Tasting old-time luxury
July 30, 2004
While guests sample tea, hostess Judith Krall-Russo, a tea specialist, will chat about the importance of tea in the lives of Victorian women. The Edison resident also will talk about popular varieties of tea and brew a few pots for sampling.
"I will be serving both hot and cold beverages," said Krall-Russo, a graduate of The Tea School in Pomfret, Conn. The school is run by Pearl Dexter, editor of Tea, A Magazine.
Victorians felt the summer heat, too, she said, and drinks such as a mixture of soda water and tea, strawberry water, and lemonade were very popular. On Sunday, beverages will be accompanied by finger foods including gingersnaps and poundcake.
"I try to get people to look at tea as they do wine," said Krall-Russo, a member of the Tea Association of the United States.
Tea is grown in tea gardens or estates, she said. Like wines, each tea takes its name from the district in which it's grown, and each district is known for producing tea with a unique flavor and character. Tea is divided into grades, determined by leaf size. Smaller leaves are used in tea bags, while the larger ones can be found in packaged loose tea.
In the 18th century only the elite could afford the luxury of sipping the best grades of tea. High taxes meant they paid as much as $1,200 (in today's dollars) per pound. Working classes either bought used tea leaves or smuggled tea that came mostly from Holland. That tea would have cost a working-class person a week's salary per pound.
By Victorian times the government had repealed the taxes and, depending on the grade, tea was very reasonable. Afternoon tea became a popular pastime among the elite because only they had the luxury of free time.
Women who wanted to shoot the breeze couldn't just call each other up and say, "Let's meet at Starbucks," Krall-Russo said. So they met over a cup of tea in the parlor, sometimes with women friends and sometimes with gentlemen callers.
Whatever the occasion, certain rules always applied.
Tea, for example, had to be stirred counterclockwise so any spillage would go toward the person stirring and not someone else in the party. When replacing the cup to the saucer, handles always had to be placed at 4 o'clock. Gloves were to be removed by all guests, and men had to keep their top hats with them.
The tea gown was one formality that brought a welcome reprieve. It was flowing and loose-fitting, which meant women didn't have to wear a constricting corset with it.
It had other advantages, too.
"Women were able to eat more with their tea," Krall-Russo said.
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The correct way to eat a scone: Split it in half across its girth with a tea knife. Take a spoonful of jam or lemon curd and Devonshire cream onto your small tea plate. Then spread a little jam or lemon curd on the scone's crumb face - the size you might expect to bite elegantly. Top with as much or as little Devonshire cream as you wish, and eat just that mouthful. For true English elegance, do not spread the entire half at one time.
Got milk? Early tea drinkers poured milk into cups first to remove the chill from the china and reduce the risk of cracking. Later, when less delicate china was produced, milk was added after the tea had been poured. In the Edwardian era, those who opted for "milk in first" were called miffers.
BYO cup: In Europe during the late 17th century, fine china and silver were costly treasures, and it was customary for early American tea drinkers to bring their own fine china cup and silver teaspoon to tea parties in a special carrying case. Often the spoons were monogrammed with the owner's initials to avoid confusion at the conclusion of tea time.