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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND

After 5,000 Years, Tea Is Making a Comeback

In an era in which coffee is the buzz of choice, many are discovering the ancient, mellower brew at new shops.

July 18, 1996|LEO SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tea is 5,000 or so years old, dating back to about 2700 BC, China. But ask for the drink at an espresso bar or coffeehouse and the response is often a confused or quizzical look.

Tea? Huh?

It's true that coffee guzzlers far outnumber tea sippers in these parts, but a few local tea lovers are doing their best to promote their beverage of choice.

Among them are Jacqulien Golden, Jean Gilliard and Katherine Zessin, three Ventura businesswomen who, sometime next week, will open the Cat in the Garden Tea & Coffee House on East Main Street in downtown Ventura.

The Cat in the Garden will join the English Tearoom that opened in mid-April inside the Thousand Oaks Antique Centre, the similarly British Tottenham Court Ltd. in Ojai, the Holiday House in Oxnard's Heritage Square and a few other tea spots dotted around the county.

Proprietors of each of these establishments all share a common belief--that Ventura County residents want a place where they can go to sit, chat with friends and generally relax, with a hot drink and some snacks as accompaniment.

But if it is to be a leisurely, un-rushed haven in this all-too-hectic world, tea makes more sense than coffee.

"I'm in a very stressful profession and I only see people when they are in crisis. I decided it would be lovely to have a nice surrounding where I would be able to visit with people, in a very stress-free environment," said Zessin, a family and bankruptcy lawyer who has her office in the same courtyard as her new teahouse.

"Tea really is more relaxing than coffee," she said. "You do a pot of tea, sweets, finger sandwiches. It's therapeutic."

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Which is not to say that Zessin won't talk shop at the tearoom. She and her partners plan to hold periodic law clinics at the Cat in the Garden, as well as other special events, including a children's tea and etiquette class.

The Cat in the Garden will stock several varieties of black tea, some flavored teas, Thai tea, green tea and whatever other teas customers fancy, said its owners.

There will be a morning tea (served all day, actually) with scones, Devonshire cream, preserves and lemon curd; an afternoon tea served with assorted finger sandwiches and the scone with its accouterments; and a high tea accompanied by a cup of soup, finger sandwiches and the all-purpose scone.

That the beverage in these menus will be outnumbered by the accessories is as it should be, said Golden, since the tea itself is just a small portion of the teahouse experience.

"Not only is it the tea, but it is the sandwiches and the sweets and there is the service that goes with it," Golden said. "It's a luxury thing that people do for themselves."

Linda Wexler, author of "A Spot of Tea," a guide to California tea establishments, said it is people's desire to dote on themselves every once in awhile that has created an increase in the number of teahouses in the country.

"There's a Starbucks on every corner, but tea sales are still up. People are getting away from the in-and-out coffee lifestyle," said Wexler, an Altadena resident. "Tea is an event: You take your friends, you have a party. It's not just what's in your cup, it's the whole attentive attitude. It's not just a 15-minute stay and goodbye. It's more like 1 1/2 hours."

Wexler's book of 243 tea-serving locations, published earlier this year, covers parts of Nevada, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, as well as California. In it she includes the Victoria Restaurant & Pub and Nona's Courtyard Cafe in Ventura, the Fillmore Western & Railway Co. train ride and tea service and the Plaza Pantry in Ojai, in addition to Tottenham, the Thousand Oaks Antique Centre and the Holiday House.

"There's not a lot of teahouses in Ventura County," Wexler said, "but it's growing, and that has to reflect that people are turning to tea more."

John Morris, owner of the English Tea Room at the Thousand Oaks Antique Centre, said it is the people who realize that going for tea doesn't have to be a stuffy experience that are giving it a try.

Morris said he has gone out of his way to make his tearoom as homey and unpretentious as possible.

"It's like walking into somebody's sitting room and getting ready for a cup of tea," said Morris, a native of Liverpool, England. "I think it's probably a matter of educating the public on what a traditional tearoom is."

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Morris, who opened the tearoom in mid-April, said the shop is a re-creation, of sorts, of one he frequented in Kew Gardens, a London suburb.

"It was a Tudor cottage run by three little old ladies who used to do their own baking," he said. "We have the low lighting, the flocky wallpaper, everything is busy, but it's all pulled together. It's old-fashioned chintz. Victorian over-exuberance."

Guests to Morris' tearoom have a choice of teas: Yorkshire Gold or nothing.

"It's such a smooth tea, no bitterness, no aftertaste," Morris said of the English tea. "I prefer it to anything. I don't want to try a lot of different teas. It's cumbersome."

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