Imagine this: you are serious about drinking tea. You drink loose leaf tea, you take care to heat water carefully, steep carefully, and sip carefully. How do you preserve and continue to enjoy this essential habit when you are traveling?
Recently, I attended the National Forensic League’s Speech and Debate Tournament in Wichita, Kansas. Staying in a Holiday Inn, having daily responsibilities to judge competitive speakers and chaperone groups of very bright teenagers, I found myself faced with the dilemma of enjoying tea on the road. I brought Oolong tea bags with me, and found restaurants very willing to give me hot water.
The resulting brew was a far cry from the daily pot of Frozen Peaks Oolong I have grown to adore.
I launched a Google Search for specialty tea shops in Wichita. No hits. I scanned the Yellow Pages. No help there, either. Finally, I e-mailed the helpful folks at T Ching, who directed me to a website which lists tea shops by city and state. Wichita has two! Imagine my delight! Just one problem, though: neither enterprise opens until 11:00 A.M., and both require a reservation. A reservation for a cup of tea? I made a reservation for the first one, Victoria’s Tea House. I was asked if I wanted “high tea.”
“I prefer my tea sober. I do have to drive back to the hotel.”
“Lunch, then?” The date was made, and I looked forward to my visit. I arrived a few minutes before the designated time at a modest Victorian-style home with tables covered in lace tablecloths, lace curtains over the windows, and each chair covered with a damask-draped cushion. Victorian-era antique china-hutches and wardrobes graced each room. Thoughtful placement of mirrors made the small rooms less confining. My table faced a painted motto, “A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand.” Soon, a menu was brought to me, and I eagerly looked over the tea list: five loose leaf teas, all black. An equal number of tea bags were available; and several herb “teas.”
Reading the descriptions about the loose teas, I was reminded of wine: “a full-bodied black tea with subtle hints of bergamot;” for the first offering, a tea called “Paris.” Was the name chosen for the city, or for the lad who started the Trojan War? The tea was served in a traditional English cup with a saucer and infuser spoon. It was delicious, even though I am not a fan of black or flavored teas. The lunch offerings included two choices of quiche, two sandwich choices, salads, and traditional English tea breads. I ordered a sandwich, which was served with a salad, a slice of moist, sweet bread, and strawberry ice cream. Hearty, delicious . . . I concluded that Victoria’s is a lunch place that serves tea. Talking to the owner afterward, I learned that her real love is the traditional English 4:00 o’clock tea, emphasizing proper etiquette. Ah, ha! That’s what “high tea” is!
The second tea house in Wichita, “Riverside Cup of Tea,” is located several minutes away in a lovely old neighborhood. Also serving a traditional English 4 o’clock tea, this establishment is remarkable for its retail nature: one first sees a cash register and several score tins of “People’s Republic of Tea.” Lovely china tea cups and accessories are arranged for sale. The tea list is almost identical to Victoria’s, except that two flavored loose leaf green teas are available along with five black teas. The first question from the hostess was, “How many for lunch?”
Both of Wichita’s “tea houses” offer high quality black teas, served in the English tradition. Nevertheless, they were not what I imagined a tea house to be.
Is the traditional 4 o’clock tea, served with watercress sandwiches and seven different jam cakes and scones what we should expect when we see an advertisement for a “Tea House?” Is wanting a “Tea House” to be primarily about savoring a cup of tea an impractical expectation? Does the emphasis on proper etiquette need to trump the tea itself? Is there a place for tea drinkers, like myself, who want to stick our noses into a cup of tea – cradled in both hands – as we sit in comfortable chairs, perhaps indulging in a cookie as we sip the second cup? Or, is the comfortable, relaxed cup of tea something one can only achieve at home?