Recently I had a houseguest who presented a bit of a challenge in offering her a truly impressive dining experience. She'd grown up with a grandmother who was English, who was so wealthy that her idea of shopping was taking the QE2 over to Manhattan for an afternoon on Fifth Avenue and sailing home. Obviously my usual trip out to the Pit for a pork triple-decker would not do. I made a reservation for a proper British afternoon tea at the Biltmore.For those who somehow haven't experienced the place: The Biltmore is simply fabulous. With an exotic Moorish tower modeled on the famed Giralda in Seville in Spain and a pool roughly the size of Rhode Island, the hotel, when it opened in 1926, was described as "the last word in the evolution of civilization, the acme of hostelry and clubs." Like other locals, I've done Sunday brunch at the hotel many times, as much for its setting in fountained courtyard as for the food. But for nonhotel guests, soaking up the lobby, with its huge crystal chandeliers, lordly columns, and gold-coffered ceiling -- not to mention a central birdcage bigger than many studio apartments -- is only possible weekdays at either 3:00 or 4:30 p.m. (reservations mandatory), when the lobby turns into a most aristocratic English tearoom.
Why tea is so firmly associated with England is a mystery since the vast majority is grown in Asia (it's made from the leaves of the camellia bush), and the discovery of tea as a refreshing hot drink is credited by most sources to a Chinese emperor back in 2800 B.C. Though that time far predated any knowledge of bacteria, the ruler always boiled his drinking water as a disease protection, and on one tour of the provinces, while he was boiling water over a fire made with camellia branches, some of the plant's smoked leaves blew into the pot. Eureka! Before long, tea had become not just a drink but an important part of Chinese culture.
In fact the oldest known treatise on preparing and serving tea, detailing everything down to the artistic and spiritual value of the utensils used, was written by an eighth-century Chinese poet, Lu Yu. And as of this past month, Miamians wanting to sample an Asian tea ceremony, albeit Japanese rather than Chinese, can do so at Doraku (1104 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach), where, on Saturday and Sunday afternoons from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m., one can sample two premium-grade teas (like frothy whipped matcha, traditional beverage of the chanoyu tea ceremony) plus an assortment of traditional Japanese sweets in an Asian teahouse atmosphere; price is $20 for two.
Afternoon Tea at the Biltmore Hotel
1210 Anastasia Ave, Coral Gables
305-445-1926. Seatings at 3:00 and 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday; reservations required; price is $15 (plus tax and tip).
Tea didn't actually come to Europe until Elizabethan times, when east-west shipping trade opened up, and even then it didn't catch on in Great Britain as a pleasure drink until a good half-century after it'd become popular in Holland, Russia, and Portugal, due to its enormous expense plus its reputation as a purely medicinal substance. Then in 1662 England's King Charles II married a foreign princess whose dowry included a trunkful of fragrant green tea, and shortly thereafter the monarch's new habit of day-long tea drinking was adapted by the entire English aristocracy. The practice of drinking tea with a variety of small snacks as a late-afternoon pickup (the upper crust ate little lunch and a very late dinner) initially came from Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, one of Queen Victoria's ladies-in-waiting. It spread to the less-than-upper classes several decades later, around 1864, apparently when the female manager of London's Aerated Bread Company, who'd been serving gratis tea and snacks to customers of all classes, got permission to put a commercial public tearoom on the premises.
Still, despite the explosion of teashops catering to the masses, the afternoon ceremony in genteel tea gardens and high-class hotels (which by about 1910 started including "tea dances") retained an aristocratic air.
This is certainly true at the Biltmore, where elegant little tables topped with lace tablecloths and orchids are discreetly spaced among the lobby's columns of exotic (and expensive) Italian marble. By the front windows, a pianist in a flowing floor-length gown plays civilized selections on a grand piano -- and the music was blessedly noncompetitive with conversation. Within minutes a server appeared with a choice of fourteen teas -- real loose-leaf stuff, not tea bags, and with a number of selections I'd never seen before. Imperial Gunpowder was hard to resist, but I went for more unusual Ceylon Dimbula, labeled "special rare." This brew from the high-altitude Dimbula growing region of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) proved a complex combination of abundant flavor and almost intoxicating aroma, with odd but relaxing gentleness.
Unfortunately the Biltmore's basically Do It Yourself serving method left much to be desired. Rather than supervising the brewing time, servers merely poured the hot water into the teapot, with instructions to let the tea sit for two minutes before pouring it oneself through a provided strainer into one's cup. Wrong. Different teas require different brew times, most between three and six minutes (though ten to fifteen is better for certain herbal infusions), and at two and also three minutes this tea tasted underdeveloped; four minutes was perfect. For the Biltmore's tea operation to be a truly class culinary act, someone with tea know-how needs to determine the proper brew time for each variety offered, instruct waitstaff about this (unobtrusive notes on the canisters' backs would do), and have servers time and pour patrons' first cup, as the hosts of an authentic English tea party would do.
A bit of explanation about each tea would be fun, too, so patrons don't have to just guess; after all, most of us in America don't even know that there are only three different tea varieties (black, green, and oolong; names like "Darjeeling" or "English Breakfast" refer only to growing regions or blends), much less how the Biltmore's exotic teas differ from each other in taste.
As for eats, there are many categories of afternoon tea, and the Biltmore has opted for Full Tea, a three- to four-course affair featuring first savories, then scones, and finally dessert. (Other categories include Light Tea, just a scone and a sweet; Cream Tea, featuring scones with clotted cream; Royal Tea, with added champagne; and High Tea, which sounds high-class but is actually a working-class custom, adding a homey, hearty entrée like chicken pot pie or Toad In the Hole to other courses so that tea serves as a money-saving substitute for, rather than supplement to, supper.)
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The Biltmore's savories are six elegantly thin, crustless, triangular tea sandwiches on alternating white and wheat bread, buttered and sparely stuffed with traditional fillings: cream cheese, cucumber and cream cheese, watercress, egg salad (with no celery), very smoky smoked salmon with cream cheese, and ham with mustard; a nontraditional but welcome bunch of grapes came alongside.
The scone course featured a nicely small scone that was, not so nicely, stone cold rather than oven-fresh warm, clotted cream that was pleasant but much less thick and rich than any genuine imported Devon Cream I've ever had -- more like a cross between crème fraîche-textured Devon and whipped cream -- and a small jar of preserves from Dickensons, a company that sounds English but is actually from Salinas; oddly, alongside the scone was a rugelach, which was quite tasty.
Dessert for me was a macaroonish cookie with a very sweet, custardy filling, a little multilayered chocolate/coffee petit four, and a huge chocolate-covered strawberry.
In gourmet terms it wasn't mind-blowing food by any means, but authentic British teas aren't meant to be more than sophisticated and festive refreshers. And as my friend assured me even her grandma would agree, tea at the Biltmore was an eminently elegant and civilized way to wind down a workday. A return visit with no companion save a book (mystery/food writer Diane Davidson's delicious culinary whodunit-with-Elizabethan-recipes, Sticks & Scones) was equally relaxing.