I admit it: I have been so totally caught-up in, mesmerized by, and consumed with all of the hype surrounding London in recent months that I have been stricken with a raging case of “English fever.”
It’s not my fault though. First was the hoopla surrounding the nuptials of Wills and Kate. Next, it was the fanfare and festivities involved with fêting the Queen for for her Diamond Jubilee. Then, just when my fever was starting to subside, the pomp, circumstance and excitement of the Olympics cropped up, catapulting me into the throes of another episode of UK malaise.
Indeed, all of the media coverage on the United Kingdom in recent months has caused me to be afflicted with the overwhelming urge to watch a 24-hour marathon of Downton Abbey, buy a cache of fascinators and use the phrase "Bloody hell" in every other sentence.
According to lore, sometime around the early 19th century the Duchess of Bedford decided that having just two meals a day was for the birds; she needed more sustenance.
Now it could be true that perhaps a smidgen of my English fever can be attributed to being overdue for a trip to London (I haven't been since 2004), but since I am currently unable to drop everything and make a mad dash for Heathrow, I have to cure the latest relapse of my British illness by other means. To that end, I have decided to quell my London longings by partaking of one of England's quintessential, and most delightful, traditions: Afternoon tea.
So exactly how did this tradition originate? I’m glad you asked. Prior to the tradition of taking afternoon tea, the English dined only at breakfast and dinner. According to lore, sometime around the early 19th century, the Duchess of Bedford decided that having just two meals a day was for the birds; she needed more sustenance.
Perhaps afraid to appear a tad unladylike, the Duchess initially had the servants sneak tea and pastries to her, but being the ever clever woman she soon came up with the idea of inviting other ladies to join her so that it became a social affair. Eating an extra meal alone might make a lady appear gluttonous, but add friends into the mix and suddenly the midday noshing was considered a party!
History lesson’s over, let’s talk tea particulars. First, there's some discrepancy about whether to call it “high tea” or “afternoon tea.”
Traditionally, afternoon tea was a societal event where ladies who wished to climb the ladder of high society would gather to indulge in tea and treats prior to the late evening meal. Afternoon tea was enjoyed sitting at low tables, in low chairs, and is actually also referred to as “low tea.” Conversely, “high tea” was a term that evolved during late 19th century used to describe the hearty (and necessary) meal for the working class that was eaten at a large, high dining table. Ah, those clever Brits!
In addition, there are small distinctions between the different types of afternoon teas. Here’s a quick breakdown:
• "Full Tea” — Tea, scones, small cakes, finger sandwiches and other sweets and savories
• “Light Tea” — Tea, scones and sweets
• “Champagne Tea” — A full tea that includes, of course, champagne (or sparkling wine)
• “Cream Tea” — Tea, scones, jam, and Devonshire or clotted cream
• “Strawberry Tea” — A cream tea that features fresh strawberries, strawberry cakes and strawberry trifles (strawberries are revered since they herald the arrival of summer for Brits)
No matter what you call it, and no matter what kind of tea it is, the most important aspects are to select a place where you can truly relax, indulge in some delectable treats and, ultimately, feel as though you are being treated like royalty.
With that said, here are some of the best afternoon tea experiences in Houston and the surrounding area:
Civilized Longevi-Tea at the St. Regis Hotel
The St. Regis is the place for the consummate afternoon tea, on the menu since October of 1989. Tea service is an elegant affair held in the hotel’s designated “Tea Lounge” and includes butler service and a harpist to add to the overall ambiance and experience.
The menu includes petit fours, finger sandwiches, and scones with Devonshire cream that is flown in fresh every week. If possible, request a table by the window. The scenery is so relaxing that you may just find yourself mentally drifting away…that is, until the attentive butler brings your next plate of delectable treats.
Deep in the Heart of Tea-xas at The Four Seasons Hotel
The Four Seasons Hotel is the newest player in the afternoon tea game, having started tea service in February. Living up to its reputation for being highly distinctive, the hotel has come right out of the gate with a spectacular tea-time twist.
The hotel’s “Texas Tea” offers delectable noshes such as poached quail egg with truffle aioli on Texas toast and lobster salad sliders on buns provided by the local, and much-beloved, Slow Dough bakery.
If your britches aren’t big enough to handle all of that “everything’s bigger and better” Texas-ness, the regular traditional tea is also available. When you go, ask for wonderfully charming Quattro general manager Brane Poledica. He’ll make sure you feel like a monarch.
Tea with a Duke at Hotel Granduca
Granduca means “Grand Duke” in Italian, so while you might not see the duke himself, you’ll certainly feel like you are in the company of royalty. The hotel serves a traditional tea service in beautifully appointed surroundings and sippers have their choice of taking tea in Bar Malatesta, The Conservatory or The Library.
The Granduca also has the distinction of being the only place in Houston where you can get full afternoon tea service on a daily basis, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Sunday.
Tea, Bollywood-style at Kiran's
Tea at Kiran’s is held only on the second Saturday of each month, so if you miss it you’ll have a long wait until the next one. Naturally, this tea is delightfully interwoven with Indian influences such as samosas with fig chutney and tandoori salmon “ladyfinger” sandwiches, but there are plenty of traditional bites too such as scones and English cucumber sandwiches.
The tea can be elevated to a Champagne tea, and if you’re and feeling particularly “cheeky,” you can get your tea with a splash of Grand Marnier for a small additional charge.
Although the English today enjoy afternoon tea as only an occasional indulgence to celebrate a special occasion or event, it’s all in what one considers “special.” The Games happen only once every four years which is worth commemorating, right? Afternoon-tea Olympics-watch party, anyone?