I always get a little nostalgic during the holidays, and tea is at the center of many of my cherished memories – not necessarily to do with the holiday season, but always reminding me of family and friends far and near.
One of my favorite tea memories is from the first time I went to London, close to fifteen years ago. I went with my friend, Chris, who I’ve known since kindergarten, and we had a huge list of sightseeing activities, as anyone would. But the thing I remember most (other than going to see the movie “Trainspotting” when it first came out, and not being able to understand the thick Scottish accents in the movie) was the afternoon we went to the Dorchester Hotel for tea.
I have to say I wasn’t completely on board with going to the Dorchester for tea – I hadn’t heard of the hotel, and I was looking for a quintessentially “London” experience. But Chris’ aunt had told her that the Dorchester had the most beautiful afternoon tea service in London, so we made reservations one afternoon and trouped off. Once I walked through the door, I was hooked! This is a gorgeous hotel right on Park Lane, and I will probably never be able to afford to stay there. The lobby and central promenade, where tea is served, are bright with gold marble, beautiful fabrics, and an air of plush comfort. We were welcomed in and seated quickly in a small niche with a sofa and chairs, and a tea table before us.
After picking our teas (I must say I don’t remember which ones after all these years), the fun began! We feasted on finger sandwiches – cucumber, smoked salmon, and chicken salad among them – and then moved on to the scones. If you’ve never had freshly baked scones with clotted cream and jam, find a British friend to make some right away! Or head out to your favorite tea shop – they’re an experience not to be missed. As we sank into our seats in sheer bliss, sipping our tea all the while, we had no idea the best was yet to come. The last course was the pastry course – petit fours and other miniatures that were a delight to behold. They were served from the requisite three-tiered silver tray, which made the experience pretty close to over-the-top. I remember walking out later, into a cold, wet afternoon, with a dazed smile on my face and no consciousness of the weather. It’s lucky I didn’t walk straight into traffic!
Another tea memory that is very dear to me couldn’t be more different from the Dorchester Hotel experience. This time I was in Malaysia, and had spent the afternoon sightseeing with my dear friends from work. It was a very hot, humid day – as it always is in Malaysia – and we had gone all over Penang. We took a tram car up Penang Hill to see the temples at the top, did some shopping, took a million pictures, and even stopped at a street stand for a drink of fresh coconut juice. They just hack a hole in a coconut with what looked to me to be a machete and hand it to you with a straw. But after a day of running around in the heat, it was certainly welcome.
Toward the end of the afternoon, my friends asked me what else I wanted to do. The only thing left on my list was to go to a tea shop, so off we went. The tea shop was tiny, with shelves all along the walls with tea and tea ware displayed. They had green tea, oolong tea, cakes of puerh, and, I’m sure, black tea in there somewhere. We sat down with the proprietor to taste some oolong tea, and I was entranced. He had a gongfu-style tea set, with a tray to catch the water. As he poured water, let the tea steep, and served us, he explained that each steeping has a different character, and showed how the flavor of the tea changed through the repeated steepings. Although I had had oolong tea before, this was really the beginning of my love of it. I learned so much that afternoon, and was very grateful that the tea shop owner had graciously spent so much time with us.
So there you have two of my favorite tea memories, from different ends of the spectrum of tea tradition. What is common to them both is that I spent them with very dear friends, and that makes the memories all the sweeter.
IMAGE 1 All other photos courtesy of Nancy Murphy