Aside from once joining the Southern Tea Time Getaway for their Georgia stop at Tea Leaves & Thyme, I have never been on a tea tour, a problem which TeaTime magazine helped remedy a week ago. They organized a TeaTime in Alabama Retreat in the magazine’s hometown of Birmingham. The experience was lovely, chock full of baking, tea tastings, thoughtful tea gifts, education, new tea friends, laughter and naturally, daily afternoon tea.
Maybe when you were a kid, your grandpa or dad liked to hang up a bedsheet at a family party and bring out his slides to share pictures of the last summer vacation. This post is a lot like that, so you can see all of what goes on when you give yourself the gift of a tea tour. Also, my friends and family know that I like to save quotes heard on the trip, to print out and include later in the trip photo album (yes, I still keep photo albums). In this case, I’ve peppered my favorite quotes throughout this post. Let’s get started!
I don’t know what time it is.” Lorna Reeves, TeaTime Editor and retreat planner
“It’s tea time.” Katherine Ellis, TeaTime Associate Editor
In Memory of the Woman Who Started It All
There was a somber note to the weekend because the retreat had been planned before the passing this summer of TeaTime‘s founder Phyllis Hoffman DePiano (there’s a lovely article written about her story in TeaTime‘s holiday issue). We saw that the magazine’s publishing house, Hoffman Media, operates like an extended family, to wit, several of its employees are Phyllis’ relatives. Her son Brian (Hoffman Media President and Editor-in-Chief of sister publication Bake from Scratch) and sister Janice (recently retired from TeaTime sales) joined us on the retreat, saying how much Phyllis would have loved to be here with all of us. TeaTime Editor Lorna Reeves shared that she had been an “adopted” daughter of Phyllis’, and as the trip planner, had made sure…
There’s a bit of Phyllis in everything we’re doing this weekend.”– Lorna Reeves (pictured right),
TeaTime Editor and retreat planner
Special Thanks to Our Hosts
We do all the not fun stuff so you get to have all the fun.”– Lorna Reeves, TeaTime Editor and retreat planner
We met many of the talented people behind TeaTime magazine, from stylists to photographers, from editors to chefs, but before we launch into telling you what fun we had, particular thanks are owed to:
- Lorna Reeves, Editor, who planned our action-packed itinerary to make the most of our time, with thoughtful attention to every detail so that things ran without a hitch. We very much appreciated the extensive list of local recommendations she compiled, which led us to several excellent dinners in downtown Birmingham.
- Katherine Ellis, Associate Editor, who always made sure everyone was on the bus and along with Shelby Duffy, Editorial Assistant, made sure we had everything we needed throughout the weekend.
- Laura Crandall, Test Kitchen Director, and husband Mark, Katie Moon Dickerson, Recipe Developer and Madison Harvel, Test Kitchen Assistant, in the kitchen, for pre-measuring all our ingredients, setting up our individual workstations, showing us how it’s done, and washing all our dishes!
Afternoon Tea at The Club
Our first afternoon tea was at The Club, a private club originally built in 1951, perched atop Red Mountain with a beautiful view of the city. Lorna had designed an intentional substitution for the scone course, because The Club’s signature orange rolls had been Phyllis’ favorite. These yeasty glazed buns are flavored with coconut flakes, orange zest and juice.
Pictured below you’ll see their creamy passionfruit cheesecakes we liked best, garnished with wafer flowers, as well as the lobby of our historic, stylish Elyton Hotel, and a promotional picture of local jeweler Bromberg’s in downtown Birmingham. Lorna wrapped our first gift for the weekend — a Wedgwood teapot ornament — in shining silver paper and ribbon to recall the signature gift boxes at Bromberg’s, another local favorite of Phyllis’.
To order a Wedgwood teapot ornament for yourself, click the pic at right to order (it is an Amazon commission link).
Hanging at “The Hoffice” (Hoffman Media’s New Office)
In 2021, Hoffman Media bought a downtown Birmingham building, which the media company completely renovated in 2022, moving in at the beginning of this year. The TeaTime staff warmly welcomed us to spend the weekend at their new office space, letting us peek into the prop room, and hosting our baking classes in their brand new test kitchen with live demo area and twelve state-of-the-art kitchen workstations. We also had time to shop their pop-up store for books, fascinators, tea cozies and other tea gifts.
We’re doing loose leaf tea all weekend long.”– Lorna Reeves, masterful tea retreat planner and TeaTime magazine editor
It’s the little things that delight me, like the open tea bar they had set out for us (pictured below), with a variety of teas, sweeteners, milks and mugs. We were invited to help ourselves to a cup of tea as needed.
I like my tea weak…like my men. Not overpowering.” – Anonymous tea retreat guest
Making Ourselves an Afternoon Tea
Everybody is making their own everything.”– Laura Crandall, Test Kitchen Director
Cooking at The Hoffice is a home chef’s dream: no prep and no clean-up! It’s like having your own cooking show. We were each provided with a fully stocked workstation and take-home folios of the TeaTime recipes we made. After watching a live demo of a recipe preparation, we’d go to our workstations to make our own attempt under the kind guidance of a test kitchen team member. We made three recipes in reverse course order to accommodate their prep/cook times:
- Orange-Almond Battenburg Cake, taught by the delightful Katie Moon Dickerson, TeaTime Recipe Developer
- Scones (with optional mix-ins), taught by the effervescent Brian Hart Hoffman, Hoffman Media President and Bake from Scratch Editor-in-Chief
- Cucumber Flower Canapés, taught by the gracious Lorna Reeves, TeaTime Editor
During Lorna’s session, she mentioned that she has seen some American tearooms serve scones as the first course, rather than the second, as is typically done in England. Though once, when she was traveling in Nottingham, the tearoom she visited had only cream and jam on the second tier, with a little card that read,
Heaven is a hot scone. When you’re ready for yours, ring the bell.”– Nottingham tearoom
Above at left, Brian approves of how his students’ scones turned out. Here are some of the scone tips he shared:
- When you’re using a pastry blender, you do not have to put your whole weight on it, or unclog it, it will naturally push the cut butter through very easily.
- Do not twist the cutter when you are cutting out your scones, because it seals the edges and ruins the layers you’ve created with your folding and compressing action.
- Refrigerate or freeze scones before baking, because baking from cold creates small pockets of cold butter that pop and steam during baking to create the perfect crumb structure.
Staging A Beautiful, Delicious Afternoon Tea
During our lunch break, we were delighted to meet TeaTime Stylist, Courtni Bodiford, who joined Editor Lorna Reeves to explain what goes on behind the scenes to plan their photo shoots. The magazine actually borrows much of the photographed linens and china (rather than having to store them in The Hoffice) and through word-of-mouth, finds a homeowner willing to let TeaTime photograph in their home. The test kitchen staff prepare that issue’s recipes fresh on site and then everything has to be picture perfect to create the gorgeous photos we pour over each month. Lorna explained that they do not touch up the photographed savories and sweets, because they want their readers to be able to use the recipes to create exactly what they see in the magazine.
Once our recipes were all ready, it was time to pick our china (teacup, saucer, tea napkin, tea plate, dinner plate as charger) and set our tea tables. Happily, we were joined by the retreat’s guest speaker, Bruce Richardson of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas. We had plenty of extras to wrap up and bring home, though the Renals children devoured my scones within a day.
This tea cup is a communal cup that takes me around the world. We can share this cup of humanity because we are both tea people, even if we don’t speak the same language. We are communicating much more deeply.– Bruce Richardson, Elmwood Inn Fine Teas
Tasting Tea with Bruce Richardson of Elmood Inn Fine Teas
Tasting is like a play. What’s the opening act? Where does it lead? And how does it finish?”– Bruce Richardwon, Elmwood Inn Fine Teas
Prior to a presentation on Josiah Wedgwood, Bruce joined us in The Hoffice to lead a tasting of four North American teas:
- Forest White by Tea Hawaii & Company in Volcano Village, Hawai’i
- Green Tea by Longleaf Tea Co. in Laurel, Mississippi
- Black Magnolia by The Great Mississippi Tea Co. in Brookhaven, Mississippi
- Montreal Meadow by Camellia Sinensis in Montréal, Québec
We appreciated how he shared photos and videos of the growers, explaining what makes each tea variety unique. He was also very patient with my many questions.
Here’s some of what we learned from Bruce’s presentation:
- For an herbal tea, you need to dry the botanical first, because it concentrates the plant’s essential oils and therefore the flavor (i.e., homegrown mint tea).
- The newest growth (i.e., white tea) of a tea plant has more caffeine in it, to protect itself from bugs.
- Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), the major bioactive polyphenol present in green tea, is the best catechin you can get, Bruce says, “that’s the healer.”
- Adding milk to your cup binds the tannins in tea and smoothes the flavor.
Tea balls? It’s tea abuse. It’s a straight jacket for the tea leaves.”– Bruce Richardson, Elmwood Inn Fine Teas
A Study of Wedgwood Pottery
After Bruce’s presentation about the life and achievements of famous English potter Josiah Wedgwood, we hopped on our bus to attend a private tour of Birmingham Museum of Art’s Wedgwood collection. See below for our favorite teapots seen. We asked the tour guide about the safety of drinking from a lead-glazed teapot in the 18th century, and she answered that the people of that time understood the risks, but had to weigh those against the many other causes of death prevalent back then.
Dressing Up for Our Last Afternoon Tea
Our final afternoon tea of the trip was held at the Hoover-Randle Home & Gardens, and, yes, they did save the best for last. A good friend of Phyllis’, homeowner Barbara Randle is a fiber artist who decorated the 1940s home with colorful flair. We all dressed up and then lit up when we saw the beautifully set tables and tiered trays. Food Stylist Katie Moon Dickerson made the clotted cream herself, and it was divine.
All weekend long, we had witnessed the way this media group operates like a large family, relying on local relationships and friendships to do business in a down-to-earth manner that uplifts local businesses. So we appreciated that our afternoon tea menu shared the Alabama companies who had made the food: tea sandwiches by Ousler’s Sandwiches; soft, giant scones from Highland Gourmet Scones; and Baby Bites desserts by Pastry Art.
After All This Time…It Was Worth It!
Afternoon tea is about building relationships. Etiquette is important but not at the cost of relationships.”– Lorna Reeves, TeaTime Editor
Destination Tea is almost eight years old, but I began researching tea and afternoon tea years before I built the website. So it’s been at least ten years that I have known Lorna and Bruce by their work and leadership in the tea world, always from afar. To share afternoon tea with them, to get to chat with them in person, this was the gift I intended to give myself when I signed up for the TeaTime in Alabama Retreat. But looking over this post, you can see, I received so much more: in learning, in connection with fellow tea lovers, and in shared experiences. If you have the freedom and means to treat yourself to a tea tour, whether in the States or abroad, it’s very much worth the investment.