Great conversation while dinning on delicate cucumber sandwiches. Hot, buttery scones fresh from the oven. Zesty smooth lemon curd. And don't forget the clotted cream. There's nothing like a traditional afternoon tea.
Long associated with ladies of leisure, tea has experienced a resurgence in recent years at area tea rooms as people looking for a slowed-down celebration of refinement have discovered the pastime.
It's not just elite, pinkie-raised women sipping on a cuppa — a new generation of women is embracing the afternoon tea as a venue for baby showers, bridal showers, gatherings of friends, and even weddings.
"It's an opportunity to gather in a social atmosphere," said John Stowell, director of sales and marketing at InterContinental Harbor Court Baltimore, one of a handful of locations in the Baltimore region that offer full afternoon tea service. "It's a chance for multi-generations to get together. It's something that mothers can experience with their daughters."
Afternoon tea originated in England as a time for women to gather and enjoy a light snack while their husbands had drinks between lunch and dinner time, according to Josean Rosado, head chef at the InterContinental.
The entire afternoon tea process should take about two hours. Sandwiches, pastries, fresh fruits, and desserts are served in courses. And participants typical drink several cups of tea throughout the entire meal. (At Tea on the Tiber, each guest receives his or her own pot containing five cups of tea.) More extravagant teas also include champagne.
"Nowadays it gives you an excuse of dressing up," Rosado said. "It gives you glamour. It's more about the social setting."
LaFrance Muldrow, a member of the Baltimore County alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, organizes an annual afternoon tea in anticipation of their annual debutantes ball. The annual tea, which is held at InterContinental Harbor Court Baltimore, attracts about 45 people each year.
"It gives them a different experience and an opportunity to relax and to have a chance to chat," the Woodmore resident said. "It also allows them to learn about a different activity. We like all parts of it. It is served very elegantly, the food is displayed beautifully, the china is lovely, and the food is very good."
Afternoon tea has become a popular venue for bridal and baby showers.
"That's where we've seen the biggest increase," Stowell said.
At Tea on the Tiber in Ellicott City, a number of customers have held their social events at the tea room.
"They come in with their red hats, gloves and boas," said Barbara Andrews, owner of the tea room, which is nestled in historic Ellicott City.
Andrews hosted her first wedding at her tea room Friday. The loyal customer wanted a smaller, intimate gathering for her 20 guests, Andrews said.
"We're so excited," she said. "She's a repeat guest, and they're high school sweethearts. We're all wearing our fascinators — thank you, Kate Middleton."
At The Mayflower Renaissance Washington, the Tiara Tea program allows mothers and their young daughters to experience the afternoon tea experience together. For $19.95, young girls are taught proper tea etiquette while dining on a specialized kid-friendly menu that includes: smoked turkey, cranberry relish and brioche bread, Nutella, banana, and white bread, raspberry fruit tartlet, chocolate covered strawberry and raisin scones. Customers are also given a souvenir tiara.
"It's quite popular," Keith McClinsey, the hotel's director of sales, said of the event, which is held on the third Saturday of each month.
Andrews said that afternoon tea is a nice change from the hectic pace of life.
"People value their friendships and time with friends," she said. "It's an opportunity to share these moments."
At the Mayflower Renaissance, afternoon tea is served seven days a week. The tea room attracts a large number of guests every day, whether it be politicians, the wives of ambassadors, or cast members of "The Real Housewives of D.C." (an episode was filmed there).
"You never know who you are going to see here," McClinsey said. "Instead of doing lunch, a lot of people will have their meeting over tea. ... You can do lunch any time, but this gives you something different to talk about."
LaTonya Clark goes to afternoon tea about four times a year, typically at the Mayflower.
"I like the ambience," she said. "It is very tasty. It's filling enough. And there is good variety. The champagne is a nice added touch."
What's her favorite part of afternoon tea?
"It allows me to calm down and focus on the moment," said Clark, a Washington resident. "I also like the taste of tea as well."
Clark's a tea connoisseur. Five years ago on a trip to London she visited a number of tearooms, including one at Kensington Palace and the Ritz Carlton in London. Even though it was more than twice the cost of the Kensington Palace tea, Clark ranks the $95 tea at the Ritz-Carlton as her favorite tea room.
"It was a lush tea," she said. "The tea was so full of body and flavor. The food was fabulous. And there was unlimited champagne. It was well worth it."
What makes for a good tea experience? The food offerings are as big of a draw as the beverage.
At the Mayflower, the famed banana nut bread has been served for 85 years and has many fans.
"It's an original recipe of the hotel," said McClinsey.
At Tea on the Tiber, the scones are the main food attraction.
"We've had customers from England who have said that our scones are the best they've ever had," said owner Barbara Andrews, who learned how to make scones on a trip to England a decade ago. "Our scones come warm right out of the oven and they are moist."
At the InterContinental, scones and cucumber sandwiches are the most popular, but the "scones are the most recognizable," Rosado said.
Rosado likes to switch out scone recipes to match the season. This summer, sun-dried pineapple scones were the standard. During the holiday season, he will switch to cranberry scone. Tea on the Tiber also switches its scones seasonally.
Don't discount the tea, though. Most tea rooms have more than a dozen loose teas available to customers.
"Whether it be chocolate or a tea that taste like vanilla cake, it's absolutely marvelous," Andrews said.
Makes: 1 dozen
1 pound all-purpose flour
1 ounce Baking Powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
5.3 ounces butter, cut in squares, cold
5 ounces milk
2 1/2 ounces whole eggs
5.3 ounces sugar
8 ounces dried pineapples (any dried fruit would work)
Combine all the dry ingredients in a mixer. Add the cold butter and mix until crumbly. Add the dried fruit. Add the wet ingredients and mix until just combined. Scoop into a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Bake in a convection oven at 300F for about 20 minutes.
The mixture can be scooped and frozen for later service. If mix is frozen; bake in a convection oven at 250F for about 30 minutes.
Once the scones come out of the oven, sprinkle with granulated sugar; consume warm or let them cool to room temperature.
Courtesy of InterContinental Harbor Court Baltimore
Cucumber with Stilton Mousse and Candied Nuts
Makes: 4 servings
1 slice white bread, Pullman
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
Zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons Stilton cheese, softened
1 teaspoon heavy cream
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 English cucumber
In a small saute pan, lightly toast the walnuts. Add the sugar and water, and with a rubber spatula, continue moving around until the water has evaporated and the sugar has crystallized. Remove the nuts from the heat and set aside. In a small mixing bowl, combine the butter and lemon zest. Set aside. In a small mixing bowl, mix the Stilton cheese with the heavy cream, until smooth. Place the cheese mixture in a small piping bag. Set aside.
Slice the cucumber very thin, utilizing a mandoline or meat slicer. Spread the butter mix on the white bread. Lay the thin slices of cucumber one on top of each other, making thin green lines from the skin. Cut the sandwich into four strips and put a dollop of the Stilton mousse on top. Top the mousse with the candied nut.
Serve right away or cover and reserve in a cooler. Note: If reserved in the cooler, take out of the cooler 5 minutes before, so the sandwich becomes room temperature and the butter softens again.
Courtesy of InterContinental Harbor Court Baltimore
Tea on the Tiber: 8081 Main St., Ellicott City, 410-480-8000, http://www.teaonthetiber.com
The Mayflower Renaissance Washington, DC: 1127 Connecticut Ave. N.W., Washington, 202-347-3000
InterContinental Harbor Court Baltimore: 550 Light St., Baltimore, 410-234-0550Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun