Thursday, December 5, 2013

Fancy Hats, Etiquette, and Victorian Tea at 600 Main!

 With the fourth season of Downton Abbey upon us we are reminded of our want for civility.  Of a yearning for yesteryears, of a time of fancy feathered hats, fine china teacups, and the art of etiquette.  A few weeks ago the Edible Skinny found such refinement at 600 Main. 

For nearly 120 years the Mathis House has occupied an elegant, tree-lined block in Toms River, New Jersey where it has stood out as an exquisite example of period architecture.   In the last few years 600 Main has become a Bed and Breakfast owned by Susan and John Notte, but before that, for a brief period of time in its past, my mother, her three sisters, and parents resided at this Colonial Revival mansion.  So for my Mom’s birthday this year, my aunt and I treated her to Victorian Afternoon Tea at the Mathis House so she could revisit 600 Main, to reenter the world of poise, polish, and pots of tea.   

The Tea Room was awash in warm earth tones and dainty décor with an array of teacups placed on every flat surface.  “Walking through the front door I found myself magically transported back in time,” noted my mom Letty Thomas.  “We picked charming hats, put them on our heads and the fun began.”
Crisp linens, fine china, and tiered luncheon servers were all part of the festivities of this presentation that is hosted Wednesday through Saturday, from 12:00pm to 4:00pm at 600 Main.  Service includes a freshly brewed pot of tea of your choice from a list that is longer than the Dowager Countess social playbook, soup of the day, salad of the day, a homemade scone with clotted cream and lemon curd, and an assortment of tea sandwiches and savories. 

Traditionally tea in Britain would be served in the afternoon, such as 4pm, at intimate small gatherings of specially invited guests.  This “afternoon tea,” was also known as “low tea,” is actually what most people (read: Americans) think of when they hear the words “high tea.” The Brits called it “low tea” because it was traditionally served on low tables.  (High tea was actually a working class meal served on a high table at the end of the workday, shortly after 5pm; it was really more of a working class family meal than an elite social gathering).

There are many ideas about tea etiquette and the when and how tea was first made popular in England.  Charles the II grew up in exile at The Hague and was thus exposed to the custom of drinking tea.  He married Catharine of Braganza who had grown up in Portugal, also a tea drinking nation at that time.  It is said that when she arrived in England to marry Charles II in 1662, she brought with her a casket of tea.  She became known as the tea-drinking queen, England’s first.  Catharine would invite her friends into her bedroom chamber to share tea with her for in the 18th century it was custom for highborn ladies to receive callers with their morning tea while still lounging in bed

It is said that the afternoon tea tradition was established by Anne, Duchess of Bedford.  She requested that light sandwiches be brought to her in the late afternoon because she had a “sinking feeling” during that time because of the long gap between meals.  She began to invite others to join her and thus it became the tradition we now know it to be. 

In regards to preparation, the best tea is only as good as the water with which it is prepared.  Start with fresh, cold, good-tasting water.  It’s best to use filtered or bottled spring water with a natural mineral content that is neither too hard nor too soft.  Distilled water is not recommended since water purified of its mineral content produces a flat tasting infusion.  Never use hot tap water or water that has already boiled for a long time as this will result in a flat and dull tasting tea with little aroma.

It is important to preheat the pot or cup in which the tea will be steeped.  If hot water is poured into a cold vessel, the temperature of the water will drop too quickly and the full flavor of the tea will not be extracted.  To preheat the pot: pour a little of the boiling water from the kettle into the pot and then pour this water off into the drinking cups to warm them.

The etiquette of the tea table itself has many ins and outs.  Sugar is placed in your teacup first, then thinly sliced lemon.  There is much debate over when you should pour the milk (and yes I did just write that sentence!).  At one time it was tradition to add the milk in first before pouring your tea from its teapot (this piece of tea etiquette is so embedded in British culture that there is a runner in the upcoming Disney comedy “Saving Mr. Banks” about it).  This was done to prevent the glaze on delicate teacups from cracking.  Though others say that since we do not have that problem today, you should add the milk after the tea so that you can judge how much to use based on the color change.  Either way one rule reminds steadfast: never use milk and lemon together. 

There is even etiquette to picking the cup up.  You must hold the handle of the teacup using your thumb and your first one or two fingers.  There is no need to stick out your pinky (people who erroneously do this have really only picked up an exaggeration of how people sometimes tilt their pinky upwards to balance the cup).  Do not loop your fingers through the teacup handle or cradle the side or bottom of the cup with your hands.   A guest should look into the teacup when drinking, never over it.

The sound of the spoon hitting the sides is considered a major faux pas! (Another sentence I never expected to write!)  One should stir their tea without any sound, moving the spoon in a gentle, back and forth arch motion making it really more of swish more than a common stir.  When through stirring, remove the spoon and place it on the saucer behind the teacup and to the right of the handle.   Of course, never take a drink of your tea without removing the spoon first, and please never, ever sip from the spoon.  When you are not drinking tea, place the cup on the saucer.   If seated at a table, never pick up the saucer.   If standing, you may lift the saucer with the cup.
Scones are a traditional part of a proper British tea.  To enjoy you should first split the scone with a knife.  Since the knife is now used, either place it on your knife rest, or lay it gently on the side of your plate.  Jam or curds is usually placed on the scone and then top off with a dollop of clotted cream.  Simply spoon a small amount of jam or curds onto your plate, as well as some of the clotted cream.  Spread the jam, curds, and clotted cream onto your scone.  Never use the serving spoon for this task.

Now all of these Emily Post rules were interesting to learn, but they in no way hindered the festivities, instead they only augmented the fun of drinking tea like a queen!  From soup to teacakes this day was all about the fun of being refined, of a grand event, Victoria Afternoon Tea, in a grand house, 600 Main. 

Afterwards owner Susan Notte took us on a tour of the property.  Having purchased it in December 2011, Susan and John took a year to renovate the mansion and in November 2012, they opened for business.  “I really enjoyed seeing my old home again.  Even at age ten in 1963 I knew the house was something special and very grand,” noted my aunt Kathy Berry.  “The new owner has restored the house beautifully and was so proud to show it off to us!”

In a few weeks we will all reenter the highbrow posh of the Crawleys on the small screen but for anyone looking to experience that world in the here and now look no further than 600 Main. 

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