Grand tradition in a modest tea room

Posted: July 15, 2007

Why I found myself motoring down Berkley Road in Devon is not particularly important, though it had to do with the offer of one of those tilted copper bowls they use to whisk the puffy omelettes (French souffles, almost) on Mont Saint-Michel.

Anyway, it was lunch time not long after I picked it up, and off to my right about midway between the back side of the Devon Horse Show grounds and the front of the Whole Foods on Lancaster Avenue, I encountered a modest tea room called A Taste of Britain.

It had the aspect of a country cottage, inside and out. And if you happened to be in the market for British nostalgia foods, it was an oasis, well-stocked with Branston Pickle, and Lyle's Gold Syrup Biscuits with a cream filling, and Frank Cooper's Original Oxford Marmalade, and of course, Ribena, the sweet, black-currant concentrate, and a variety of tinned and bagged teas, Taylor's of Harrowgate and Harrison & Crossfield most prominently represented.

(There was much more in the tiny retail shop appended to the tea room - classic teapots in primary colors, and violet-themed bone china cups, and jars of lemon curd and, in the cooler, a few wedges of Stilton and - how apt! - both clotted and double Devon cream, rich and creamy as butter.)

If what you are looking for in a tea room is a moment of respite and refuge, a place where the comforting social aspects of afternoon tea or a light lunch are more key than the quality of the cookery, this room certainly fits the bill.

On a given day, a preteen granddaughter in a long dress might be undergoing tea initiation. Or girlfriends with an infant might bow their heads before a first dainty bite of chicken salad croissant sandwich. Or a sturdy old woman in a blue straw garden hat and pink tennis shoes might be lunching alone, part of the gray-haired troops who are stalwarts, especially at Full Afternoon Tea (tea sandwiches, fresh-baked scones served with Devon cream, lemon curd and preserves, pastries and a generous pot of tea, $15.95 per person).

Let's not examine the particulars of the food too harshly. There are perfectly sufficient cool summer soups - carrot, and cucumber-mint. The triangled tea sandwiches are adequate, as well - the chicken salad, especially. (The smoked turkey with cranberry butter, the shredded cheddar with chutney, and a few others were just OK.) The chicken pot pie, and chef's salad, and biscuity-crusted Cornish pastie, stuffed with a mash of potato and minced beef, were flavorless - exemplars, in my wife's wry estimation, of the old-style taste of Britain.

The new-style taste of Britain, of course, is not just the stylings of Jamie Oliver or the homey offerings of Nigella Lawson, but the ethnic stew on the streets all over town - fine falafels and Indonesian flavors or, as a friend just returned from London gleefully discovered, mammoth flat pans of paella simmering at the curbs of the outdoor Portobello Market.

Tastes are always changing - driven by all manner of things. Tea fanciers nowadays have their choice of venues all over town and country, the latest of them a sunny, clean-lined, contemporary-Asian tea room called Tbar Cafe at 12th and Sansom (under an awning that says Fusion, an exercise place that's upstairs).

But the tea room as retreat still retains its tidal pull. And so does its ritual, full in the afternoon - a excuse to take a moment, to pass the preserves, to nibble a crust-off sandwich. Is it any wonder then, that even young and urban Tbar is considering adding Victorian tea sandwiches to its light menu - a taste of Britain that has refused to go out of style.


A Taste of Britain

40 Berkley Road, Devon

610-971-0390


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com.

To see Rick's columns about remodeling his kitchen, along with a video, go to http://go.philly.com/rickskitchen.

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