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FINDS / Afternoon Tea : Soothing Our Weary Souls : Civilized Art of Taking Tea Offers Retreat in Fast World


The tea room was an oasis in the dreary waste of existence where weary travelers could meet to drink from the common spring of art appreciation. The ceremony was an improvised drama whose plot was woven about the tea, the flowers, and the paintings. Not a color to disturb the tone of the room, not a sound to mar the rhythm of things, not a gesture to obtrude on the harmony, not a word to break the unity of the surroundings, all movements to be performed simply and naturally--such were the aims of the tea ceremony.

Okakuro Kakuzo "The Book of Tea" 1906

In his novel "Portrait of a Lady," Henry James, an American expatriate who savored the delights of English existence, wrote, "There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea."

It's refreshing to know that, today in North County, one can still while away an agreeable hour or two in establishments that have dedicated their afternoons to ceremoniously serving tea in the grand English tradition.

For some, a cordial tea has become a refreshing alternative to happy hour.

"Taking tea this way is very much an art," said Kathy Wagner, director of marketing for The Inn L'Auberge in Del Mar. "It's British in style, and very elegant."

Afternoon tea at L'Auberge, set in a sumptuous lobby with marble floors and plush, softly colored carpeting, is not so much a meal as an indulgence. A tuxedoed pianist plays soothingly amid ferns that arch gracefully above comfortable, overstuffed chairs.

The fare is refreshingly light: finger sandwiches of watercress, smoked salmon and cucumber, as well as the essential scones with Devonshire cream and fruit preserves, and a choice of pastry or petit fours. L'Auberge serves tea Monday through Saturday from 3 to 5 p.m. It features five specially blended teas, the most popular being passion Fruit. champagne, sherry and port wine are also served.

The tea "attracts a lot of different types of people," said Wagner. "We have the ladies who come from Rancho Santa Fe, Fairbanks Ranch and Del Mar, but it really appeals to all kinds of people. It can be an escape for them. It's so very civilized, and that European sort of etiquette is very soothing."

Guests at the Del Mar Inn can also partake of an elegant afternoon tea, which Phyllis Elliot has coordinated for the past six years. A fourth-generation hotelier, Elliott was raised at the Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia. She prepares the inn's freshly baked delicacies from old family recipes.

The complimentary tea--offered to guests only--is served in the inn's quaint library between 3 and 4:30 p.m. daily.

Farther inland, in the rolling countryside of Rancho Bernardo, tea for the public as well as guests is served at the Rancho Bernardo Inn.

Low-beamed ceilings and wood paneling--along with a set of antlers over the fireplace--give afternoon tea in the lobby of the inn a rustic, country feel. Cozy settings of couches, tables and chairs among antiques offer a relaxing respite from the pressures of the day.

Beginning at 4 p.m. daily, the inn offers a Harney & Sons tea blend from England, as well as a variety of finger sandwiches, cookies and pastries. The atmosphere is a tad less formal than that of L'Auberge, but every bit as enjoyable. In fact, the lobby of the Rancho Bernardo Inn was so full of tea drinkers one recent afternoon that seating was at a premium.

"We've been serving afternoon tea for about seven years," said Dasha Safarik, the concierge at the inn. "It's the most popular event of the day, and we do it just for the pleasure of our guests, so they can come in here and relax in a comfortable setting.

"We don't make it pretentious, or use it as a marketing tool, just a place to mingle or to gather before dinner. Some people come in right off the golf course or tennis court, or stop in on their way home from work or shopping."

The drinking of tea--for centuries a revered and soothing tradition in Asian and British cultures--is still not an everyday event for most Americans. Perhaps the nation's mixed emotions about tea date back to the Boston Tea Party.

The first written history of tea, the Ch'a Ching, or "Tea Book," was recorded about A.D. 800 by Lu Yu, the patron saint of tea in China.

In his description of the best quality leaf, Lu Yu wrote that it should "curl like the dewlaps of a bull, crease like the leather boots of a Tartar horseman, unfold like a mist rising over a ravine, and soften as gently as fine earth swept by rain."

Tea didn't come to Europe until the middle of the 16th Century, when Portugal established a trading center in Macao.

In 1840, Anna, seventh Duchess of Bedford, grew weary of the day's activities, as well as a little hungry. Since this sinking feeling seemed to afflict her almost every day at about 4 o'clock, she began to practice what would become a British tradition.

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