Bibliotheca July Travel: A Spring Tea
Content warning: I’m going to talk about COVID in this post.
As someone with a chronic illness who really can’t afford any additional loss to my quality of life, I’m still not traveling, or attending meetups, or conventions. I’m vaccinated and boosted and I wear my mask to the office, to the grocery store, and once in a while, to shop for things I need at other stores. I realize this probably sounds horrible to other people, but the reality is, due to how little energy I have most days, this isn’t too far off from my normal life, and I’ve never really minded being home, being alone with just my partner and cats. I suppose in a way, I’m lucky that it suits me.
But I do miss my family. My grandparents turned 90 over the pandemic. For each of their birthdays, we drove 2 hours to their house to leave gifts and balloons on the steps, to talk from across the street, and to eat cupcakes my mother carefully packed for each family in tupperware while standing apart, at our cars. We missed my grandparents (and my parents) at Christmas this year. My parents had COVID. My grandparents didn’t want to risk seeing the rest of us. So, my partner and I, and one aunt + uncle + cousin gathered at my bachelor uncle’s home and sat in or household groups, as far apart as we could at the giant table that usually sits 7 or 8 households with the windows open and the air filter running. (That was better than the year before; my partner was exposed so we had Christmas at home, sitting on opposite sides of the living room in masks. I saw none of my family.)
We promised ourselves we would just delay Christmas. So, we were excited, as things looked better, to plan a spring Christmas. My aunt & uncle were supposed to visit from out of state and we planned a very late Christmas tea at my grandmother’s, but at the last minute, my aunt and uncle got COVID, and couldn’t come.
Vaccinated and boosted, tested, and making sure we wore our masks on the days leading up to it, my mother, my aunt, my cousin and I, decided we would still put together tea foods at home and drive up to my Grandmother’s house for a girl’s tea party.
We had a few challenges in planning because both my mother and I (but particularly my mother) have health issues that impact what we can eat. So we hand-made some things that generally can be bought.
Setting the Table
Prior to the tea, we discussed what we would each supply for the table. We settled on a mixed floral theme, which let us mix and match all different pieces and patterns, which is a look I love. My grandmother supplied teacups from her collection, silverware, a few random serving plates and glass plates.
I brought a couple of my Lenox butterfly meadow blue (my daily china) serving pieces like my tiered server and my sandwich tray, and then I also checked out my local thrift shops for vintage china. This is something I do on the regular outside of the pandemic and can be a very affordable way to build a collection of china. I usually pay less than $10 per piece for things that general retail new these days for $50+. When picking up older china, I tend to look for ‘known’ brands like Noritake, Wedgewood, Royal Doulton, Royal Albert, Royal Worcester. Spode and Lenox are also great, though usually you find more ‘dinner’ stuff and less ‘china’ from them. The reason I do this, is when you are at a thrift store, there will be ‘decorative’ china mixed in with ‘eat off of it’ china. China sold in the US post 1971 is probably pretty safe as long as it was made to be eaten off of. Older antique china may have lead in the paint or glaze. And decorative stuff that wasn’t made to be eaten off of should be assumed to have a good bit of lead. Ideally you want to avoid using chipped or cracked items, and avoid putting very acidic things on your antique china.
Recently, I’ve seen a lot of full sets of ‘wedding china’ from around the 1950s for sale in thrift stores, usually white with subtle white, light gray or silver floral designs. Very pretty & elegant stuff and it usually goes for about $100 for a large set.
For decor, we kept it simple with a small live tea rose bush is a lively coral/orange which was gifted to my grandmother after, and my grandmother supplied a white tablecloth.
Side note: Traveling with china
I got a couple of those decorative paper boxes from Michael’s and when I go to a relative’s house for the holidays or to someone else’s for tea and need to bring china, I wrap each piece in tissue paper and layer them into the box with the largest piece on the bottom. That way, I know the box is as sturdy as it is (do make sure you get a sturdy box and don’t over fill) and there is no nightmare scenario where someone tosses out my box. It also fits nicely in my car on the floor without sliding all around.
For our scone course, my partner made two types of scones, a blueberry scone and then and orange chocolate chip scone which she dipped in dark chocolate. I love orange and chocolate together, A+ combination, could eat these every day and be happy. We just had some oranges sitting around in the fridge from another recipe that needed using, and chocolate chips and baker’s chocolate left from Christmas cookies, so it was very much a ‘this is in the pantry’ flavor.
My grandmother made a simple/easy clotted cream, which I didn’t get the recipe for, but it was yummy.
We used jarred lemon curd, which was quite nice. We had homemade lemon curd and fresh berries a week earlier with mini pavlovas my partner made for mother’s day and it was a bit of effort to make. So, unless you have a lot of egg yolk to use up and really want to invest the time, like we did after making Pavlova, jarred is the way to go I think. It does keep for a week (maybe more?) so you could make it in advance though. We served the lemon curd in a spare sugar bowl, and the clotted cream in a cut glass bowl that I inherited from another aunt which she used to put olives in.
We did sandwiches two ways; we had 5 people (and my grandfather), and each sandwich needed a GF options, and we had lots of deserts, so we kept it pretty simple. For my grandfather, we made a full-size chicken salad sandwich on normal bread.
For the cucumber sandwiches, we changed a recipe from Tea Time Magazine: Cucumber Canapés with Dilled Butter. Basically, we followed the recipe, but we made closed sandwiches instead. I love dill, and I think the pickley dill and the tart lemon zest pair well with cucumbers, so this was no hardship for me. We put this on fresh sandwich bread made by my partner the night before, sliced very thin for most of us, and for my mother, we used a frozen gluten free sandwich bread, and worked with it while it was still partly frozen to help it keep it’s integrity (right, small square sandwich). If you sub in vegan buttery sticks for the butter, this can be a nice vegan sandwich option. It’s light and crisp and fresh, and very good for when the weather is a bit warm. Topping the sandwiches with a sprig of dill gives and extra note of freshness and helps hide and not-quite perfect bread cutting.
The other sandwich was a basic chicken salad that is a staple in my house. We used boiled chicken shredded, but you can use a grocery store cooked whole chicken, canned shredded chicken (like canned tuna) or baked chicken. To that, we added mayo, and a little fresh dill, fresh parsley, and salt. Some chopped celery gives it crunch. This we served on mini croissants which we bought at the grocery store bakery. I like to add green sliced salad olives instead of celery when I make this for just me, but I know a lot of people aren’t into olives! We also will add powdered mustard in place of the parsley at home a lot.
Salads & Sides
My aunt brought a lovely green salad from a local restaurant that had strawberries and pecans. It was very similar to Tea Time Magazine’s Teacup Salad, if you want to try something similar. We served ours in small glass bowls, but I love the idea of serving it in a tea cup, especially because my collection of cups just keeps growing!
We used fresh strawberries and grapes as garnish / a fruit side. They made it very easy to arrange things nicely because we could just fill in any weird holes with fruit.
For desert, we bought some macarons from wegmans which were surprisingly nice, as my partner as a nut allergy and we would have been the only ones who really would have tackled baking them.
My mother made some sort of gluten free Raspberry Streusel Bars which somehow escaped all my photos, but were made with raspberry jam and were delicious.
I decided to be adventurous and made two deserts, with the idea that one of the two had to work out. The one that worked out best was the Mini Victoria Sponge Cakes from teatime magazine. Interestingly, their online recipe is not the same as what was printed in the magazine. The magazine calls for:
- 1 1/4 cup butter
- 2 1/2 cups sugar
- 5 large eggs
- 3 3/4 cups cake flour
- 2 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 1/4 cup whole milk (I used rice milk)
- 1/2 tsp vanilla
While the online recipe uses self rising flour. If you have the magazine, it’s printed in the July/August 2022 issue, and also in a older one which I’m pretty sure I referenced because both of the deserts I made were in the same issue, and I want to say mine also had some lemon zest, but that issue has since hidden somewhere in my house.
Anyways, I baked them up in these flower shaped petit four pans I had, and they came out beautifully and kept the shape beautifully. I added gel food dye to some of them to make them ‘flower’ colors, and it was a lot of fun. They called for being cut and having whipped cream home made and put in them, but I could not. I absolutely could not make whipped cream. So I just used jam. I did apricot in half and raspberry in the other half, and a sprinkle of powder sugar on top at the last minute and they were really nice. They were slightly sticky, so they did need to be carefully arranged with paper to make the trip to grandma’s house safely.
What wasn’t very nice was my other attempt at a desert. I tried to make a blueberry tartlet from one of the tea time magazines (still can’t find it). It involved rolling rounds of store bought pie crust thin and cutting with a biscuit cutter and putting them into a tartlet pan. I don’t have a tartlet pan. So I tried to use a muffin tin. I had to bake this once… then it had me make a sort of custard and put a bit in each one, and a few blueberries and bake it again. Disaster. My shell walls were not high enough and it all boiled over and got under the crust and stuck absolutely horribly. I ended up with basically blueberry pie salad that I forced out of the muffin tin with a spoon. These didn’t make it on the table. They did taste good though, so I sent little containers of sad ones home with my mom for my dad and brother.
We had a really lovely time and it was nice to see my family and to get to plan a tea party again after so long. My grandmother got me the subscription to tea time magazine, and we both read it, so it was fun to get to make recipes we had seen in it and wanted to try out. It was also fun to try to put together a cohesive menu (using dill/fresh herbs and berries as central themes) while still working around various health limitations.
After our tea, my grandmother showed me this Japanese lacquer jewelry box and a collection of vintage handkerchiefs which had belonged to her grandmother, and told me their story. It’s a very beautiful old box, but we don’t know how it came to belong to her grandmother. Several of the metal pieces on the top are 1860s-ish Japanese coins, and one likely is a maker’s mark though I wasn’t able to find any information about it. The motif on the lid is a takara-zukushi, or ‘treasure collection’ motif (or at least, that’s what it’s called on Kimono), and the motif was developed in the Edo period of Japan. In the upper left we have Choji (Cloves) which were considered a rare and valuable spice. In the center to the left is a kakure-gasa (magic umbrella) which in Japanese legend made you invisible. Lower left corner are two Hoshou (Diamond shaped necklace) motifs. (you can read more about the history of the pattern here). There is also some coral which traditionally has been considered a valuable gemstone in several cultures, the actual coins, of course and then there is also the large motif at the bottom center right. This might be a very stylized magic cloak cloak of feathers, but I’m not sure at all.
Hopefully, true travel will be back on the table for me in the future, but until then, I’m content with visiting my grandparents and listening to their stories.