Imagine yourself on a leisurely drive through the winding countryside of South Wales. You pass luscious green rolling hills speckled with woolly sheep and patches of lush woodland. This journey ends down in a deep valley, complete with a river running through it, at a stately home built somewhere around 1810. You make your way up to the beautiful home past the stables and horses, and find yourself sitting in the conservatory in the center of the large house. The conservatory is filled with beautiful plants, where the sunlight pours in through the many windows to warm your soul. This memory was one of many shared by Christine San Jose, who has “84 years’ experience in high tea.”
Christine San Jose is a British native and grew up with the “duty to king and country to drink tea every day.” On that particular day, San Jose recalls sitting in this very conservatory with her friend when a three-tiered tea trolley was rolled in with “oodles of tea.” She enjoyed scones with rhubarb and damson preserves, English digestive biscuits, slices of ham, salad, as well as “good” bread and butter. It was a moment in time that remained with her all these years.
Traditionally, high tea was eaten in the early evening, around 5 or 6 p.m. and included much more than just a cup of tea. It was a substantial meal, equivalent to supper that originated in England. Delicious sweet foods, such as scones, cakes, buns, or tea breads were combined with tempting more savory foods, such as cheese on toast, toasted crumpets, cold meats and pickles or poached eggs on toast and, of course, plenty of tea.
High tea was historically much more of a working-class family meal than it was an elite social gathering. In England the working class made up the majority of the population and there was great pride to be amongst the working class. The “high” in high tea does not imply that fancy, high-class, or expensive foods are served (or that high tea is enjoyed by well-to-do Britons). It actually refers to afternoon tea served on a dining room table (a high table) as opposed to afternoon tea served on a “tea table” (a low table). By contrast, afternoon tea is traditionally served around 4 p.m. This is a lighter meal a satisfying “snack” between lunch and dinner that will include scones, thin sandwiches, biscuits, and assorted cakes.
On a brisk fall afternoon recently, I had the pleasure of joining Christine San Jose and a group of women for a high tea party ourselves. We met at The Willow River Gallery Café in Honesdale, PA. Willow River is owned and operated by Trix Render, who opened the art gallery in 2009 and the tea shop in 2011. Render offers everything from a simple cup of tea (or coffee, if that’s your preference) to extravagant tea parties; slices of pie or cake to an entire sit-down gourmet dinner. Everything offered in the tea shop is made from scratch using local products whenever possible.
Tea was served in the art gallery at a large table laden with sweet and savory treats. Following a unique tradition at the café, whenever you order tea, Render will invite you to select your own tea pot from her unique collection of wonderful pieces that fills a cupboard off to one side. As the guests took their seats at the table, each found a place setting of fine china with one of Render’s one-of-a-kind tea cups and saucers already waiting.
The menu included two kinds of delicate open-faced sandwiches (a choice of cucumber, or salmon) with the bread cut into round or heart-shaped, bite-size morsels; and such a variety of sweet treats it was hard to count: scones served with whipped cream, an assortment of cookies, pizelles, and crepes filled with bananas or apple compote; and, of course, plenty of tea.
Today we understand that tea offers many health benefits. Medical studies have proven that Green, White, Oolong, and Black teas are loaded with healthy antioxidants, fluoride, and Vitamin C. Tea is a name given to a lot of brews, but purists consider only green tea, black tea, white tea, oolong tea the real thing. They are all derived from the Camellia sinensis plant, a shrub native to China and India, and contain unique antioxidants called flavonoids. The most potent of these, known as ECGC, may help against free radicals that can contribute to cancer, heart disease and clogged arteries.
Although a lot of questions remain about how long tea needs to be steeped for the most benefit, and how much you need to drink, nutritionists agree any tea is good tea. However, a good pot of tea cannot be made from bad tea, and each tea variety needs to steep for the correct amount of time for the best results.
As I sat on this beautiful fall day, listening to San Jose speak passionately of her childhood memories growing up in Britain and stories about her relationship with tea, my mind started to wander. I thought about this group of women, who took the time to gather together over a cup of tea, to celebrate each other’s company. Discussion was sparked on what brought each of us to the lovely small town of Honesdale. As each tea cup was filled and refilled with earl grey, exotic mint chocolate, or various herbal blends, and sweet treats were passed around, a deep feeling of casual comfort set in. There was talk of our own childhood memories, of being little girls, and having tea parties with our stuffed animals and dolls with the little miniature tea sets many of us had as young children. To me it seemed as if the warmth of the tea extended into a richness of stories and short bits of where life had taken each one of us. As we sat, we began to weave together these small threads and connections in a way that bound us all together…within our community.