Living in the South, when someone asks for tea, the typical expectation is a cold glass of sweet tea, that staple tradition of Southern heritage. However, ordering tea of the hot variety is a growing trend in the region.
While coffee is still by far the more popular choice of hot beverages, tea, with a wide array of flavors and varieties, is becoming more popular for its soothing and relaxing qualities. Just ask Peg Averyt, owner of Finleaf Gallery, whose great, great, great, great grandfather began the James Finlay Tea Company in Glasgow, Scotland in the late 1700s.
“I have always preferred tea to coffee,” says Peg. “It is soothing and has significantly less caffeine. Sipping a cup of tea in times of stress or disappointment is comforting, and sharing a pot with a friend is delightful!”
While the James Finlay Tea Company is still thriving today, Peg’s family no longer has a financial interest in the company. “I still receive the company magazine. I have always had a desire to learn more about tea – how it’s grown, its propagation and the history behind it.”
The history of tea is many centuries old. Believed to have been first discovered and developed in China centuries ago, European travelers brought the pungent leaves home with them for medicinal purposes. Tea eventually made its way to America around the mid-17th century. Because tea plants, which are a relative of the Camellia, thrive in sub-tropical climates, it is also grown in China, India and other South American countries. Nearly 70 percent of the tea consumed by Americans is grown in India, Sri Lanka, Malawi and Tanzania.
Teas grown at higher elevations of 3,000 to 7,000 feet produce better quality teas. Because growth is slower in these climates, the flavor tends to be greater, but the yield much smaller, thus resulting in a more rare and expensive tea. “Darjeeling is grown at the highest elevations,” says Peg, “and has qualities similar to a fine French champagne.”
And yet, tea is now being produced in the United States and even in the Palmetto State — in Charleston. The first attempt to grow tea in South Carolina came in 1799 by a French botanist. Then in 1848, Dr. Junius Smith made an attempt at commercial production of tea in Greenville County. Other attempts to grow tea in South Carolina continued through the years when, in 1905, Dr. Charles Shepard grew an oolong tea at Pinehurst and won first prize in the St. Louis Exposition against some of the finest Oriental teas. Today, “American Classic Tea” grows on Wadmalaw Island and is now owned by Bigelow Tea. Its plants are direct descendants from Dr. Shepard’s Pinehurst tea plants, which are descended from those earlier attempts to grow tea in the South.
Her life-long interest in tea led Peg and her family to take a visit to their family legacy in Kenya, Africa, where the teas for James Finlay Tea Company are now grown. “It was such a sight to see the estate, which is spread out over many acres and surrounded by beautifully manicured fields,” she recalls. “It was a wonderful educational opportunity. We saw how the cuttings and rootings were done and learned how to pick the tea by selecting two shoots and a bud.” Peg and her family also spent time where the leaves are dried to various moisture contents. “The different degrees of oxidation, or drying, yield different flavors,” she notes.
The most common types of tea are black teas, which are fermented; green and white teas that are non-fermented, and oolong, which is partially fermented. “People develop a taste for a particular tea much the same as they would for a certain wine,” says Peg. “It’s all a matter of taste.”
While most are familiar with bag teas that can be purchased in any local grocery, Finleaf Gallery is the only shop in Columbia to sell loose-leaf tea. “We carry a variety of black teas, including our own special blends,” says Robin Williams, manager of the gallery. While they do not serve tea at Finleaf, they carry quite an assortment for customers to try at home. Banarasi contains Indian spices and vanilla bean; Finleaf Chai is a spiced milk tea which has special instructions for home brewing; Chamomile is known for helping relieve tension in the body; Finleaf Blend is made of leaves shipped from India and blended at Finleaf with spices; Formosa Oolong, a tea from Taiwan, has a nutty, peach flavor and is considered to be some of the finest tea in the world; and Black Assum is a full-bodied, unblended tea selected especially for Finleaf.
Peg admits that, as much time as she has spent learning about tea, it’s still very complicated, from the growing regions, to picking and processing. “There is still so much I don’t know!” she says. As part of her travels through the years, Peg has visited India, China and Scotland. “I love to find a tea room. They’re always so warm and cozy, and I can enjoy a relaxing afternoon sampling all of the different teas. I’ve been spoiled because I have had tea served in so many places,” she says.
Peg’s travels have also allowed her to collect a variety of items associated with tea. “I have always had an eye for things connected to tea,” she says. One of her prized possessions is a large woven basket complete with netting that is believed to have been used to transport tea from India.
Visitors to Finleaf Gallery can find quite a selection of teapots and cups for steeping the perfect cup of tea. One antique Chinese teapot features intricate detail of trees with a spout resembling a dragon. During a trip to Paris, Peg discovered small woven tea baskets originating from Hanoi. Other accessories include old tins used to store tea and sets of brilliantly colored Moroccan tea glasses that are perfect for serving not only tea, but also juice and wine.
The store also prides itself on offering the work of local artisans. “We have several teapots and teacups that have been crafted by area artists,” says Robin. Another unique pot is the candlelight tea warmer pot. “Just place a candle underneath in the warmer, and you can have a nice cup of warm tea and enjoy the aroma as well,” she adds.
Brewing loose-leaf tea is growing in popularity. While there are currently no tearooms in Columbia, the trend is expanding for tea drinkers at home. “Many of our customers like to have a brewing pot at home and at the office,” Robin adds, “and we even have quite a few students from USC who come in to buy loose-leaf tea. It has more caffeine than bagged teas and is less expensive. They can brew five cups of tea for the same cost as one coffee from a specialty coffee shop.”
Peg has also enjoyed the opportunity to experience tea through art. She has visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to see silver teapots made in France in the early 1800s. “Paintings that depict scenes of tea are so warm and inviting. I enjoy seeing how artists capture the art of tea or the tea ceremony in their drawings and paintings,” she says. Some of her favorites include Le The (The Tea) by Mary Cassatt, Emma and her Children by George Wesley Bellows and Still Life by Maurice Prendergast.
“I have spent many memorable times with my daughters and friends enjoying a cup of tea, both in my travels and at home,” she adds. Peg also admits that it’s not always hot tea that she must have. “I am known to drink a glass of iced tea. After all,” she laughs, “I am a Southern girl!”
Editor’s note: Finleaf Gallery also carries an array of other items including a ladies boutique as well as artwork representing many local Columbia artists.
… Low Tea and High Tea
Etiquette for enjoying tea with a spot of polish!
There are many variations to serving tea based on cultural traditions. Most Americans are probably more familiar with the British custom of “low tea” or afternoon tea, so named because tea would be served on low tables next to sofas or chairs in a sitting or drawing room. Tea biscuits, scones or a similar food would be served alongside the tea.
Low tea is seeing a bit of a resurgence, although now it may be part of a larger social occasion such as an engagement party, a shower or a business meeting. According to tea etiquette, afternoon tea is traditionally served at 4 p.m. but can be served between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Appropriate accoutrements include a teapot of hot water, servers for milk and sugar, tea bags or loose teas and diffusers and assorted finger foods.
“High tea” was part of the meal at the end of the day, more common among the working class. It was called such because the meal was served on a high dining table as the family came together at the end of the day.
Having a tea party with just a few friends allows for all the guests to be seated at one table and the use of pretty bone china. A proper tea does not require expensive things, and you can always borrow items from a friend to complete the table. Invitations are a fun way to start to set the festive and elegant tone of your tea party.
A nice tablecloth is essential, along with cloth or linen napkins. You will need cups and saucers, plates, tea spoons, a sugar bowl, sugar tongs (to serve the sugar cubes), a milk server, a tea strainer (if the tea leaves are to be put directly in the pot and not in a tea ball) and a lemon dish.
Next select what items you would like to serve alongside the tea. If you offer scones or biscuits, knives will be needed, plus small bowls of jams, curds or clotted cream, each with a serving spoon. Set the table with forks if cake is to be served. Finger sandwiches and petit fours are also popular items.
Once everybody is seated, the hostess pours the tea, always ensuring that each guest’s cup is full, and then offers milk, sugar or lemon. Milk and lemon must never be added to the same cup, since citrus instantly spoils the milk. And remember that you should never offer cream since it’s too heavy for tea. The hostess will signal the end of the tea by picking up her napkin. Everyone else will then pick up their napkin by the center and loosely lay to the left of their plate.
Seven Time-Honored Tea Tips
• Hold your teacup by its handle, using a bent index finger and thumb to “pinch” the handle. Unlike the grasp used with a coffee mug, you never want to “ring” your finger through the handle. The pinkie finger, like all of the other fingers, is simply curved inward. Having your pinkie finger extended is improper and in most social settings is considered rude.
• If seated at a table, do not lift the saucer. This is only proper if standing; then lift the saucer with the cup.
• Blot lipstick before drinking to avoid leaving lip prints on the teacup or linens. However, never blot or wipe your lipstick with a linen or cloth napkin. Lipstick stains rarely come out in the wash.
• Never dip a scone in jam or cream. Pretend it is a dinner roll. Break off bite-size pieces and add the jam or cream on your own plate. Scones are not to be eaten with a fork, rather follow the rules of eating any bread by eating only small bite-sized pieces one at a time, with a dollop of jam first topped with cream.
• Gently swish the tea back and forth when stirring. Never leave your spoon upright in the cup and, likewise, be sure not to sip your tea from the spoon as well. After stirring, return the spoon to the saucer, placing it quietly behind the cup, not in front. It should be on the right hand side of the saucer, behind the handle of the cup. It is important to note that when stirring, the spoon should never touch the side of the teacup or make a clinking sound when set on the tea plate.
• At one time, it was traditional to pour the milk into the cup before the tea. This was done to prevent the glaze on delicate teacups from cracking. We do not have that problem today, so add the milk after the tea so that you can judge how much to use based on the color change.
• Once you have used your utensils, it is impolite to put them back on the table or reuse them to serve yourself more of the jam or cream, so be sure to rest them on the side of your plate.