- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Karen Stroman remembers growing up in a house where her mother always made tea. In her hometown of Watford in Hertfordshire, England, drinking tea was a common practice.

After moving to the United States in 1991, she missed having a place to have tea with friends and opened Aylesbury Tea Room in Leesburg, Va., in May. She runs the business with her friend and co-worker Jessica Billigmeier from Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, England.

“You would never find a British home without a teakettle,” Mrs. Stroman says. “Tea is always supposed to make you feel better. A cup of tea fixes everything. If something upsets you, take a few minutes and take a break. It restores the well-being.”

Afternoon tea is a tradition many Americans have adopted from the British. Although people enjoy visiting local tearooms, hosting an afternoon tea at home can be a fun way to entertain. A high tea, or “meat tea,” usually is served with heavier food in a formal setting.

The practice began when the British needed a meal to keep them going between an early lunch and late dinner, Mrs. Stroman says. The Aylesbury Tea Room is open Thursdays through Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m.

A three-tier tray of food is featured in a full afternoon tea, Mrs. Stroman says. On the top tier, Aylesbury Tea Room serves tea sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Egg salad, smoked ham, cheese with tomato, and cucumber with cream cheese are favorites. Bridal showers, baby showers and birthday parties can be celebrated with tea.

Scones are layered on the middle tier. Scones often are made with fruit and taste good with strawberry preserves. Most people eat their scones with clotted cream, a thick cream common in Britain, also sometimes called Double Devon Cream. It’s the first cream from the top of the milk.

Clotted cream is made from cow’s milk, says Jennifer Fiorenza, owner of Crown and Thistle Tea Room in Sparks, Md.

Although clotted cream can be bought at most speciality food stores, an American version of it can be made at home, she says. Place about 1 cup of heavy whipping cream on the stove on high and add 1 tablespoon of sugar and 2 tablespoons of sour cream.

“You put it on a stove and let it stay there all day,” Mrs. Fiorenza says. “It boils down to a thick cream. It’s not very healthy for you, but it tastes good.”

Too many people in today’s society don’t have time for a cup of tea, she says.

“They are more of the McDonald’s mind-set,” Mrs. Fiorenza says. “With afternoon tea, you are forced to sit there and enjoy the food and people.”

In fact, many Americans forget to cut their scones in half before eating them, Mrs. Stroman says. Although it tastes the same however it’s enjoyed, the proper way to eat a scone is to slice it in half and then smother the halves with preserves and add a dollop of cream in the center.

The bottom tier of the tray usually is filled with pastries, cakes and biscuits, also known as cookies, she says. Seasonal fruit, such as strawberries, grapes and orange slices are included as well.

If people can’t eat all the food in a full afternoon tea, serving tea with scones, jam and cream is an option. Either way, cream is for scones and not for tea, Mrs. Stroman says. It is too thick to dissolve in the tea.

“Don’t put cream in your tea,” Mrs. Stroman says. “Sometimes people aren’t sure and don’t know, and it’s a huge faux pas.”

Using a saucepan to make tea is another culturally shocking thing many Americans do, Mrs. Stroman says.

When she first moved to the United States, she had to order an electric kettle from Canada. Electric kettles are common in England, but most Americans boil water on the stove with an old-fashioned kettle, or they microwave their water, she says. However, today, electric kettles can be bought at many stores.

“Tea should be made in a pot with freshly boiled water,” Mrs. Stroman says.

After the water is boiled, a drop of water should be used to warm the teapot, to prevent it from cracking. Then the drop of water should be poured out. The teapot is filled with hot water, and the tea is added, she says. A tea cozy keeps the pot warm.

Tea always tastes better out of a bone-china cup rather than a heavy-handed mug, Mrs. Stroman says. Yorkshire Tea is the main tea served at Aylesbury Tea Room. Earl Grey tea, fruit teas, herbal teas and decaffeinated teas also are popular. Milk or lemon can be added to the tea.

“If you take milk, pour milk in the teacup first, then tea, then sugar or sweetener,” Mrs. Stroman says. “Or you can drink straight tea with lemon and sugar or sweetener.”

Mixing lemon with milk in tea also is considered a faux pas in England, she says, but some Americans do it even though the lemon curdles the milk.

Delicate linens and napkins can be used to decorate the table. A cake fork, spoon and a knife to cut the scones should be part of the table setting. Flowers can add to the mood. A trolly cart can be used for serving.

Some people prefer loose leaf tea over tea bags, says Erin Bradley, co-owner of Tea by Two in Bel Air, Md.

“You are actually getting the full leaf of the tea plant,” Ms.Bradley says. “With most bagged tea, if you open a bag, you will find very small pieces and dust.”

When Ms. Bradley has tea at her house for friends, she usually hosts an informal gathering, where her friends can choose their teacups. While traveling, she collects special teacups and teapots. She displays them in a cabinet in her home.

At a formal high tea, more substantive food is served, such as shepherd’s pie, usually combined with the menu of a regular afternoon tea, says Joan Byrnes, owner of Tea, Lace and Roses in Culpeper, Va. Some guests might enjoy coffee, champagne or wine with the meal.

Dressing up with hats, boas, jewelry and white gloves is another way to add excitement to the get-together, she says. Afternoon tea shouldn’t be costly; it should just be fun.

“You can do it with fine china, linen and sterling silver,” Ms. Byrnes says. “You can also do it with much more everyday dishes and paper napkins, even though critics will say it’s not appropriate. You can do it on a limited budget. Have a good tea. Cut the crusts off the sandwiches. Make it something special.”

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