Monday, April 7, 2014

A Downton Abbey Style Tea at Meadow Brook Hall

On Tuesday, March 25th, I had the privilege of speaking to a group of ten ladies about the history of tea in England up to the Downton Abbey time period [Edwardian era]. 

The tea and tour of the mansion was a silent auction package offered by Meadow Brook Hall at a wild game fundraiser dinner, and included three tea tastings, and a 30 minute tea lecture. Initially it was to be held in Mr. Wilson's study, but was changed to the year-round sun porch just off the living room/drawing room.

The chestnut ceiling beams added to the elegance of the sun porch, and provided a lovely setting for the tea party.

Displayed below are a 19th century wooden tea caddy, replicas of 1st and 2nd class Titanic teacups, pictures of Catherine of Braganza - England's first tea-drinking Queen, and Anna Maria Stanhope Russell,  7th Duchess of Bedford who is credited with creating and popularizing the tradition/ritual known as Afternoon Tea.

Two points of tea time trivia shared was the distinct difference between Afternoon Tea and High Tea [high tea is actually a commoner's supper in England - not an elegant affair]. And the sandwich that is so much a part of Afternoon Tea is credited to John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich [18th century], who supposedly couldn't stop his card game long enough to eat, and asked for his meat to be brought to him between two slices of bread so he could carry on with his game.

Because it was a Downton Abbey themed tea, three tins of Downton Abbey Teas by Republic of Tea, and a tin of Downton Abbey shortbread cookies from Cost Plus/World Market's "Downton Abbey Tea Party" promotion, were displayed.

Using a handleless teacup [which is what the first teacups were], I demonstrated that they were held with the thumb at the six o'clock position, and the index and middle fingers at the twelve o'clock position, which causes the pinkie finger to extend naturally for balance.  But an extended pinkie was purely for balance, not a pretentious tea time ritual as some think today. 

The ladies tasted teas from the three basic tea groups - black, green, and oolong.  First was Queen Catherine's tea from Harney & Sons, which they drank with their savories.  Part of Catharine's dowry in her marriage to King Charles II of England, was a chest of tea, the favorite drink at the Portuguese Court. Harney & Sons consider Catherine the "Patron Saint of Tea."

~ Savory Course ~

~ Menu Card ~

The second tea, Earl Grey green, was from Simpson and Vail Tea Company, and was served with dessert.  Charles Earl Grey was the Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1830-1834. The Earl Grey tea was a diplomatic gift to him, containing bergmot [a citrus fruit grown in southern France].  The blend is perhaps the most famous tea in the world. The tea was so popular in the Prime Minister's drawing room that he gave his tea merchant a sample and asked him to come up with a close match.  Today, there's as many different versions of Earl Grey as there are tea companies!  Traditionally it's made with black tea, but Simpson and Vail made a version with Sencha, and call it Emerald Green Earl Grey.

~ Dessert Course ~

Below teacups are being emptied to transition from Queen Catherine's tea, to Earl Grey green tea.

The ladies seemed to enjoy both Queen Catherine's tea, and Earl Grey green.  Small dishes of the loose-leaf teas were passed around so the ladies could see and smell the dry leaves.

Below, Denise, from Meadow Brook's catering staff, is serving tea. 

Fun comparisons between Cora Crawley [Countess of Grantham] and Mrs. Matilda Dodge Wilson [the Lady of Meadow Brook Hall]:  
  • Cora Crawley [ficticous] was born in 1868.  Matilda Dodge Wilson was born in 1883, making Cora 15 years Matilda's senior.
  • Cora married Robert Crawley [Lord Grantham] in 1889 when she was 21 years old. Matilda Dodge married Alfred Wilson in 1925 when she was 24 years old.
  • Mr. & Mrs. Wilson went to England to study English architecture, interiors, and furnishing for one year before they began building Meadow Brook Hall in 1926. They gathered ideas for their home by touring castles, and historic estates.  Do you suppose they visited Highclere Castle?  One thing's for sure, they drank lots of tea during their year's stay in England!
  • Matilda Dodge Wilson hosted many tea parties at Meadow Brook Hall just as Cora did at Downton Abbey.  
  • Meadow Brook Hall is the 4th largest historic house museum in the United States.
The grand finale following dessert, was flaming oolong tea.  I told Meadow Brook's Program Coordinator that flaming oolong didn't exist during the Edwardian Era, but they would have loved the presentation if it would have! 

Formosa oolong tea was popularized in the 1860's by British entrepreneur, John Dodd.  

The presentation required positioning "Broulee Spoons" on top of teacups, and placing a brown sugar cube in the bowl of each spoon.  While I was doing my presentation brandy was warming in the warmer.  Hot oolong tea was poured into the teacups, and hot brandy into the spoons.  Then it was ignited.  The flame melted the sugar cube and the sugar/brandy mixture was poured into the teacup and consumed.  

The lecture concluded with a quote from 19th century British minister, Rev. Sydney Smith:
"Thank God for tea!
What would the world do without tea?
How did it exist?
I am glad I was not born before tea."

I like to think Mrs. Wilson would have been pleased if she could have looked down and watched the tea event held in her home that day.


  1. That looks like a delightful tea, from start to finish, and I'm sure the lucky ones who attended, enjoyed it thoroughly.

  2. Beautiful! Beautiful! Beautiful! Oh, how I wish I could have been there to see your fabulous presentation!!!

  3. What a wonderful event this must have been! Soooo wish I lived within driving distance of all your great presentations, Phyllis. I would be so much smarter under your tea tutelage, I'm sure of it!

  4. Wonderful! Wish I had been able to attend!

  5. Phyllis, you were a wonderful part of the tea. I understand that the ladies had a good time, and loved learning about the teas and their history. I wish I could have been there, Thanks again, Lisa Drummond, Programs Coordinator, Meadow Brook Hall.

  6. So happy that you could give all the guests so much knowledge of tea. It looks like a beautiful place for tea! Thank you for sharing!


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