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Steeped in Tradition : Paul Shelley, butler at the Dana Point Resort, blends guests with high and low afternoon teas.

January 19, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

DANA POINT — "You must experience the tea," Paul Shelley reminds his customers, as his white-gloved hands pour his own special brew from a cozy-covered teapot into their floral-patterned Villeroy & Boch china cups. "The first thing you do is check the bouquet; next, taste it and make a judgment whether we need to add milk or sugar or lemon. But check it out first, because this is a tea you haven't had before."

You can say that again, and not just of Shelley's proprietary blend of teas, which he calls "The Butler's Brew," but the whole shebang of the afternoon tea service he presides over at the Dana Point Resort every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The Resort's Lantern Bay Lounge may be distinctly Southern Californian in its Pacific view and clean-swept lack of personality, but under Shelley's guidance it becomes an outpost of upper-crust England, where everything stops for tea.

Tea may be the wan cousin of coffee locally, since gourmet coffee shops have been cropping up like slugs after a Seattle storm, but it is tea that is the most popular beverage in the world; tea that has a history reaching back thousands of years; tea that has been the maker of financial empires, the cause of two intercontinental wars, the root of the opium trade in China and one of the brewing causes of the American Revolution, leading colonists to turn Boston Harbor into the world's largest teapot in December 1773. It was tea, I tell you. Tea! Tea!! TEA!!!

Sorry, I don't know what came over me, except that after spending a while with Shelley, you start thinking about tea a tad.

The 50-ish Shelley isn't British, but he might as well be, with his devotion to tea and his adherence to the distinctly British way of putting oneself at the service of others. He doesn't need the badge he wears reading Butler to define his role. Even when having an off-duty chat with him, if you start to take off your jacket, he immediately leaps to his feet and helps. Suggest that he relax and just be a normal human for a while, and he responds, "This is the way I always am. What you see is what you get. This is how I am in my own house."

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Shelley said a tradition of service just comes naturally to those raised in Boston, not that I've ever had Ted Kennedy help me with my jacket. He also said tea was a part of life while growing up there, a twice-a-day tradition in his home since he had his first sip at age 5. It set his young mind to musing.

"As a child I was raised with milk and sugar in tea, and in England many people add the milk before they even pour the tea. I was interested in why ? Why do we put milk in? Why not take it in its original form, namely tea, black? Why do I have to put milk in tea? Do you put it in some, not in others? What does it do to the tea? In my childhood I would ask, why do you put milk in it?"

So, Paul, why do people put milk in tea?

"Some say it enhances the flavor of it, but from the information I have learned, and from my experience and listening to a lot of guests from different countries, you know, the cultures vary. In England, for example, they'll say, 'Who'll be mum?' But in Australia it's 'Who'll pour?'

"But to get back to why milk is placed in tea: Historically, the china was very delicate, and if you put hot, scalding, boiling water into the cup, it might crack. So what they did was, they would put cold milk in it first," Shelley concluded. Remember, you heard it here first.

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Between sips, he attended the New England Conservatory of Music and Boston Conservatory of Music. He has taught music at both the college and elementary school level, but cutbacks, which always slash the arts first, left him available three years ago to create the position of butler at the resort, originating and managing the afternoon tea.

He stresses, "Here we serve afternoon tea as opposed to high tea. Historically, high tea was for the commoner. It was more in the early evening, and they would have lots of hot foods, bacon, sausage, crumpets and the like. Afternoon tea was for the aristocrats and the affluent."

In practice, that means afternoon tea isn't the place to pig out, though one doesn't exactly go hungry either. Shelley offers a choice of the $6.25 spread--a pot of tea, a splendid scone, cream, jam and berries--or the $11.25 one, which has the aforementioned goodies along with finger sandwiches and two dessert pastries, which, like the scone, are skillfully made in-house. There is a choice of several teas, along with Shelley's Butler's Brew, a balanced full-bodied tea with no aftertaste.

However good he might be at blending tea leaves, Shelley's true skill lies in getting people to mix.

"Historically, tea was a time when ladies and gentlemen would get together and they would share gossip. What we try to do here is set the theme of gossip in a friendly way. My philosophy in the tearoom is whatever you share with us, if it's dull we spice it up, and then we talk about you."

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