It's Sarasota's most delicious secret: Afternoon tea. British afternoon tea (as compared to the heavier meal of high tea) dates back to 1830, when the Duchess of Bedford began enlivening her afternoons with a proper cup of tea. By the Victorian era, tea time was a fashionable custom, as ladies and gentlemen gathered to enjoy a pretty pot of hot tea, finger sandwiches made with wafer-thin, crustless slices of bread, warm scones with butter, rich Devonshire cream and strawberry jam, and hot tea cakes served on fine china. We're not sure when the custom started in Sarasota, but a number of local restaurants now offer tea and all the trimmings in mid-afternoon. Here's where- and why-we love to meet friends over a spot of tea, Sarasota style.
The Lobby Lounge, The Ritz-Carlton Sarasota
The venerable British tradition takes on all the glitz of The Ritz, where tea is served in gold and terracotta Wedgewood china and polished silverware. Tea servers in floral dresses serve up the Sarasota Tea ($24)-the Ritz's rendition of the British tradition-or the Royal Tea ($31), which includes champagne and strawberries.
A tea list by Britain's prestigious Taylors of Harrogates features teas from India, Ceylon and China as well as herbal teas. A three-tiered stand is stacked with warm scones and finger sandwiches of lemon and Jonah crab and grilled zucchini with pimento spread. The finale is a dessert lover's dream: pain de gene (teeny muffins with a raspberry center), mini-key lime tarts, cinnamon and ginger shortbread, and chocolate Florida opera cake.
It's becoming a Sarasota tradition for moms and grandmothers to dress up the children and bring them to Mana-Tea ($10): hot tea or hot chocolate, peanut butter and jelly and ham and cheese finger sandwiches, chocolate-dipped strawberry tuxedos and ginger cookies. And at Barbie Tea, little girls and their Barbies experience a refined afternoon they'll long remember; during the holidays, there's also a Christmas Teddy Bear Tea.
The Ritz-Carlton Sarasota, 1111 Ritz-Carlton Drive. Afternoon tea: Monday through Saturday, noon-5 p.m. in season; 2-5 p.m. summer. Teas, as well as desserts, can be purchased in the hotel's Boutique Chocolat. 309-2000.
Local Brits and tea lovers congregate At Tastefully British (formerly known as A Taste of Britain), where Brits Sandra Cherry and Penny Mulak offer the area's most authentic afternoon tea. "We always have the kettle on, luv," says Sandra, cooking columnist for the Union Jack, America's only British newspaper.
The tea room is tucked into the back of the shop, which sells everything British and tea-related. A lovely collection of cups and saucers stands ready for such teas as Lady Grey, a light-black China tea scented with bergamot and citrus; Kenya, a robust African black tea; South Africa's Rooibus Herbal; and various caffeine-free tisanes.
The Set Cream Tea ($16.25) kicks off with the hottest cup of tea in town, poured from a teapot covered in a knitted tea cozy to keep it hot without "stewing" it. A silver three-tiered cake tray offers finger sandwiches filled with crispy cucumbers, egg salad and watercress and cream cheese and olive spread, as well as scones made each morning from a secret recipe Sandra won't share for all the tea in China. She will tell you how to properly eat a scone: Cut it in half horizontally, spread it with butter, top with a thick layer of double Devon cream, spoon on as much strawberry jam as you can handle, and eat. Pastries vary from Sandra's fragrant lavender pound cake, lemon curd tarts, and, if you're lucky, the spectacular Queen Mum's cake. The Queen herself shared this recipe of her favorite cake with her lady-in-waiting ,the shop's co-owner, Penny's sister.
You can also enjoy such British lunch fare as homemade fish pie topped with mashed potatoes, a ploughman's lunch (crusty bread, butter, pickle and English cheese) or a bowl of homemade cream of tomato soup and toasties.
Tastefully British, 2236 Gulf Gate Drive, Tea room hours: Wednesday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Reservations: 927-2612.
Cobblestone Gallery and Tea Room
With tables dressed in vintage cloths and handpainted china, Downtown's Cobblestone Gallery recalls salon de thés in Paris, warm corners in bookstores or galleries that offered tea and pastry along with literary or artistic masterpieces.The three different afternoon teas offered here are named after famous illustrators. The Maxfield Parrish ($9.95) is a full tea with finger sandwiches, scones ,pastries and a choice of hot or iced tea. The N.C. Wyeth is a French dessert tea ($7.95) featuring a warm scone, pastries and tea; and the Norman Rockwell ($7.95) features sandwiches. Tea selections by Harney & Sons Fine Teas range from Panyang Congou, a Chinese favorite for over 200 years, to Citron Green, green tea flavored with citrus and orange flowers.
Owner Cathryn Girard rolls out a tea cart holding an assortment of teapots and dessert plates with warm cranberry or blueberry scones, tea sandwiches and pastries. If you want to dress the part, Girard even provides a rack of vintage hats and gloves.
The Cobblestone Gallery and Tea Room, 1501 Main St. (at Lemon Avenue). 954-4494. Available for private tea parties of all kinds.
Truffles & Treasures
To walk into the lace and antique-bedecked Truffles & Treasures in a century-old building on Bradenton's Old Main Street is to step back to Victorian times. Pair a light lunch with a pot of tea or choose from two adult and one child's afternoon tea options, with "savories" and "fancies" that change weekly. The Queen's Tea ($12.95) begins with a tea pot filled with hot water and the tea chest, from which you select your own tea (pots of hot Chai tea, milky black tea spiced with cinnamon, vanilla and cardamon are available, too). A fresh scone is followed bya rose-topped tier bearing two courses: dainty tea sandwiches or a tiny phyllo cup brimming in chicken salad crowned with a pecan. The "fancies" are a combo of sweet treats such as chocolate-peanut-dipped strawberries, brownie triangles drizzled in white chocolate and, always, the creamy homemade truffle of the week.
Lady Tiffany's Tea ($9.95) is a pared-down version of tea sandwiches and a scone; and Princess Chloe's Tea ($6.95) is for well-behaved "little tea lovers" 10 and under who are treated to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, "fancies" and a pot of tea or pink lemonade.
Truffles & Treasures, 425 Old Main St., Bradenton. Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Reservations: 747-2400. The Lavender Room can be closed off for private tea parties of all kinds, from Sweet Sixteen celebrations to baby showers.
Harrington House Bed & Breakfast
It's pure magic to sip a steaming cup of tea inside the old sandstone walls of the Harrington House, a 1925-era bed and breakfast on Holmes Beach, where Chef Grant Gellette gives a leisurely island flavor to traditional tea. Hot water is poured into an eclectic collection of teapots, which are taken to each place setting, where about 15 different teabags, most by Ashby's of London, await. (Raspberry iced tea and pink lemonade are summer tea options.)
The chef's first course is a delectable little bowl of pasta salad accented with black olives and carrot slivers. The tier is then presented, and it includes deviled eggs, and tea sandwiches of smoked salmon topped with paper-thin red onion and dill cream and turkey with thin-sliced tomatoes and sprouts. A refreshing course of fresh fruit follows, and mini-desserts vary with the whims of the chef-perhaps extra-fudgey fudge brownies, spiced amaretto buttercakes and the inn's trademark chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. It's a happy marriage of the best of Florida living and the best of British tradition.
Harrington House Bed & Breakfast Inn, 5626 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach (Anna Maria Island). 778-5444. Afternoon tea is served to groups of 10 to 20 by reservation. If you don't have that many in your group, they'll put you on the waiting list and call when there are enough to schedule a tea party.
THE PERFECT POT
Sandra Cherry, of Tastefully British, offers her tips for a perfect pot of tea.
1. Set a kettle of water to a rolling boil.
2. Swirl 1/4 cup of boiling water around in your teapot to warm it up.
3. Put tea in teapot (either teabag or loose tea).
4. Pour boiling water over it.
5. Cover and infuse: 2-3 minutes for green tea; 3-5 minutes for black teas.
6. Pour in a pretty cup and drink immediately.
An old English wives' tale: If a little grouping of bubbles forms when you pour your tea in the cup, money is coming your way.
To help you hold your own at tea-tastings, here are some terms from Beth Price, server of Afternoon Tea in the Lobby Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota.
Liquor: Actual liquid tea.
Body: The strength of the liquor combined with the weight on the tongue.
Bright: The color of the tea when brewed should look bright to the eye.
Brisk: Lively and sparkling, not flat.
Character: An attractive taste derived from quality teas.
Flavor: Aromatic quality resulting from the slow growth of teas at high elevation.
Light: Lacking strength and depth of color.
Strength: Body of substance.
Fragrance: The aroma of the tea.
Bite: Astringency or pungency.
Pointy: a pleasant, desirable taste in the tea.
Stewy: Tea that has been left to stand too long; bitter.
Sandra Cherry's Recipe for Lavender Pound Cake
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon soda
1 cup butter
1 8-ounce carton lemon yogurt
2 tablespoons pure lavender (Be sure it is pure with no additives.)
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl, blend at low speed, then beat 3 minutes at medium speed. Pour into greased Bundt pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 50-60 minutes. (Test with cake tester to be sure it's done.) Cool about 20 minutes, then invert onto a cooling rack. Can be glazed with lemon and confectioner's glaze if desired.