Tea seems to be the new coffee. You can get black, green, white, and the new craze, red tea, or rooibos, made from a South African plant. Restaurants cart a basket of flavored tea bags to your table. Coffeehouses have added tea to their blackboard lists; right up there with cappuccinos and lattes are Formosa oolong and genmaicha (a mix of green tea and toasted brown rice).
But all of this, in my estimation, has little to do with having tea. ''Having tea" requires an entire tray of implements, even if you are drinking alone: china teapot, cup and saucer, creamer and sugar, strainer to catch the loose tea as you pour, and strainer holder. ''Having tea" also requires some accompaniment -- shortbread, say, or a little late lunch. Scones are ideal, but only if they are made in the proper British way to taste like a dense-yet-light biscuit. None of those heavy buttery things that lie in your stomach for hours afterward. And ''having tea" demands that you stay till you have drunk your fill. Absolutely no to-go cups.
New England is not up to British standards when it comes to tearooms, but you can find many of them through listings like www.catteacorner.com/tearooms.htm. My principle is that anyplace that makes a prominent spot for tea is a place worth checking out. I recently revisited an old favorite here on the Cape, and tried out a couple of new places farther afield.
The original owners of this 16-year-old tearoom in the center of town were British, and, with its wood paneling, fireplace, and Blue Willow English china, the small dining room feels like a satisfying blend of tearoom and pub. Each person's choice of tea arrives at the table in a large teapot, wrapped in a tea cozy to keep it warm, and accompanied by a strainer and holder.
There's nothing terribly fancy about the 15 or so choices, a mix of black teas like Ceylon, Darjeeling, and Assam, flavored blacks, and greens, with a few decaffeinated and herbal teas thrown in for good measure. My favorite is the ''courtship tea," black tea laced with a little ginger.
Afternoon tea comes with half a dozen finger sandwiches, a scone with jam and cream, and a dessert tray. You can also order several items separately, like shortbreads topped with lemon, or chocolate; or bumble berry pie, a mixture of blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries, with a crumble topping.
In keeping with the pub feel, you can also get hearty soups and stews, and sandwiches on warm crusty bread, like the farmer's lunch (roast beef with horseradish sauce) or yeoman's lunch (cold baked ham with English mustard). On my last visit, I took the mixed tearoom-pub-tea approach, and so got tea and scones, and the Cumberland Crumpet Melt, a hot open-faced sandwich of chicken salad on toasted crumpets with cranberry sauce and cheese melted over the top. The melt was indeed just the sort of sandwich you'd have on a blustery day in Britain. As for the scones, they were top-notch, and the recipe is yours for the asking.
Tea is the main item for quaffing, but just as the food menu would be at home in a pub, so the drink menu offers several British beers, including the peculiarly-spelled Theakston's Old Peculier, as well as hard cider, sherry, and port.
The fact that it's called tea shop not a tearoom should alert you that shopping gets high priority here; items for sale take up a good chunk of the space. You can buy teacups and teapots, packaged teas from several companies, and British specialties like treacle. If you ever wondered how the word treacle got its meaning for something cloyingly sweet, one taste of this goo will give you a good idea.
Dunbar Tea Shop, One Water St., Sandwich. 508-833-2485. www.dunbarteashop.com. Daily year-round, tea room 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; shop 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Tuesdays in winter. Afternoon high tea $11, Windsor tea $15, large teapot $5, small teapot $2.50.
The brick storefront, plate-glass windows, fluorescent overhead lights, and location on the main drag of this former manufacturing town 35 miles west of Boston make this feel more luncheonette than lacy Victorian tearoom. But its no-nonsense, down-to earth feel is actually a lot like the tearooms I used to find when I lived in England.
Owner Mary Martin-Somers laid out the unmatched bone china cups and took our order, apologizing as she went. ''I took them home to wash them," she said of the missing tea cozies. ''I'm not used to waitressing," she remarked, fumbling with the silverware. ''I'm usually in the back, but I had to fill in today. One of the people who usually works has a sick kid."
So when she enthusiastically tried to persuade me to try her specialty of the house, Victorian Earl Grey tea, how could I say no? Even though Earl Grey tastes to me like tea with a spoonful of perfume poured in. Its key ingredient, oil of bergamot, from the rind of the bergamot orange, has been prescribed as a treatment for acne, abscesses, boils, and halitosis -- which sounds about right to me.
Martin-Somers says a lot of people tell her they hate Earl Grey, then insists that this blend, with lavender and rosemary added, is different. ''Now I have customers who insist on that tea."
Maybe the lavender and rosemary have some magical property that cancels out the bergamot, because it really is good. As were the six decent-sized tea sandwiches we ordered, served on fresh crustless bread. There's tuna with lemon and dill, cucumber with cream cheese, chicken mango salad, and turkey with an onion garlic spread.
We were starving, so we turned it into a late afternoon lunch with bowls of soup, one a lightly curried lentil, the other creamy Hungarian mushroom, both great.
It's a satisfying spot. But I'll be happy to see them get rid of the fluorescent panels.
Colonial Tea House, 180 Church St., Clinton. 978-368-3232. www.colonialteahouse.com. Tuesday-Saturday 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Pot of tea $2.50 per person; Colonial tea with scone, tea bread, petits fours, and tea sandwiches $13; light tea with scone and tea sandwiches $9.
From its Scottish name and reputation for blending its own teas, we imagined something very
Browne takes her tea seriously. She's been to China twice to study teas and tea making. She and her staff mix several of the nearly 100 varieties they offer. There are oodles of black, green, and white teas, and many flavored blends -- though when I admired the ginger, Browne smiled and allowed that she does not really consider this tea.
We met some local friends and sat in one of the small rooms at a large table covered with a crocheted tablecloth, and ordered a few different teas to taste and compare. The black tea with lychee was just barely fruity; the smoky Russian Caravan a good mix of a black tea and ultra-smoky Lapsang Souchong. Our big discovery was something called Pu-erh, an aged tea that's said to be good for digestion, and which has a deep, earthy, but entirely unbitter taste.
We were told that the afternoon tea would only serve one. But with a couple of scones and a slice of chai-flavored chocolate cake, it filled the four of us for several hours. Mayonnaise haters like myself might take note: the savory tray had items like mini quiches, but others, like the deviled egg, ham finger sandwich, and tuna salad served in a phyllo dough cup, are on the mayo-heavy side.
The sweets ranged from homemade traditional shortbread and tiny digestive biscuits to brown bread sandwiches spread with cream cheese and mango chutney, to strange but good concoctions like a phyllo dough shell filled with honey and cream cheese. The scones struck the one false note, coming too close to those aforementioned heavy objects, though topping one with an excellent homemade lemon curd greatly improved it. The chai chocolate cake was not iced, and not too sweet, just right for afternoon tea.
MacNab's has just opened a new room as a tea bar, where Browne will be offering tastings of several tea varieties. The shop also has an area where you can buy both new and antique teacups and pots, tea-making accessories, even live tea plants.
You can purchase any of MacNab's loose teas to take home. In just a week, we had already gone through much of the bag of Pu-erh I bought. But our friends say they are bringing more when they visit us next month, which, given this newfound addiction, I find a very good thing.
MacNab's Tea Room, Back River Road, Boothbay, Maine. 800-884-7222, 207-633-7222. www.macnabstea.com. Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m., summer till 5. Afternoon tea ($25) includes trays of both savory and sweet items; high tea ($35) has an additional course. A la carte lunch items $4-$11. Afternoon or high tea, reservation only, 24 hours in advance.
Contact Kathy Shorr, a freelance writer in Wellfleet, at email@example.com.