Monday, July 30, 2012

Tal-Y-Tara Tea and Polo Shoppe

Prior to my love of tea, there has always been my love of horseback riding and all things equestrian. I'm a hunter jumper by discipline, but hold respect for all forms of horsemanship. I had a wonderful stretch of years through high school successfully competing with my horse around the state, but also found volunteering at a local therapeutic riding center just as gratifying as winning in the show ring. Being a horsewoman for so many years, you can imagine my delight to locate a tea house with quite the equestrian spin.

Tal-Y-Tara, which is Gaelic for "By the strength of the King," is an equestrian themed tea room and full tack shop located in San Francisco, California. Tucked away in the quiet neighborhood-ed avenues of the west side of town, Tal-Y-Tara reflects the quiet and tranquility of the Lincoln Park/Sea Cliff district rather than the hustle and bustle of downtown. If it wasn't for the near life-sized horse outside the door, the shop would completely blend in to the blocks of apartments and small offices housed within the bay-windowed Victorian buildings typical of San Francisco.

What's even better, purchases made for both tea and tack partially benefit Horses in California, Inc., which hosts a variety of charity riding events such as Jumping in the Park, in order to raise money for the James S. Brady Therapeutic Riding Program for Children with Special Needs. How fun would it be to hack around and show in beautiful Golden Gate Park? Or pack a picnic lunch and make a day of watching the horses compete? All while benefitting what I know from personal experience to be a wonderful cause for both mentally and physically disabled children. 

Unfortunately Friends, much to my disappointment, the good of this tea room stops there. 

I'm not sure if I caught Tal-Y-Tara on a bad day or if the owner paid people to write good reviews on his website. Regardless, this tea house would have been a complete bust for me had I not known some of my money was going to good use. Maybe it was my unfortunate choice in tea. Maybe it was waitress training Saturday. Maybe the small child that continuously cried behind the register was the straw that broke the camel's back. All I know is that I was glad to walk back out the front door...a deplorable day in the domain of Darjeeling indeed.

Let's start from the beginning, shall we? Upon arriving at Tal-Y-Tara my expectations were dealt a slight blow by the heat wave that hit me when I stepped inside. Any tea enthusiast should know that guest's rely on their hot drinks to warm them up from chilly weather, not interior temperatures of 90 degrees. One just can't be in the proper frame of mind to enjoy tea when they're peeling off layers to prevent a heat stroke. Of course, there's always the outside seating option...unless the fenced in deck area is cluttered with garbage and the temperature is cool enough to chill a pot of tea within a couple minutes. No matter, inside seating will do just as soon as I acclimate to baking in the oven of a room. Once a waitress eventually brought menus, I was relieved to see a promising selection of assorted teas and goodies. I ordered a pot of Russian Vanilla Caravan black tea and a blueberry scone while my father settled upon an expresso (why not just cut to the chase?) and an order of crumpets (because they were out of shortbread cookies). I watch as the table next to me covered with dishes and leftovers of just-left-guests continued to sit unattended.

At this point I was feeling less flustered and was able to take in the full room. Tal-Y-Tara encompasses the humble first floor of the shop that houses it. Like all reasonable real-estate in San Francisco the floor plan is narrow and somewhat abbreviated from front door to back. The front half hosts the vintage expresso cart and racks of riding apparel while the "tea room" is composed of four tables, a large wooden fireplace, and the kitchenette in the back half. The golden walls are covered with event posters and black and white snapshots from Grands Prix and polo matches dating all the way back to the 50's. English wood cabinets display tea cups, new tall boots, needle point pillows, tea pot cozies, grooming supplies, and stationary. Each table is covered with a bit-printed table cloth. The massive wooden fireplace centers the busy room with its hard-to-ignore carving design and gold clock. If it weren't for the classic drop-down ceiling lights and cramped space, you might forget you're in San Francisco.

I'm brought back to the task at hand when tea, coffee, and food arrive. As I pour, tea leaves swim into my cup from the spout and I sigh. Our waitress was so swamped waiting on one other table that I had to flag the manager/owner for a strainer and cream. Never mind that I overheard him tell her to make sure to bring cream to tables that ordered black tea shortly before our order was brought out. The used dishes on the dirty table next to me are still sitting and I continue to pretend like it's not bothering me. I'm trying not to sweat the small stuff (pun somewhat intended). I fish out the leaves, pour the rest of the tea with my newly acquired strainer, and add my necessary fixins. Even with said fixins my Russian Vanilla Caravan tasted like the ashes had been scooped out of the grand fireplace and mixed in a pot of hot water. I'm not sure if this is how Russian Caravan tea usually samples or if the tea leaves had turned bad. The taste carried a dominant smokey and scorched flavor (sans any vanilla) I would imagine one would have to acquire a liking for to say the least. The blueberry scone tasted like one I would find at Starbucks-mas o menos, the buttery crumpet with jam was palatable, and I was told to report the expresso as "chalky."

Darn. I wanted so much to write about what an extraordinary discovery I had made and give it a raving review. But alas, Tal-Y-Tara failed me as the diamond-in-the-rough tea house and the good first tea room experience for my father that I mistook it for. Consequently the Darjeeling Darlings grievously grade Tal-Y-Tara with a 4/10 stars. One for tea selection variety (Taylors of Harrogate and PG Tips), one for theme, and two for supporting a good cause.





Sunday, July 22, 2012

PG Tips: Consistency in Simplicity

We live in a world where popularity grows around the latest and greatest of any given thing. Whether it's technology, fashion, medicine, literature, and even people that become celebrated figures by our society-the struggle for the top spot continues by means of any claim or gimmick. This isn't to say that the latest and greatest is always a sham though. I have no doubt that Apple has outdone themselves by gifting the world with the Retinal display MacBook Pro. What I mean to say is that in so many aspects of American society companies and businesses advertise the same thing: the most advanced thisthe most refined that, the boldest flavor, the newly innovated, the critically acclaimed, the fastest, or the highest ranking. But despite all their talk and hype nothing proves a product like the test of time. 

This stands true for tea, especially considering today's flooded market. There are hundreds of tea companies and brands out there who promise the highest quality tea leaves in the finest silk bags from the most select farms around the world and yet, the flavor doesn't reflect such claims. It's almost as if these European tea brands think we Colonists won't know the difference or will be easily satisfied with ornate tea tins and creative flavor names. This is where PG Tips comes riding in as the knight in shining armour.

PG Tips is an English tea company that has been around since the late nineteenth century-1869 to be exact. It began as the one man operation of Arthur Brooke who sold his tea leaves to his local grocer. The tea became especially popular once it was advertised as "Pre Gest Tee," meaning it could be drunk before food was consumed or digested. Whether it was thought to be unhealthy to drink tea on an empty stomach during this time I do not know but am curious to find out. Maybe Brooke did his own research to discover that tea could be drunk whenever you darn well please and used this revolutionary info as a segue into the big leagues of tea. Regardless, the grocer then began abbreviating the tea as "PG" in the store. Lastly, "tips" was substituted in place of "tea" because the tea leaves were picked from the top two leaves and bud of the tea plant. The name PG Tips has stuck ever since as well as its growing following. 

 The other afternoon I sat flipping through an interior decorating magazine and stumbled across this page that features a few things about designer Rose Tarlow and her influences. 
The important thing to note here is the bottom right corner of the page that reads,"I bought a flat in London 30 years ago. The workers doing the renovations were always drinking PG Tips tea and I got hooked on it." For 30 years this one person has been drinking this one brand of tea. Talk about withstanding the test of time. PG Tips original flavor has become a classic of black teas all over the world so much so that it's readily available on the shelf of my corner drug store. And that is because the brand has stuck to a product that people have consistently responded positively towards decade after decade. No fancy tea names, no just slightly reshaped radically changed, redesigned, and revolutionized tea bag, no shiny tin. Just quality tea leaves that speak quietly for themselves.  

Although it's fun to go out and try new brands and flavors, keep in mind that names and advertising are sometimes tastier than the product. So familiarize yourself with the classics, the real McCoys, the Greats, and the survivors of time so that you may not be fooled by the temporary fads in tea! 

Until next time! 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Aylesbury Tea Room

Aylesbury Tea Room
When its over 100 degrees, what can you really do? Why go to tea (and shop) of course! That is exactly what my mom and I (and Lizzie of course) decided to do on this extremely hot day. We agreed that we wanted to try some place new and on our way to the outlets. With those to requirements, Aylesbury Tea Room was our place! Located in downtown Leesburg, Virginia and just ten minutes from our shopping destination, it seemed to be the perfect stop.

Since we decided to go on the spur of the moment, I was concerned that we would not be able to get a reservation. My worry was quickly put to rest when I called just two hours before my requested reservation time. Karen, the British owner, was extremely pleasant and accommodating. She politely explained that the tearoom was booked for a private party but she could accommodate us at 2:45.  Of course my mom and I were running late, being Greek we can’t help it, so I had to phone Karen and let her know that we would be arriving 20 minutes past our appointment time. She could not have been more understanding and told us not to rush.

The amazing William and Kate flag greeted us!
Upon arriving we were greeted by Prince William and Kate Middleton on a traditional British Flag. It was a warm welcome and was just a taste of what to expect inside. The tearoom is mainly a shop that specializes in imported British goods and tea related items. Being the antique lover that she is, my mother was in heaven. There were rooms upon rooms of items for purchase and they were all decorated extremely well.  Since the private event was still going on once we arrived, we took the opportunity to explore all that the shop had to offer. We found quite a few excellent piece of furniture that we decided we just had to have and plan on going back to purchase since they would not fit in our car! After our shopping adventure we had worked up an appetite and were more that ready to try all that Aylesbury had a reputation for.

Just a few of the goods available for purchase.
We were seated at a long table set for eight in a room adjacent from the private party. It seemed to be the only place vacant at the time. The modest table was set with two china teacups and matching plates along with a plastic tablecloth. The friendly hostess immediately explained the tea selection and took our order. Aylesbury only serves Yorkshire Tea, which was fine by me since that is one of my favorites.  I chose the earl grey and my mother selected the original to accompany the afternoon tea. Both were brought out immediately in teapots with unique tea cozies and were equally delicious. A three-tier tray of four finger sandwiches, traditional scones, and mixed cakes and cookies along with fresh fruit were severed promptly after. I requested to have all cucumber sandwiches and they were happy to accommodate me. The scone was not bad and you could purchase the mix from their store along with the cookies served. The cookies and cakes were all store bought which lead to disappointment. Overall the food was pretty average tea fair and not much was served for $20.00. The food was served on plastic plates, which did turn me off just a bit but could be perfect for people wanting to take young children.  Aylesbury does offer a children’s tea for tea goers under the age of ten for around $9.00.

Aylesbury is nice place to stop if you want to take a break from all of the near by shopping and want a place to relax. From what I could tell it is also a fantastic place to hold a party and take young children. The extremely friendly staff, excellent decorations, and fantastic shop made up for the average food and noisy atmosphere. I feel like we caught them on an off day since they were consumed with having an event and would like to go back when there is a little less going on. I would not recommend going when a party is booked since the tearoom part is very small and the noise level is very loud. The Darjeeling Darlings would give the tearoom a 6 out of 10 and the fantastic shop a 10 out of 10.

Tea Sandwiches for Two

The scones were accompanied with clotted cream and jam.

The cookie and cake platter was served with some fruit.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

River House Tea Room: Texas Tea

Earlier this week I made a solo trip to a tea room not too far from where I live. When I say solo I mean sans Jules, although I did twist my mother's arm into joining with promises of near-by antique stores. I've actually been to the Rive House Tea Room before, but was not able to try their afternoon tea. This time I went armed with the attitude of an experienced tea house critic (ya, right!) and an appetite for great food.

That's the interesting thing about the River House- it's a restaurant before a tea room and yet its name implies just the opposite. Chef Carol Hill has won many awards over the years (like Texas Chef of the Year) and rightly so! The food is much so that it seems a little unfair that this restaurant is located in tiny Gruene, Texas and not some place larger like Austin. If you take a gander at the online menu you'll see that there's so much to choose from. From my own experience, the salads are great and I love the top round beef sandwich with horseradish. For this seating I chose the newly added fresh fruit and chicken spinach salad with blueberry vinaigrette dressing. I mention this really only because I wanted to post this picture.

Looks good enough to eat, right?
Let's talk about the other thing that makes this little gem of an eatery even more sparkly and that's the atmosphere. You see, Gruene encompasses two of the things that people love most about South Texas and that is river floating and the Texas country music scene. River House is right down the road from historic Gruene Hall and an entrance to our beloved Guadalupe River. Therefore, the people and visitors of Gruene are pretty casual (which is why I say this town is lucky to have such a great dining option). Consequently all the stores and restaurants remain informal in order to accommodate the river rats who wander out of the water looking for some lunch! This is very much true of the River House. Although the food is fanciful the setting is quaint. 

River House Tea Room houses itself in a small one-story, three room "home" with a covered porch and attached deck. The largest room that is filled with about twelve tables accommodates most of the guests while a smaller back room is held for overflow and private parties. The taupe walls tie in well with the green floral table cloth and plaid skirts while the dark oak chairs darken the room. It's the wall nik-naks and deer antler mounts that give the place a real Americana feel.

So now onto the good stuff~

River House offers a special afternoon tea menu consisting of the traditional pot of tea, assorted tea sandwiches, a variety of sweet goodies (chocolate covered strawberries!), and fresh scones with jam, clotted cream, and lemon curd. However don't expect to bite into an authentic English scone here. Although I wouldn't place them in the biscuit category these scones are not of a tried and true English recipe. This "tea room" offers both loose leaf and silk tea bag selections from Paris's Harney & Sons and England's Harrisons & Crosfield. I chose the loose leaf blueberry tea because I knew it would tie in well with my salad much like a Cabernet Sauvignon pairs with a filet. Of course, as with any decent tea room there are plenty of flavor options and River House is no different. I'm always tempted to order my favorite tea, but am most rewarded by branching out to the unknowns. Earl Grey? A welcomed friend any day. White Vanilla Grapefruit? Sure. Mango Green Tea? Ehhh...why not? Although tasting and educating myself in as many different tea flavors and types as possible is my job!

All in all the River House Tea Room offers a unique combination of dining and tea. The atmosphere is friendly and laid-back while the food speaks strongly for itself. However those are the only two things to visit this restaurant for. The afternoon tea offerings are pleasant but really not worth the price. Instead opt for a single pot of tea to accompany a warm dessert such as the Apple Cranberry Bread Pudding, a delightful end to wrap up a tasty lunch.


Please excuse Lizzie's absence from this tea tasting. She found the 100 degree temperatures unsuitable for stepping out in.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Brambles English Tea Room: God Save the Queen

For this year's spring break vacation, Jules and I met up in Naples, Florida for a few days of R&R. Prior to the trip I discovered Brambles Tea Room in downtown Naples and knew the Darlings must pop in for a visit. 

If you tour the Brambles website you will immediately pick up on the sunny and down-right adorable pink interior, as well as exterior, appearance of the establishment. All too fitting for Naples really. It truly is quietly tucked away from the crowds walking up and down Fifth Avenue, so much so that Jules and I spent a good ten minutes walking Fifth searching for this mysterious tea room. After asking a shop keeper or two we located the small alley between two stores that leads to Brambles and were pleasantly surprised by the striped awning and white French doors that greeted us. A couple of iron tables were scattered under the awning for outdoor seating that would be lovely for the cooler Florida temperatures during the winter. 

You can't help but fall in love with the place even more upon walking inside. Although a small room, it comfortably holds many square pink table-clothed tables with large English kitchen chairs. The red floral wallpaper and accompanying antique French sconce light fixtures are icing on the cake. All of this being said don't mistake this as a "ladies only" hang-out. Male readers, take heart in knowing that there were plenty of men enjoying finger sandwiches and a cup of tea shamelessly. 

Brambles has a few options for afternoon tea platters that offer assortments of bite sized sandwiches, goodies, and scones. The baked ham and smoked salmon were delicious! Afternoon tea is served from open to close, but other lunch options are available such as large salads and sandwiches as well as quiches. If you're feeling brave try one of the items off of the "Olde English Favourites" menu. The Shepard's Pie offers a special twist by being covered in mashed potatoes and oozing melted cheese. Unfortunately, I have to give the scones a below average review due to the fact that they were no different than Pillsbury biscuits. However, the accompanying strawberry preserves were wonderful and great for the sweet tooth just in case you hadn't gotten enough sugar from the assorted desserts. Speaking of the tea pastries, if you find them  particularly enjoyable they are for sale in the bakery in the back room. 

The best part of Brambles is their selection of signature loose-leaf teas. I personally wanted to try them all; they all sounded so good! Here's the list I saved that is not featured on Bramble's website. 

Blue Lady~China black tea flavored with coconut creme, strawberry, kiwi, and blue flowers.
Caribbean Voodoo~China black tea flavored with cornflowers, mango, coconut, passion fruit, and more.
Creme Brulee~China black tea flavored with caramel and French vanilla.
Royal Wedding~China black flavored with raspberry, strawberry, kiwi, and a hint of mango. Specially blended for the Royal Wedding and so popular we decided to add it to our regular menu.
Autumn Haze~China black tea flavored with cranberries and blueberries.
Earl Grey Lavender~Traditional Earl Grey blend with added lavender petals. 
Earl Grey Raspberry~Traditional Earl Grey blend with tangy raspberry.
Peach Brandy~China black tea with peach brandy
Pumpkin Cream~China black tea with pumpkin flavorings.

Much to Jules, Lizzie, and I's delight Bramble's was offering a special afternoon tea selection in celebration of the Queen's diamond jubilee. Of course, we couldn't pass it up and we were not disappointed!

 The chocolate crown cups were thankfully only a cup because they were incredibly rich and to die for. Being that Jules and I are not huge fans of orange we opted to swap the Orange Vanilla tea for Royal Wedding. However, the "complimentary tea sachet" was Peach Brandy tea and wonderfully tasty. Being a lover of peaches, I wish I had a couple tins of it to accompany the current summer heat. 

I mentioned in a previous post that Lizzie was given quite the warm welcome by Brambles owners, which consequently sparked her promotion to Darjeeling Darling mascot. I only hope that she doesn't get too spoiled with all the American love of the monarchy. Not every tea room visited will give her one of these...
In conclusion, Bramble's is a must if you're visiting Naples. Take a break from the beach and hit the shops of Fifth Street...and then take another break and wander back to Brambles for a sit and a biscuit scone. Be sure to branch out when selecting your tea too! 


Saturday, July 7, 2012

Thank You Linda!

All of the great tea goodies!
The Darjeeling Darlings just want to thank Linda at Friendship Tea for selecting us as her June Tea Book Giveaway winner. We were extremely surprised by all of the goodies that came with Country Tea Parties such as Harney & Sons tea samples, tea stickers, and our favorite, a teapot tape measurer. Thank you again Linda!

The teapot tape measurer! 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Taylors of Harrogate Yorkshire Tea

Since my town has been having a heat wave the past few days, I decided it was time to make some iced tea. I really wanted to try another tea that I was given at the Fancy Food Show, so I selected Taylors of Harrogate Yorkshire Tea. I’ll admit I was a little skeptical at first knowing how strong traditional British tea is. I was concerned that it would not taste great over ice.

Lizzie Loves Yorkshire Tea Too!
Using my Mr. Coffee Ice Tea Maker, I was able to create the refreshing beverage that I was striving for. I used two bags for the three-quart pitcher and it seemed to be at the perfect strength for my taste. Being from the south, ice tea is automatically sweetened. I made some simple syrup to achieve the prime level of sweetness. The tea was very bold but not overpowering. I could tell it was perfectly blended to accomplish the perfect balance of flavors. The box said the tea leaves had been selected from “ three of the world’s best tea growing regions – Africa, India and Sri Lanka” and it was apparent that the goal flavor was met. To my surprise, I was extremely pleased with the way it turned out.  Though when the heat index is 110 degrees anything that’s over ice taste great.

I would really recommend this tea to anyone who enjoys a traditional cup of strong English tea. It is perfect to accompany breakfast and in the evening when you want to unwind from the day.  Since I was given 40 bags at the Fancy Food Show, I won’t have to order it for a while. Taylors of Harrogate makes it stress-free for tea lovers to order from their American site. It retails for around $5.00 a box and is well worth it. I would give this tea a rating of 9 out of 10.  - Jules

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Diamond Jubilee English Breakfast Tea

Here's a fun find I came across the other day while out and about.

Sitting on the tea/coffee aisle of my local Whole Foods was this tea tin with none other than Her Majesty pictured on the front. How could I resist? This commemorative tea caddy for "Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee"consists of twenty five English Breakfast tea bags and a brief history of her reign as queen. The back of the tin states that English Breakfast is "a classic blend of Indian, Kenyan, and Ceylon teas which characterises the traditional English cup of tea. A refreshing tea for any time of day." I concur!

Lizzie approves!
Although I only bought the tea for the all-too-Darjeeling-Darling-appropriate tin and its potential as a secret cash stash when emptied, I've been pleasantly surprised by the unexpected delightfulness of the English Breakfast. I expected it to be the kind of cheap tea leaves gimmicked by the packaging of a shiny box, especially since (sadly) most Americans would not know the difference anyway. But alas I was wrong and happily so. These English Breakfast bags brew a tasteful, yet soft cup of tea that I have utilized for W.T.E (way too early) mornings and post lunch pick-me-ups.

If you come across this bright red tin on a grocery aisle don't hesitate to grab it!

Until next time