Where Have All the Tea Rooms Gone?

My first visit to a tea room was in London in 1986.  During that trip, I visited as many as I could, from the grand Afternoon Tea hotel experience to the simple, unassuming village repast.  I took what I learned and incorporated it into my business – serving tea to our guests.  They loved it.  And the business flourished.

My next visit to a tea room was in this country, ten years later (I had been busy, very busy).  What I didn’t realize, or perhaps had forgotten, was how much I had enjoyed afternoon tea.  It was relaxing … refreshing … and, yes, even rejuvenating.  I know.  I know.  It’s those three “r’s”, but it really was true.  Was it the tea, the rituals which surround tea, or was it the camaraderie  of being with like-minded friends, sharing food and an experience?  I’m not sure, but, from that moment on, I knew I had found my “happy place”.

An acquaintance soon became a good friend, especially after I found out she and her friends had formed a “tea club”.  Each month they would travel to a different tea room, as a group, and share in the tea experience.  Of course, that didn’t prevent any of them from visiting their local tea rooms at every opportunity.  Immediately, I became a proud member of the tea club.

TEA TIME Magazine

As a group, we’d do our research:  tea magazines, websites, chat groups, word-of-mouth.  We’d be there for the grand opening of the newest tea room, as well as always revisiting past favorites.  There were so many tea rooms to choose from.  We traveled all around New England and then up and down the East Coast.  If the distance was more than 100 miles, we would organize an entire weekend around one or two tea room visits.  The weekends always included staying at a local bed and breakfast, antique shopping and, of course, lots of good food.  Repeat tea room visits ended with our befriending the owners and their staff.  They now becoming “tea friends”.  Our group and tea family grew.

But, no more!

For years, we enjoyed these afternoon tea sojourns … until suddenly … we ran out of tea rooms!  At one time, we could choose from hundreds, now there are perhaps one or two.  I understand tea rooms are, in reality, a restaurant and restaurants are a hard business, a very hard business.  I understand the profit margins are very low.  I understand the owners want to retire.  I understand there’s no interest in the next generation to take over or start up a tea room.  I understand real estate is very expensive.  The reality is I have been a business owner … and I understand.  But, I don’t like it.

Wenham Tea House, Wenham, MA

Did you know tea rooms were the first “women owned” businesses in the U.S.?  At the turn of the century American hotels were mimicking their European counterparts by serving Afternoon Tea in their restaurants, but this was not something a woman could participate in without a male escort.  Unescorted women would not be served.

In the cities and the countryside enterprising women began realizing that women of all classes wanted the ability to socialize outside of the home together, without the required male escort.  They also knew that we were becoming a more mobile and motorized society.  Women in the villages and small towns began turning their front parlors, or shed, or back kitchen into an inviting area where they could serve road-weary travelers a hearty cuppa and something to go along with it.  In the city, middle class women opened their front parlors for other women to gather and enjoy each other’s company without the required ‘man by their side’.  The American tearoom was born.

Tea at Charters Towers, 1880, Courtesy of New Old Stock

These businesses were important.  This was the first opportunity women had to start their own businesses, earning an income, without leaving their homes.  By adding handicrafts and baked goods made by the townspeople, the tearoom also offered a means for others to earn money.  Tea rooms played an important role in our society, our culture and to women.  But now its 2018 and everything is changing.  Why?  Are we all so busy that we haven’t the time or the interest to support this traditional women-owned business?  Are we too sophisticated, or too jaded?  Do we have to be stimulated by something new all the time?  What has happened to the value and importance of traditions?

I can’t stress enough how important it is for you to support your local tea room … woman owned or not.  Small businesses are an important part of our heritage.  Do we really want every shop, restaurant, business in every town to look like the every other shop, restaurant or business?

There are a few tea rooms left around the New England area.  Not many.  I can’t recommend enough that you visit them.  Each is unique, wonderful and an experience you’ll always treasure.  Do it now before they too are gone forever!

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Tea Rooms to Visit in the Greater Boston area
FANCY THAT
WENHAM TEA HOUSE
BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY
THE TEA LEAF
THE DUNBAR TEA ROOM
HEATH’S TEA ROOM
COZY TEA CART

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TEA in SPAIN

I really should title this post “Searching for Tea in Spain” … because I was hard pressed on our recent trip to find any.  No, I’m not talking about the obligatory selection of tea bags sitting next to the carafe of hot water at the breakfast buffet in the hotel.  And, of course, if you ordered tea at a cafe or restaurant, you were served tea … sometimes even in a teapot.  What I was hoping to discover was a love for, a connection with, or history of  … ‘tea’.

We started in the capital of Spain and the third largest city in Europe, Madrid.  An exciting city, full of vitality and passion, and now well on its way to shaking off the financial woes it experienced during the past decade, but even in the heavily traveled tourist areas, no outward signs of “tea” existed.  What was I looking for?  Perhaps a retail store, tea room, even a tea display or sign … something that beckoned the tea drinker.  Nothing.

We then traveled south into the magnificent area of Andalusia with its vast savannahs filled with olive groves and vineyards, surrounded by the majestic Sierra mountain ranges.  Our visits to the white-washed villages of Cordoba, Toledo, and Ronda were breathtaking … but no ‘tea’.

We marveled at the Roman ruins in Merida, the medieval walled city of Carceres, and hoped to see a bullfight in Seville, but didn’t.  We climbed the narrow stone steps into the cathedral towers, got lost in the maze of winding alleyways, clapped to the beat of the flamenco guitar, and ate tapas, authentic tapas, some spicy, a few not, some raw, others fried … but no ‘tea’.

We strolled through the lively gypsy neighborhoods, wondered at the priceless art collections, and indulged in an occasional afternoon siesta.  We attended the prestigious annual patios festival, took photographs of the vibrantly festooned balconies, and dunked our churros into hot, thick dark chocolate.  We drank red wines and white wines from the local vineyards; rich, red, fruity sangria, and syrupy sweet sherry over ice … but we didn’t drink ‘tea’.

Until we came to Granada.

Granada is one of the most important cities in Spain’s rich history.  Settled by the Phoenicians until the Romans overtook it in the 3rd century; by the 5th century Rome had fallen and Granada was then ruled by the Visigoths.  The Visigoths held this area for a few hundred years until Muslim forces coming from Morocco across the Strait of Gibralta, conquered it around 1010.  The Muslims remained in power, living side-by-side with Christians and Jews, until 1492 (hmmmm, that date sounds familiar), when Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand took control.  Why is any of this important?  Because during the Muslim rule, the city became one of the richest cities in medieval  Europe.  Trade routes from Morocco were open and the artistic and scientific communities flourished.  With these trade routes came silk, cotton, paper and … ‘tea’.

Yes, “TEA” is alive and well in Granada!   Although the Muslims were forced out of the city by the 15th century, their influence has remained.  Within the old Moorish district of Granada, known as the Albayzin, there are Arabic tea houses or teterias.   A narrow, cobblestone paved street called “Calle Caldereria Nueva” is as close to a Moroccan souk as you can find, crammed full of trinkets, rugs, lanterns and it is dotted with tea houses!  No, you will not find bone china cups and saucers.  There’s not a scone or tea cake anywhere around.  But what you will find are lavishly decorated, intimate cafes serving loose leaf tea.

Calle Caldereria Nueva

So while sitting on a long, pillow-topped divan, with heavy drapery covered walls, in a Moroccan-inspired tearoom, sipping a hot steaming cup of mint tea, what I learned was, in Spain, unless you are visiting Granada, it is “coffee country”.

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References:  Wikipedia, Andalucia, Love Granada, Trip Savvy,
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CHAI … it’s sordid beginnings

In many languages “cha” or “chai” is the word for tea.  Chai, or Masala tea as it is called in India, is that milky, spicy, sweet, hot beverage we’ve all come to love.  Knowing the humble origins of chai, I’m amazed when I go to stores like Home Goods or TJ Maxx or even Ocean State Job Lot to see ‘chai‘ in shelf-stable packages, pre-made and ready to drink.  Actually I shouldn’t be surprised at all.  As much as we might love this spicy beverage, we’ve become a country in which we are so busy, we don’t have time to sit, relax and enjoy the process of … making chai, baking bread, growing herbs .  I’m one of those people, however, who tries to make time for it all.

I find the story of how Chai began quite fascinating, because it tells the story of tea … with all its grit, espionage, smuggling and deceit.  Chai has one of those sordid origins where it was bred out of necessity, much like soul food.  People had to eat (or in this case, drink) what was available.  If they didn’t they went hungry, and in most cases, they would die.

Let’s start at the very beginning.  It was 1848 and the East India Company had lost its monopoly on the China tea trade.  The Chinese were resentful that Britain attempted to addict their entire nation to opium and refused to do business with them.  The whole of Great Britain was now demanding “tea” and It was imperative that the British government establish its own independent tea supply.  But where and how?

Among botanist Robert Fortune’s tasks in China was to learn the procedure for manufacturing tea, as shown in this 18th century tea plantation. (The Granger Collection, New York)

A Scotsman by the name of Robert Fortune, curator and botanist of the Royal Horticultural Society, was asked by the East India Company to go on a “tea-discovery” mission to China.  Little did Fortune know that he was about to become an international man of espionage.  For three years, disguised as a Mandarin, Fortune visited the most famous tea districts, kept meticulous notes on the soil, the pruning, plucking and manufacturing process, and systematically collected seeds and plants.  By 1851, Fortune had amassed such knowledge, and plants, that he filled four vessels sailing from Hong Kong to Calcutta with thousands of plants, seedlings and had hired a team of experienced Chinese tea workers.

While Robert Fortune was busy collecting specimens, Robert Bruce, a fellow Scotsman, was meeting with one of the chiefs of the Singpho tribe in Assam, India.  The Singpho tribe, as the Chinese and other tribes in Southeast Asia, had also been making tea for centuries.   A tea committee was immediately formed to explore the possibilities of growing tea in this Assam region, which lies just to the west of China.

And then the takeover began.  Britain appeared to align themselves with the tribes, but their intent was to take over this territory.  They began by moving into this area and stripping the tribal people of their land, and then increasing the land tax to the point where the Assamese were unable to pay it.  This forced the Assamese to work clearing their own swampy, mosquito-laden land for the future tea gardens of their new British land “lords”.

These indigenous people had no experience laboring in this manner, and under deplorable working conditions.  The  British viewed them as “lazy, indolent and miserable”.  As a result, the British began “importing” labor from other parts of India. This “importing” of labor was, in fact, slavery.  Recruiting agents were sent into rural areas and promised a good wage and better life to men, women and children … ‘recruits’ who willing to immigrate to Assam.  When they had enough ‘recruits’ from one area, they loaded them onto overcrowded boats with appalling conditions for the six- to eight-week trip up the Brahmaputra River.  Many of the men, women and children, or ‘coolies’ as they were called (the term ‘coolie’ is believed to originate from the Tamil word for wages, ‘kuli’), died from cholera, dysentery, malaria or typhoid fever.  The ones who did survive were put to work no matter how sick, hungry or tired.  They were managed with whips, lived in pitiful huts, were chronically ill and malnourished, and unable to escape.

Most often the only source of nourishment for the ‘coolies’ was rice and tea.  No, not a good quality tea, but tea made from the dregs of the pluckings, infused with some milk for nourishment, sugar for energy, and spices to cover up the bad taste.   As a result, coolies suffered a very high mortality rate.  Between 1863 and 1866 half of the 84,000 laborers brought into this area died.  As I said, the history of “tea” and this now-beloved drink isn’t the sweetest tale.  Many thousands upon thousands of people died from malnourishment, disease and mistreatment.

Born out of necessity, today “chai” is the national drink of India. From sipping chai in someone’s home, while making a purchase in a shop, at a train station, or on a street corner, you can’t visit India without experiencing this unique culture.   Chaiwallahs are on every street corner in every village and town, ready to serve you a small cup or glass of this wonderful beverage.  Each may have their own special recipe or preparation style, but rest assured, each is as delicious as the next.

Everywhere in India there are chaiwallahs on the street with large kettles selling their spicy tea steeped with boiled milk and sugar. Because of the stiff competition between chaiwallahs, each tries to develop a unique style.

While specific recipes can vary, the black tea is always brewed with a blend of spices, generally cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, ginger, and cloves, with the addition of milk and sugar or honey.  In the U.S., some folks steep their tea together with milk, spices and sweetener. Others steep the tea and spices together, then add the milk and sweetener. A third group steeps the tea, stirs in the sweetener, and enjoys it without milk. It’s your choice.

We enjoy ours best steeped in a saucepan for 10 minutes or more with equal parts water and milk and one teaspoon of tea, spices and sugar for every 8 ounces of liquid.  Milk may burn if the heat is too high, so steep the heat at a medium temperature for about 10 to 15 minutes. After steeping, strain into a pot, and enjoy.

Yes, making it yourself does take about 15 minutes or more, and you can certainly buy prepared chai in bottles or packages, or even dry chai mixes, but taking those 15 minutes is so worthwhile.  And, if you make too much, just put it into the refrigerator and enjoy it cold the next day, over ice, or reheat it.  In the summertime, I love to make chai shakes … with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the blender.  Try it.  It’s absolutely delicious!!

I may occasionally order a chai (notice I didn’t say “chai latté”), in a café, but I really enjoy making it at home.  The aroma of those comforting spices steeping in that dark, rich tea just relaxes the senses and puts me in that “happy” place.

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References:  TEA by Roy Moxham, The Heritage of Indian Tea by D.K. Taknet, For All The Tea in China by Sarah Rose, Academia, Teatulia, Smithsonian

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MACARONS or MACAROONS?

This is the trendiest dessert/cookie to hit the food industry since probably Baked Alaska.  No, not the coconut “macaroon” you see in the grocery stores at Passover, I’m talking about the classic, tiny, ganache-filled French Macaron … pronounced with a short “O” like “on” not a looong “O” as in “une” … and made with ground almonds, not shredded coconut.

I first discovered this little, crunchy, chewy, filled confection quite a few years ago at a patisserie in London.  There were trays and trays of the pastel-colored cookies lined up in the window.  The colorful display and the exactness of each cookie was eye-catching to say the least.  The next time I saw them was a few years later at a wholesale food show in New York City, and buyers were standing in line to place their orders.  I stood in line too (not to place an order, but just to sample one).  A delicate, light, crunchy exterior with a soft and gooey interior … maybe one of the best little mouthfuls of sweetness I’ve ever had.  Fast forward to today and now these little confections are everywhere!!!  Not only on bakery shelves, but packaged macarons can even be found at Home Goods and Marshalls!  Really??

The Middle East should really be credited with giving us the origins of the macaron.  By the 1st century, they were exploring the culinary possibilities of adding honey, fruit and nuts to food, which resulted with almonds becoming their biggest export.  By the 7th century Persians were indulging in rich, luxurious cakes and pastries, made from these ground almonds called “marzipan”.  These treats reached Europe by the 14th century and it is actually Italians who created this little marzipan nugget.  The name “macaron” comes from the Italian word for paste which is “macaroni” (pasta is a paste made from flour, water and eggs).  I grew up calling pasta macaroni, didn’t you?

The cookies were produced in Venetian monasteries for centuries.  They were referred to simply  as “priest’s bellybuttons” because of the round shape.  You have to know that these cookies were rather plain in color and not sandwiched together as they are today.  In fact, the Italian amaretti cookie is also a ‘macaron’.  The differences are the amaretti is still not sandwiched together with a filling and is flavored with an almond liqueur.

The cookies remained an Italian treat until the Italian princess, Catherine de’ Medici, requested her pastry chefs travel with her to France to make these little delicacies which were to be served at her wedding to the future king of France, Henri II.  This all occurred in the 16th century, but the almond meringue cookies didn’t become popular until the 18th century when, during the French Revolution, two Benedictine nuns began making and selling the cookies in order to support themselves.  Sister Marguerite Gaillot and Sister Marie-Elisabeth Morlot became so popular they were referred to as the “Macaron Sisters” and the  village of Nancy in France has now dedicated a square to them.

The delicate, yet crisp meringue cookie stayed very traditional until 1930.  It was the brilliant idea of chef Pierre Desfontaines, grandson of the founder of the famous French Ladurée Tea Rooms, to elevate the cookie from its humble beginnings to what we know today.  Desfontaines quite simply decided to take the two cookies and sandwich them together with a ganache filling.  The tea rooms became the fashionable spot for London’s grand dames to gather, enjoying not only a pot of tea, but macarons as well.  Today Ladurée claims to sell over fifteen thousand cookies every day!

Have you ever been to Ladurée?  I have not (but I adore PAUL, their smaller venue).
Ladurée is definitely on my bucket list!!

The myriad of colors and flavors, shapes and sizes, available in shops today are never ending — from mint to chocolate chip, peanut butter and jelly, to lemon or peach, pistachio or strawberry cheesecake, salted pretzel, maple and, of course, pumpkin.  On and on it goes.  Every cafe in Europe has macarons on their menu, including McDonald’s in France and Australia.  If McDonald’s here in the U.S. sold macarons, I might even consider going.

Baking shows on the Food Network use the macaron as one of the ultimate baking challenges.  They can’t be that difficult to make, can they?  After watching an episode of Jacques Pepin’s cooking show, he made it appear so simple, using prepared marzipan (almond paste), beaten egg whites and sugar.  Mix it all together and pipe onto parchment paper, let rest and then bake.  Well, if Jacques Pepin says they are easy to make, then I’m going to give it a try.  And I have the perfect party coming up this weekend.  So here goes ….

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References:  The Nibble, The Daily Meal, Culture Trip, WikipediaBon Jour Paris

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BREAKFAST TEAS

Have you ever had one of those nights when you’re laying in bed and your head becomes full of the most bizarre, unrelated thoughts.  As hard as you try to toss them aside, you can’t.  Those thoughts just keep coming back into your consciousness … rolling around and around and around.  Well, that’s exactly what happened to me last night.  And, for some reason, the subject was breakfast teas.  Yes, I know … bizarre!   English Breakfast and Scottish Breakfast to be exact.

What kept occurring to me was, “why do they exist?”  Although I’ve traveled through all the wonderful countries of Great Britain, never have I seen (except in grocery stores), been offered or served a “breakfast tea”.  I’ve been served PG Tips, Yorkshire Gold, Barry’s, Twining’s, A&P, Tetley and a variety of unknown bagged teas.  I’ve also been served, on one occasion, a very nice Ceylon.  But never anything for breakfast called “breakfast tea” whether it’s from England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist or aren’t being sold in grocery stores.  Barry’s now has an English Breakfast and Taylor’s even has a Scottish Breakfast.

Here in the States, however, many tea drinkers think you need to start the day with a breakfast tea … most often, English Breakfast, but, of course, if you are a “real tea drinker” then it’s Irish Breakfast.  Why would all of this be running around in my head at 3am?  I don’t know.  But the more I tried to put it away, the more I tried to understand it.

As a tea retailer, my English Breakfast tea … a bright blend of assertive Ceylon and hearty Assam with a burgundy-like Keemun … was by far my most popular seller until that is, customers started asking for something stronger.  They needed a tea that packed the punch of a cuppa coffee … something that would stand up better to milk and sugar.   Knowing that Barry’s packed a punch, I created a tea much like it … a rich, dark blend of high-quality CTC (cut, torn and curled) malty Assams … Irish Breakfast it was!  And it was a huge hit.  But now other customers said it was too assertive, too rich, too dark.  You cannot please everyone, I guess, so back to the blending table.

I felt like Goldilocks and the Three Bears … if the Daddy Bear Irish Breakfast was too strong, and the Baby Bear English Breakfast was too weak, then we needed a Momma Bear.  How about … Scottish Breakfast!

Scottish Breakfast became an even bigger success than English or Irish.  Every customer loved it.  A blend of orthodox full-bodied Assams with just a hint of Ceylons, it struck the right balance between the two.  It held its own with milk and sugar, or dark right from the pot.  It was such a success that orders for 2, 3 and 5 lbs. were coming in continuously.  Customers didn’t want to run out.  Even today, although I’ve closed up shop, I still get requests for “Scottish Breakfast” tea.

But the question still remains unanswered.  With more than 3500 varieties of teas available including Assams, Keemuns, Ceylons, Yunnans, Darjeelings, white teas, green teas, pu-erhs and oolongs, teas from countries all over the world, China, India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Nepal, Kenya, Japan, then why are breakfast teas still so much in demand here in the States?

And as I sit here this morning enjoying a delicate cup of fragrant, light  Silver Needles with its hint of sweetness, this question remains unanswered and still continues to run through my head.

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Why Was the Hatter MAD?

Who doesn’t love the nonsensical story of a bored little girl, Alice in Wonderland?  This classic book, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, written by Lewis Carroll (Charles L. Dodgson) in 1871, has been translated in over 100 languages, has never been out of print and from which 17 movies have been made, the first being filmed in 1903.

I’ve written about Alice before … to mark her 150th Anniversary.  Check out the link if you are interested in learning more.  This time, however, I’m more interested in the less-than-subtle character of The Mad Hatter. You have to admit Carroll’s characters are incredibly delightful and entertaining.  Each character is a vivid portrayal of the people in Charles Dodgson’s (Lewis Carroll) world.  As Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, etc. each wrote about people with whom they were familiar, interesting characters who were actually part of their lives. How could you not love the Queen of Hearts (Queen Victoria) or the Cheshire Cat?  Of course, the tea party wouldn’t be complete without the Dormouse and the March Hare.

My favorite, and apparently Tim Burton’s as well, is The Mad Hatter.  But my question is, “why was the Hatter mad?”  In the book, he was never referred to as The Mad Hatter.  He is referred to only as “The Hatter”.   It is certainly apparent, however, with his constant barrage of questions, reciting silly poetry and songs, darting in and out of seats at the never-ending tea party, that he is without a doubt, MAD as a HATTER.   Where did this catch phrase and this character come from?

After visiting a “living history” (their words, not mine) museum this past weekend, I learned that “hat manufacturers” from the 18th and 19th century were ‘mad’, with acute cases of dementia, tremors and the like.  It seems the chemicals used to cure the felt used in hat-making included mercurious nitrate.  And we all now know the dangers of being exposed to mercury.  Mercury poisoning from the prolonged exposure to the vapors of mercury causes uncontrollable muscular tremors, distorted vision and confused speech, not to mention hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms.  Dementia was a common ailment for Victorian-era hat makers.  Hence the term “mad as a hatter”.

Theophilus Carter – 1824-1904

Carroll knew one such interesting character by the name of Theophilus Carter, who, it is believed, could have been the inspiration for “the hatter”. Theo wasn’t actually a ‘hatter’ himself, but rather an upholsterer and furniture maker, and a very eccentric and flamboyant one at that.  Often seen standing at the door to his Oxford shop with his infamous top hat perched on the back of his head.  Could Theo have come in contact with mercury vapors while making and upholstering furniture?  Possibly.

How did the process for using mercury to cure felt begin?  It seems that it can be traced back to the Middle East where camel hair was used for the felt material from which fez hats are made. The demand for these hats was tremendous after Sultan Mahud made them fashionable and mandatory for his military.  It was discovered, quite by accident, that the felting process could be hurried up if the pelts were soaked with urine, camel urine to be specific.

19th Century Hat Making

The fashion for felt hats moved north into Europe and with it the manufacturing.  But, camel urine was unavailable.  It is believed that workmen in France, not having camels handy, used their own urine.  Interestingly, one workman in this particular French factory seemed to produce a consistently superior felt. This workman, it was discovered, was being treated for syphilis, with regular doses of a mercury compound.   The connection between the mercury in his urine and the improved fibers of the felt were made and thus began the widespread use of mercury nitrate in felt making.

As a result, mercury poisoning became endemic with hat makers.  Although the hatters were exposed to the mercury fumes in the making of the felt, the wearers were not.  The vapors would have dissipated long before the hat was worn. Needless to say, this process is now banned in the U.S. and Europe.  And now we know why “the hatter was MAD“.

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“In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw round,
“lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw,
“lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here.
I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be, said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

 

The March Hare and the Hatter put the Dormouse’s head in a teapot, by Sir John Tenniel.

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References:  Wikipedia, Corrosion Doctors, Alice in Wonderland, American Chemical Society,

The Great British Tea Break

What has happened to the great British tea break?  The “tea break” was just a mere 15 minutes, mid-morning and mid-afternoon, where all work stopped to allow workers to regroup, relax for a few moments, and share in a cuppa.  And it seems this lack of preserving traditions that were once very important is sadly happening all over the world.  In the States we’ve also done away with the once mandatory, twice-daily coffee break.  The lowly, but very important, tea break is just another British tradition that is slowly becoming extinct.  In today’s fast-paced, head-down, remote-access, work-at-home workplace, people, not only in Great Britain, but around the globe, just don’t have the time to stop and put the kettle on.

During the industrial revolution, a typical British laborer would start their day around 5 or 6 am. By mid-morning, a bit of fatigue would set in and employers realizing that their employees needed a bit of bolstering, would let their workers have a 15-minute break. Realizing that this “tea break” was a way of boosting productivity, they implemented a 15-minute afternoon break as well. Considering where most laborers worked – cold, drafty factories, warehouses and mines – coupled with England’s often damp and bone-chilling weather, you can understand how much a hot, hearty cuppa would be looked forward to.

For the better part of two hundred years, these 15-minute breaks where a worker could ‘have a sit down‘ with a hot cuppa and a biscuit, and share a story or two with a fellow co-worker, were an integral part of the workday.

The industrial revolution also brought with it ‘trade unions’.  Working conditions were, for the most part, so deplorable that people began to organize in an attempt to implement labor guidelines and safety measures, provide higher wages and benefits. Over time, however, the trade unions grew so large and powerful they became some of the biggest political forces in Great Britain.

In the 1970s, British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, aka “Iron Lady”, began to break up the stronghold these powerful trade unions had on the economy and political scene.  To many people, especially those who worked in heavy industry and the public sector, this was a devastating move.  Workers took to the streets, from the north to the south, and began to strike.  “Tea Breaks” became the battle cry.

During the strikes, people endured electricity shortages and trying to buy candles … three-day work weeks and not earning enough money to afford heat … baking your own bread because bakers were on strike … rat-infested piles of garbage lining the street … the army recruited to put out fires because firemen were striking.  It’s amazing the U.K. survived such turbulent times.  But through it all, there was the “tea break”.

The traditional ‘tea break’ was once upheld as an important social activity in the workplace, but no more.  A recent study in the U.K. of over 2,000 workers were asked about ‘tea breaks’ and, sadly, 76% responded they were to busy to take a proper break.  Stepping away from the desk or workstation for a short break has actually been shown to increase productivity in workers, not to mention the valuable social aspect and morale boost that comes from a good cuppa, shared with colleagues.

Tea improves concentration, mood, and energy, as well as relaxation.  According to research studies by Unilever, people who drank tea four times a day for six weeks were found to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.  Their lead scientist, Suzanne Einother, said of these findings: “… they appear to confirm what many of us suspect; that the close to sacred ritual of the tea break can effectively boost your mood, which in turn can lead to other benefits such as improved problem solving.”

It seems to me that in this fast-paced, hurry-up world, we may have lost something important. Traditional tea breaks, or coffee breaks, seem to be a lost tradition as workers today tend to just  ‘grab and go’.  If only businesses and employees realized the benefits.  A short break every day can lead to a happier, healthier workforce. When I’m sitting at my desk, jotting down my thoughts, or in the kitchen whipping up something whether quick and easy, or intensely complicated, you can be sure there’s always a cuppa tea next to me.

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References:  Royal Voluntary Service, Washington Post, Wikipedia, BBC News, Daily Mail

TOAST

Have you wondered why I’ve named this blog ‘Tea, Toast and Travel‘?  Well the ‘tea’ seems fairly obvious as does the ‘travel’, but ‘toast’?  I’ve had that question asked more than once. For me ‘toast’ is a warm, crunchy accompaniment to a hot cuppa tea … slathered in creamy, salty butter and, most often, a thick, sweet, fruity jam.  As a child, whenever I was sick … cold, flu or just a belly ache … my Mother would make me “toast” which now epitomizes comfort food.  I also use ‘toast’ as a category for recipes that I feel pair well with a cuppa tea … whether hearty soups or quick and easy desserts.  And this blog is meant to be about me sharing what I enjoy, so “Tea, Toast and Travel” suits me to a ….. T.

Years ago, I mentioned to hubby that I would love to open a small restaurant called “TOAST” and just serve just that – ‘toast’.   High-quality, loose leaf teas would, of course, be served too, but it would be ‘toast’ with all kinds of specialty toppings from savory to sweet.  How about bacon, avocado and poached egg on toast … or a garlicky ricotta cheese and English peas spread with a hint of lemon … or a thick slab of roasted turkey breast smothered in pan roasted drippings (yes, I used to have that same lunch sitting at the Kresge’s counter with my grandmother) … or Nutella and banana slices, a sprinkle of pecans and topped with Marshmallow Fluff under the broiler all melted and gooey?  My ‘toast’ would not be thinly sliced, pre-packaged white bread. It would be crusty, thick slices of artisanal breads from sourdough to whole grains.

When I mentioned my idea to hubby little did I know I was a few years ahead of a trend.  Today it seems ‘toast’ has already become the latest fad among foodies.  There are restaurants named ‘TOAST’ in New York City, Los Angeles, Long Island, one in Michigan, another in Charleston, and there’s even one here locally. They’re all over the country and they are all individually owned … not a chain, each one with a different image and menu.  There’s even a point-of-sale system for restaurants called “toast”.

I know trends are short-lived, but how fun to ride the wave. We’ve survived the freeze-dried coffee era, the fondue dinner party fix, the ubiquitous seven-layer dip which appeared at every social gathering.  Then there were bagels:  breakfast bagels, pizza bagels, dessert bagels, bagel chips, bagel bits.  And, of course, thanks to Oprah, the never-ending parade of cupcakes.  From smoothies to sliders, mac ‘n cheese to short ribs, we now have ‘toast’.

The word ‘toast,’ in fact, comes from the Latin word tostum, meaning to scorch or burn.  It is believed that 5,000 years ago Egyptians used ‘toasting’ bread was a way of preserving it.  (Not quite sure how researchers have been able to determine that time line.) Romans also preserved bread by toasting it, and this continued to be spread throughout Europe.  The British really took to ‘toasting’ (what goes better with a cuppa?).  And, of course, anything that was popular in Europe found its way to the Americas.  Cutting slabs of bread and roasting them on an open fire sounds intoxicating and romantic to me.

Although its only been around for about 100 years, the most common household item is the electric toaster.  Doesn’t everyone have one?  The invention of the electric toaster in 1893 by a Scotsman was thought to be the greatest invention of all time, although sliced bread wasn’t invented until 1928.  I’m not sure how popular it was, having to lay your bread against the coils and and watch it, quickly taking the bread off before it burned.  It wasn’t until the 1920s when the electric toaster as we know it today was perfected, evolving into a two-slice, pop-up device with a timer.  And with the invention of pre-sliced bread, the world was changed forever.

As a child isn’t toast the first thing you learned to make?  Ask someone who may not know how to cook if they know how and you’ll probably hear “I can make toast”.  So now how do you feel about slicing bread, toasting it under some type of heat source, spreading your favorite topping on it and then sitting back and savoring its sweet, crunchy goodness?  Serve that up with a piping hot mug of tea, and I’m yours!


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References:  Thoughtco, H2G2, Today I Found Out
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The Tea Cup Story

I didn’t write this.  I’m not sure who did.  It’s just a lovely, inspirational story and I wanted to share it with you.

There was a couple who went to England to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. They both liked antiques and pottery, especially tea cups. While shopping in an antique shop, they spotted an exceptional tea cup and asked, “May we see that cup? We’ve never seen one quite so beautiful.” 

As the shopkeeper handed it to them, the tea cup suddenly spoke. “You don’t understand,” the tea cup said. “I have not
always been a tea cup. There was a time when I was just a lump of clay.  My master took me and rolled me, pounded and patted me, over and over and I yelled out, ‘Don’t do that. Leave me alone,’ but he only smiled and said, ‘Not yet!’ ‘Then, WHAM, I was placed on a spinning wheel and was spun around and around and around.  ‘Stop it!  I’m getting so dizzy! I’m going to be sick!,’ I screamed.  But the master only nodded and said quietly, ‘Not yet.’

He spun me and poked and prodded and bent me out of shape to suit himself.  Then he put me in the oven. I never felt such heat. I yelled and knocked and pounded at the door.  ‘Help! Get me out of here!’ I could see him through the opening and I could read his lips as he shook his head from side to side, ‘Not yet’.

When I thought I couldn’t bear it another minute, the door opened. He carefully took me out and put me on the shelf, and I began to cool.  Oh, that felt so good!  Ah, this is much better, I thought.  But, after I cooled, he picked me up and brushed and painted me all over.  The fumes were horrible.  I thought I would gag. ‘Oh, please, stop it, stop it!’ I cried. He only shook his head and said, ‘Not yet!’

Then he put me back into the oven. Only it was not like the first one. This was twice as hot and I just knew I would suffocate. I begged and pleaded; I screamed and cried. I was convinced I would never make it. I was ready to give up.  But then the door opened and he took me out and placed me on the shelf, where I cooled and waited and waited and wondered, ‘What’s he going to do to me next?”

“After an hour, he handed me a mirror and said ‘Look at yourself.’ And I did. I said, ‘That’s not me; that couldn’t be me. I’m beautiful!’

Quietly he spoke, ‘I want you to remember, I know it hurt to be rolled and pounded and patted, but had I just left you alone, you’d have dried up. I know it made you dizzy to spin around on the wheel, but if I had stopped, you would have crumbled. I know it hurt and it was hot and disagreeable in the oven, but if I hadn’t put you there, you would have cracked. I know the fumes were bad when I brushed and painted you all over, but if I hadn’t done that, you never would have hardened. You would not have had any color in your life. If I hadn’t put you back in that second oven, you wouldn’t have survived for long because the hardness would not have held. Now you are a finished product. Now you are what I had in mind when I first began with you.”

The moral of the story:  God knows what He’s doing. He is the potter, and we are His clay. He will mold us, shape us, and expose us to just enough pressures so that we may be made into a flawless piece of work. So when life seems hard, and you are being pounded and patted and pushed almost beyond endurance; when your world seems to be spinning out of control, when you feel like you are in a fiery furnace, when life seems to “stink”, try this …. steep a cup of of your favorite tea in your prettiest teacup, and have a talk with the potter.

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Chocolate – The Elixir of Love

Every February we are inundated with tv, internet, magazine and newspaper ads all selling the “passion” of chocolate, not to mention Facebook posts and blogs about this desirable substance (including this one). Roses have been pushed aside, Valentine cards are a thing of the past, and now chocolate has become the one true symbol of love and romance.  I need to find out not only how our obsession with chocolate began, but  where our love for chocolate started.

If you’ve read my blog “The John Company” then you know how “tea came to Great Britain.  It was Queen Elizabeth I who gave the East India Company a charter to go out in search of spices, competing with the Spanish and the Dutch.  Not only were spices necessary for preserving foods, spices made spoiled foods taste better. Spices were also used for embalming the dead, in religious practices, and as medicine.   Nutmeg was the most cherished of all spices because it was believed to be a miracle cure for the plague, which killed more than 35,000 people in London in 1603.

Over the 60 years during which they had a monopoly, The East India Company did bring back spices … pepper, cinnamon, clove, saffron, ginger and nutmeg … and they also brought back tea, coffee and cacao beans.  But it was actually the Spanish who are credited with introducing “Chocolate” to Europe.

Coffee House – 17th century

By the mid-17th century coffee houses were well established in London. These male-dominated “penny universities” were the social and political centers of London.  No woman would dare enter.  Although alcohol was not served, these places were not always ‘high brow’ destinations. In fact, King Charles II made an attempt to ban them altogether by 1675, but the public was so outraged, it was withdrawn.

Coffee was served, tea was just being introduced and alongside coffee and tea a new “hearty drink called “Chacolate” was starting to peak London’s curiosity.  In 1659 Thomas Rugg wrote in his Diurnal … “And theire ware also att this time a Turkish drink to bee sould, almost evry street, called coffee, and another kind of drink called tee, and also a drink called Chacolate, which was a very harty drink.”

Historians have been able to trace the origins of “Chocolate”, which is the result of roasting the ground beans of the cacao plant, back to as early as 1900 B.C. in Mexico, Central America and South America.  The Mayans and Aztecs used the pulverized seeds of the cacao plant, together with water and chili pepper, to brew ceremonial drinks.  They actually believed the cacao bean had divine and magical properties, which made it suitable for use in the most sacred rituals of birth, marriage and death.   The word “Chocolate” comes from the Maya word “xocoatl” which means “bitter water”.

Cacao beans were also used in trade as currency.  In 1545 a list of Aztec prices illustrates the value of this precious bean:  1 good turkey hen for 100 cacao beans, 1 turkey egg for 3 cacao beans, 1 fully ripe avocado for 1 cacao bean, 1 large tomato for 1 cacao bean.   Unfortunately, according to a report at that time from Hernando de Oviedo y Valdez, cacao beans also bought:  a slave for 100 cacao beans. services of a prostitute for 10 cacao beans, and a rabbit dinner for 4 cacao beans.

It’s hard to know who to credit in the mid-16th century with introducing Spain to the cacao bean and the “hot beverage” that was made from it.  Was it the explorer Christopher Columbus, the conqueror Hernán Cortés, or was it the returning missionary Dominican friars?  Whoever it was certainly made an impression on the Spanish court.  This hot, bitter beverage made from the pressed blocks of dried cacao beans and hot water became a hit with Spanish aristocracy, but only after they began adding honey or sugar to it.  They found it most enjoyable when mixed with milk and flavorings such as vanilla, cinnamon, ground cloves, allspice and chilies.

“Chocolate” then migrated from Spain to France because of the marriage of Spanish King Philip IV’s daughter, Marie Thérèse, who, when she married French King Louis XIV, introduced these hot and hearty drinks to her French entourage.  King Louis XIV became so very fond of chocolate, he actually granted a monopoly for manufacturing this beverage to David Chaillou, a French importer.

Back in England, it was an entrepreneurial Frenchman now familiar with this wonderful elixir who, wanting to elevate the chocolate experience in London, removed it from the bawdy coffee house atmosphere and in 1657 opened the first “chocolate house”.  As always, the wealthy elite were the only ones who could afford this luxurious experience.  Tea was very dear, selling at approximately £26 per pound … which, when you consider the average income was less than £10 per year, was outrageous … and chocolate was just as expensive!

But where did the allure of chocolate as an aphrodisiac come from? The Spanish were quite observant in noticing that the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, drank copious amounts of this cacao bean beverage before he visited his harem.  Montezuma, is said to have drunk cold, thick chocolate from golden goblets daily, which were thrown away after only one use.  And when returning to Spain with the new elixir these Spanish explorers were quite eager to tout the aphrodisiac properties to the Spanish court.  The explorers also described this native “food of the gods” as a drug, able to treat a variety of ailments.

It is said that the French aristocrat, Marquis de Sade, became quite proficient in using chocolate to disguise potions.  The following is taken from a guest’s diary at an elaborate ball given in 1772 by the Marquis:

“Into the dessert he slipped chocolate pastilles so good that a number of people devoured them. There were lots of them, and no one failed to eat some, but he had mixed in some Spanish fly. The virtue of the medication is well known. It proved to be so potent that those who ate the pastilles began to burn with unchaste ardor and to carry on as if in the grip of the most amorous frenzy. The ball degenerated into one of those licentious orgies for which the Romans were renowned…”

Needless to say, the European’s love for chocolate grew, especially when they believed it to have nutritious, medicinal and properties able to increase their libido.  But, like tea, it remained a privilege of the rich.  In the 1700’s, the British obsession for chocolate (and sugar) grew to such proportions they established colonial plantations in tropical regions around the world just to grow cacao and sugar.  Sadly, we all know what happened when European diseases were transmitted into these countries which, to the then privileged Europeans, didn’t stop them from going in search of cheap labor.

Chocolate was always a hot (or iced) drink until 1828 when Dutch chemist, Coenraad Johannes van Houten, invented a specialized hydraulic press  to squeeze the fatty cocoa butter from the roasted cacao beans, leaving behind a dry cake which could then be pulverized into a fine powder.  (We still see “Dutch process” as a way of branding cocoa today.)  This fine powder could be mixed with liquids, poured into molds and solidified into edible, easily digestible chocolate which paved the way for the solid chocolate we all know and love.  This also resulted in making chocolate affordable to everyone. And in 1830, J. S. Fry and Sons, a British chocolate maker, is credited with making the first solid, edible chocolate candy bar.

50 years later, J. S. Fry and Sons merged with another company you may have heard of … Cadbury.  In 1824 John Cadbury opened a grocery store in Birmingham, England.  In addition to groceries, he sold drinking chocolate, which he prepared himself using a pestle and mortar.  Van Houten’s 1828 invention allowed for a much more affordable and versatile product, enabling Cadbury to sell 16 flavors of drinking chocolate.  And when Daniel Peter from Switzerland puts the first milk chocolate on the market, the appeal for chocolate skyrocketed. In 1913 another enterprising Swiss, Jules Sechaud, introduced the process for filling chocolates.  We haven’t looked back since!

So how did we get from there to being the one true symbol of love and romance?  English philosopher, James Wadsworth, translated the Spanish works Treatise (1640), which poetically combined the descriptions of this new hot chocolate beverage with the promise that if you drank enough chocolate anyone would become “faire and amiable.”  Both England and France used this statement as a powerful marketing tool.

Cadbury’s Valentine’s Day Box

St. Valentine’s Day, as a romantic holiday, was well established by the 1840’s.  It first appeared in the writings of Chaucer during the medieval period in 1382 with knights giving roses to their maidens and serenading them with songs.  By the 1840s, the Victorian era of excess was well underway and they were indulging in chocolate, tea, Cupid and romance.  Richard Cadbury recognized this as a great marketing opportunity and designed an elaborately decorated box in which he would put their Cadbury chocolates.  From that moment on, Cupids and roses were put on heart-shaped boxes everywhere.

In 1907, the American chocolate company, Hershey, launched production of its revolutionary tear-dropped shaped “kisses,” (named because of the smooching noise made by the machines as the chocolate was manufactured). Let’s not forget from the earliest days of movies, chocolate has been an important cast member.  Jean Harlow’s seductive performance in the 1933 film Dinner at Eight linked chocolate and sexuality forever, as she suggestively nibbles her way through a giant box of chocolates.  And who will ever forget the classic episode of “I Love Lucy” when Lucy and Ethel worked on a chocolate factory assembly line?

Chocolate lovers are passionate about chocolate, but does chocolate really create passion? Scientists have isolated phenylethylamine (PEA) which is a stimulant found in chocolate (as well as many other foods), and also in the brain.  A minuscule amount of this stimulate is released at moments of emotional euphoria, which raises blood pressure and heart rate.  Although we have learned about the many antioxidant benefits of high-percentage cacao in chocolate, there really is no scientific proof that chocolate is an aphrodisiac.

Does any of this matter?  Not really, because who doesn’t love the luscious, pleasurable sensation of chocolate as it melts in your mouth? And, for me, a velvet-covered, heart-shaped box full of divine chocolates is the quintessential Valentine’s gift.

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References:  Wikipedia, Message to Eagle, Chocolate of the Month, Cornell University, History, Cadbury, Public Domain Review, Smithsonian,
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