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Afternoon tea is hot in Houston

Discovering the charms and etiquette of a British tea tradition that's gaining a foothold in Houston
Sarah Rufc, Houston Chronicle
Updated 7:23 pm, Friday, October 18, 2013

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  • Nikki Beltram is taught the proper way to hold a cup of tea during a new class on the art and etiquette of English afternoon tea at Elegant Manners International. Photo: J. Patric Schneider, Freelance / © 2013 Houston Chronicle
    Nikki Beltram is taught the proper way to hold a cup of tea during a new class on the art and etiquette of English afternoon tea at Elegant Manners International. Photo: J. Patric Schneider, Freelance

 

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If you go

Elegant Manners International is at 2311 Canal, 713-396-2005; elegantmanners.com. "Art and Etiquette of English Afternoon Tea" classes (every other Sunday at 4:30 p.m. or by appointment) are $55 for adults and $40 for children under 12. For more details about other Houston spots mentioned in this story, visit chron.com/afternoontea.

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Houston's gourmet coffee renaissance has been the subject of many glowing, caffeinated write-ups, but it's not the only hot drink in town. While most people were ordering their no-whip, half-soy-half-skim dash-of-froth not-too-hot venti caramel macchiato, a flourishing tea culture has remained largely under the radar.

Tea is the most popular beverage in the world, after water, so it's not surprising that the tea leaves in Houston are as varied as the city's restaurant scene. There's classic Southern sweet tea, Chinatown's wealth of green tea and bubble tea shops and cardamom-scented Persian tea at Hillcroft restaurants such as Bijan Persian Grill and Darband Shishkabob, plus international teahouses like Montrose's Té House of Tea.

In the midst of this is a resurgence of afternoon tea, a highly social and distinctly British subset of Houston's larger overall tea culture.

Despite what you've heard, the proper term for this midday indulgence is afternoon tea or low tea, the latter name deriving from the low coffee tables on which the tea and snacks are served. High tea, on the other hand, was a term for when working-class men came home from their jobs for supper and devoured a ploughman's lunch of sorts - bread, cheese and maybe some vegetables or meat, in addition to a mug of tea, consumed at a dining table.

The conventional wisdom goes that it's high tea if you're sitting at a table, and afternoon tea if you're sitting on a couch.

However, in the same way that "hater" and "twerk" have made it into the Oxford Dictionary, "high tea" has, through decades of misuse, come to be a synonym of afternoon tea. Even the Ritz in London, the pre-eminent afternoon tea destination for more than a century, advertises its services as "high tea" since so many of its customers are international tourists.

In addition to Houston stalwarts such as the St. Regis hotel, which has offered a traditional three-course afternoon tea since 1989, the tradition has been popping up at other high-end hotels including the Four Seasons Houston Hotel and the Hotel Granduca; at restaurants (the Queen Vic and CityCentre's Flora & Muse); and at independent tea rooms from downtown (Magnolia Tea Room) to Sugar Land (Serenitea Tea Room).

"Afternoon tea is obviously not new to me but very, very new to becoming more popular in Houston," said Mary Schnurr, an English ex-pat and owner of Your Cup of Tea in Memorial. "It's not something Houstonians are spending a lot of time and money on, but after they come in they are hooked."

Afternoon tea parties have become popular for graduation celebrations, baby showers, birthdays and bridal parties, but according to Kiran's restaurant chef/owner Kiran Verma, it also fills a void for afternoon socializing outside the home. Kiran's debuted its Saturday afternoon tea menu a year ago, blending traditional English treats with Indian pastries such as samosas. It has become so popular that Verma recently expanded the program from once a month to every weekend.

"I always felt like sometime between lunch and dinner you have some time, and friends want to get together. It's one of those nonguilty pleasures everyone can enjoy - not just women, many men come, too. What's important is that you don't want anything too heavy, you want to keep it light," said Verma.

It's roughly the same impulse that led Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, to introduce afternoon tea drinking to polite British society in the early 19th century. Afflicted by what we moderns have termed "that 3 o'clock feeling" and hankering for a nosh between the typical late breakfast and formal dinner, Anna asked the kitchen to make her some finger sandwiches and tea. When the duchess, a close friend of Queen Victoria, decided to formalize the snack session by inviting her friends over for tea, the idea quickly reverberated throughout London's elite.

These days, socialite hour trends earlier - think power brunching or the classic ladies who lunch - but afternoon tea offers its own unique charms.

"I still love the St. Regis lounge - they have a harpist playing and it's really lovely" said Maggi Jones, a Houston public relations executive, English ex-pat and tea enthusiast. "When my daughters were graduating, it's a great way to have party. You don't have to do flowers because they're already there, and there's set bites so no one even has to order. It's a way of entertaining really elegantly while controlling the costs - and without appearing to be cheap!"

The traditional tea party has become so popular that tHouston now has an etiquette class devoted to the practice. Cherita Metzgar runs Elegant Manners International, an etiquette program in the East End devoted to business and social manners, and recently added a lesson on "the art and etiquette of English afternoon tea."

"I've had a few people who are planning a trip to London and they want to know how to drink tea correctly. But what I find is that some people just have a general interest in etiquette and this is an introduction to that - and it's a social affair, too," said Metzgar. "Just the idea of meeting without an agenda other than socializing, maybe it's the fact that it's something different. I think there's something about just relaxing, enjoying one another and taking a break - a real break - from your normal routine."

Metzgar's small studio is decorated like an English sitting room, and when I arrived for my lesson, she had already set up a full table of tea paraphernalia: tea kettle, cups and saucers, silver and glass dishes holding sugar, honey, clotted cream, jam and lemon slices, plus a three-tiered tray containing, from the bottom up, finger sandwiches, scones and macarons.

I sat, at Metzgar's invitation, on the sofa facing her. Without any instruction on posture, I found it easiest to simply mimic her pose: back straight, perched on the seat at a 45-degree angle with legs crossed at the ankle. After serving me a cup of her favorite tea, a blend of green and oolong, Metzgar went over the basics of how to drink tea like a lady. Proper form includes picking up the saucer from the table and holding it on or near your lap, while being careful never to bring it too close to your face where it would appear its purpose is to collect spills.

The spoon should stir the tea silently, without clanging against the bottom or sides of the cup (this is trickier than it looks when honey is involved) and always placed on the saucer on the side of the cup facing you, so as not to offend others with the sight of your used teaspoon. When sipping the tea, it's proper to look into the teacup rather than at others around you. Metzgar said this practice evolved as a gesture of trust, while I prefer to think it's a foolproof method for not spilling the contents all over yourself.

There's also a proper way to hold a sandwich - never with more than three fingers, lest you look like a clod - and to apply the clotted cream and jam to a scone, slathering both only on the bite of pastry you intend to consume. If these were once rules, Metzgar presents them as guidelines that, once mastered, will give the user confidence in any social situation.

I soon realized the elaborate dance of afternoon tea is designed to keep all parties present and engaged, and despite the many rules and fancy equipment, the purpose of all of it is to facilitate real conversation over a reasonable, pre-determined time period. There are no decisions to be made beyond how much sugar to take in your tea, no wondering when you should check your watch and begin a series of polite apologies before heading towards the door.

With a saucer balanced in your lap and three fingers on your cucumber sandwich, there's not even a free hand with which to scan Twitter on your smartphone.

Despite the charms of a comfy seat and a perfectly poured cup of fragrant darjeeling, that might be the most relaxing part of all.