the provinces took advantage of this facility, and the stores realized the advantage of providing tearooms themselves.

They added a ladies orchestra for background music. It was all most elegant and soothing, particularly at Whiteley's, where one could sit at tea and look over the gallery rails down the well of the central marble staircase modeled on the stairway at La Scala, Milan. I have fond memo-ries of the tearoom at Frederick & Nelson (now sadly demised), where many of the English and Australian ladies clubs met for tea and conversation.

The tea tradition has been taken up by some of our downtown hotels, including the Sorrento and the Garden Court at the Four Seasons. Talking of downtown, tucked away in the Pike Market in Post Alley you will find the Perennial Tea Room, presided over since 1990 by Julie Romanoff and Sue Siege. These two extremely knowledgeable tea experts will share all the ins and outs of tea etiquette and can even provide you with a proper tea by mail. They carry a large variety of bulk teas and brew a different selection every day for your sampling pleasure.

To quote Henry James (1843-1916): "There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea," with which I heartily agree ... although unlike the Japanese tea ceremony, in Britain afternoon tea and tea drinking at any time of the day or night is not a ceremony but an everyday fact of life which you can share.

Must dash off to put the kettle on.

If you have questions, call me: 281-2861.


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