When we talk about drinking tea as a moment of rest in our day, we mean taking a moment to reflect and relax, to change our attention from the outside world to the inner world. When we share tea with others, we are inviting them to a different kind of space than the usual hectic everyday fast-paced space.
In our book, Sharing Tea, The Road Back to Civilization, we define the tea party as “… a joyful occasion filled with the expectation of delicious food, good company and happy memories. As we have told you, nothing bad ever happens during afternoon tea. Why? Because there is an unwritten covenant between the hostess and the guests to conduct themselves with dignity and kindness. A tea party could be compared to a wedding or even a religious liturgy. At each of these events, someone has spent a large amount of time and effort preparing a beautiful environment and attending to dozens of details that will add to the guests’ enjoyment. The guests complement the elegance and harmony of the occasion by dressing appropriately and clearing their minds of negative or judgmental thoughts. All of the participants undergo a sort of self-purification process that allows them to enter for a time into sacred space.”
In a restaurant or hotel afternoon tea, the guest is paying for the chefs and staff to provide that level of detail to make a beautiful experience. On a recent trip to the east coast, I got to experience both an elegant, traditional hotel tea and a unique afternoon tea at a cozy tea shop that adds education and service to the four elementary values of harmony, humility, respect, and creativity.
Since I didn’t make it to London to see the show, Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature, I was happy to see that the exhibition had traveled to the American south. Kristin, late of Team Savory fame, agreed to road trip us from Charlotte, North Carolina to Nashville, Tennessee (where the show was hanging at the Frist Museum) with stops in the Great Smoky Mountains, Blue Ridge Mountains, and roadside attractions in between. (The Nashville showhas now closed and traveled to the Morgan Library & Museum, New York City. Open nowthrough June 9, 2024.)
Always keeping the image of our Queen Dolly Parton in our minds while traveling through her stomping grounds, we sadly did not have time to go to Dollywood though we drove right through Pigeon Forge, TN. We did see a large scale Warhol-esque Dolly through the window of a retail store in Nashville, cheering up us and passersby of all stripes. Long live our Dolly!
Our hotel on Music Row was indeed surrounded by music company headquarters. Walking down the street, we heard lots of music coming out of many bars, with live music being played in many. We bypassed those in search of barbeque. I had done some research beforehand, but we decided we’d find authenticity by a combination of a certain informal if not downright shabby look of the place and that smoky, meaty smell.
We turned the corner around the back of a row of slick looking restaurants and saw a welcoming front patio filled with people eating delicious looking barbeque. We had lucked onto Peg Leg Porker, a place that looked just like a proper barbeque shack should. We linedup and ordered what turned out to be the best pulled pork sandwiches either of us had ever had. Score!
Next day, we headed to the Frist Art Museum for the long-awaited Beatrix Potter show. Wewere a little early, so we walked around the area, looking at some historic preservation thatwas happening nearby. An enormous stone building with fancy ironwork decoration lookedfinished on the outside but we could not figure out what it was. Kristin reconnoitered around the side while I spotted some young guys hanging around the front. Above their heads, I finally saw a sign saying “Hotel,” the young men acting as doormen. I went in through the entry which opened into a cavernous space, topped with a massive stained glass barrel ceiling! It is now a Marriot hotel but originally built as Nashville’s Union train station, opened in 1900.
The front desk gave us a brochure filling in the history of the stone castle-like building. Folks in Nashville banded together to form the “Save Our Station” which saved the building from the wrecking ball multiple times, after it closed to passengers in 1979. Similar style buildings in the area are all part of the Nashville Yards reuse project. From what we observed, it is going to be a gorgeous addition to the downtown.
The Beatrix Potter show was so charming and very well curated with a variety of her delicate watercolors and personal belongings: definitely worth the trip. (To reread Rose’s account ofher delightful visit to the London show, click here: Tea Travels blog, August 2022)
After two lovely, rainy days in a cabin near Great Smoky National Park, Kristin and I ambled towards her house in South Carolina. On the spur of the moment, we decided to splurge and stop for tea at the Biltmore, trademarked “America’s Largest House.” Built by George Vanderbilt, completed in 1895, the Biltmore has been designated a national historic landmark but ownership is still in family hands. The current owner, William A. V. Cecil, Jr., is third cousin to Gloria Vanderbilt, making him distantly related to celebrity Anderson Cooper.
Not having planned ahead, we didn’t have enough time to schedule a tour of the house, so we settled for a day pass for the garden and grounds which entitled us access to the Inn on Biltmore Estate where we had reservations for afternoon tea.
As you can see above, the tea foods were extremely beautiful, generous, perfectly executed, and as delicious as they looked. Team Savory approved of the savory selections and I loved the presentation of the open-faced cucumber sandwiches, the role of estate pickles apparently played by the pickled mustard seeds sometimes found in cornichon jars: I love crunching on those briny mustard seeds.
The scone service was a dramatic opening course, presented on a square wooden platter, set off by a black cloth napkin, showing off the golden scones and brioche buns, all garnished with jewel-like blackberries and husked cape gooseberries. The brioche and clotted cream were superb but neither Kristin nor I like lavender in our scones. Picky, picky.
The sweets course, as you can see above, truly showcased the best of the pastry chef’s art. The tiny, creatively garnished desserts were each delicious in surprising ways. Each item was treated to unique accompaniments and different textures combined to delicious effect. Gold leaf, berry coulis, toasted coconut, and printed chocolate triangles set the tiny pastries off to magical effect.
When we had finished our leisurely afternoon tea, the hostess brought us each a small cookie, wrapped in cellophane, like a party favor to take home. This was a shortbread cookie in the shape of a tea bag, decorated with a tiny tag, gold string, and dried flower petals. I’d had a similar tea bag cookie recipe pinned on my Pinterest page for years but decided they were just too much work. Now here they were, lucky us.
The Inn on Biltmore’s Estate had taken the British afternoon tea custom and elevated each detail to a fine art. Furnishings and food were lovely but the service was lackluster. As a gal who has logged many hours of food service, bringing your happy face can be the most difficult part of the job. Our server was adequate but so out of step with the lush surroundings. This may be a bit of a quibble, but my next tea experience was to highlight how good service makes for a wonderful time.
I had hoped to take the train from Charlotte, NC to the Berkshires in Massachusetts, but as I delved deeper into the nuts and bolts of train travel, I learned two things: 1. I have very poor geographical knowledge of the eastern seaboard in relation to the South and 2. All trains must go through Washington, DC. Choosing the train from Charlotte to Massachusetts would involve 14 hours of travel. I got over it and flew into Albany, New York, where, happily, Louise picked me up. I had left the velvety green of the South for the velvety green of the Berkshires. It was so peaceful to be cool and surrounded by all that greenery. Quite the contrast to the golden hills of California, though I am not complaining.
Louise and I had a jam-packed schedule of activities starting with a weekend road trip to Maine, a visit to Edith Warton’s house, The Mount, lunch at the Stockbridge Inn which was celebrating their 250-year anniversary, and an afternoon tea at ExtraSpecialTeas, in Housatonic. Of course, I took so many photos that I have to pare them down ruthlessly, machete style. I’ll begin with some photos of Louise and Paul’s farmette, a plot of lush trees and gardens with a house built in the 1800s. They have turned it into an oasis for wildlife as well as a tranquil spot to watch the resident ducks paddle in the pond, pick fresh greens from the garden, feed guests from the outdoor pizza oven, and generally enjoy the peaceful place they created.
Opened on World Autism Day, 2016, Cherri and Scott Sanes created a community-based nonprofit to employ young adults with learning differences. Participants in the day program learn to serve in the tea shop, become baristas, create and sell merchandise including tea blends and packaged foods. Cherri uses bubbles as a metaphor and on my previous visit, the first beverage I had was the excellent bubble tea. The new shop has expanded into all day fare, breakfast, lunch, and afternoon tea, so Louise and I made a reservation. We dressed up in appropriate going out to tea attire and headed to the tea shop. They have painted the outside in cheerful yellows and in good weather have patio seating. We chose to have our tea inside as the day was blustery.
At ExtraSpecialTeas, one of the great attributes is the enthusiastic welcome of the greeter and everyone else we met during our tea. Each worker was so friendly and all were working so hard to make sure our visit was lovely. The attention to detail here was not just on the food and surrounds but also on the whole staff. They really have made an inclusive space here, where everyone is welcomed and everyone is valued.
Where ExtraSpecialTeas departs from the more traditional is the dessert course offerings. Beautiful heart-shaped white chocolate tea candies are made with edible flowers and infused with tea. The curried cashews and rosemary almonds are super fresh tasting and a good savory foil for the candies. We both bought packages of the nuts, which are available online.
We asked to see the tea lab where the many tea blends are made and packaged which was fascinating. It was so interesting to see bulk ingredients, herbs and flowers, along with many varieties of tea, all labled and ready to be blended. A few of the more popular blends are Housie Palooza, Blue Skies Herbal, and Sunny Vibes. The webside has good descriptions of the blends, so it is easy to find new ones you will enjoy. To browse the teas and house-made snacks as well as fun tea merchandise, or to read more of Cherri’s inspiring story, check out their website, here: https://www.extraspecialteas.org/