Finally, a Visit to the Camellia Tea Room in Benicia, CA

For years, I’ve noticed that the Camellia Tea Room in historic Benicia, CA is mentioned time and again in various tea related publications.

Benicia itself is a lovely old town nestled on the north side of San Francisco Bay’s Carquinez Strait.  In 1853-1854, Benicia served as California’s third state capitol. (The first two capitols were San Jose and Vallejo.  In 1854 the state capitol moved to its permanent home in Sacramento.)  Benicia is dotted with antique shops making it a fun day trip for a browsing/shopping expedition.  If you are looking for a delightful place to enjoy tea or lunch, the Camellia Tea Room fills that bill and makes a satisfying addition to the day.

A view of the tea room and their teapots, tea sets, and loose tea to purchase as  a view of the tea room

A view of the tea room and their teapots, tea sets, and loose tea to purchase

The  family owned and operated Camellia Tea Room opened in 1995.  I liked this tea room as soon as I peered through the window and saw its decor, layout, and spaciousness.  The tables and chairs match, are well placed and not at all crowded – a very pleasant change from many of the places I have visited.  It’s comfortable, not at all stuffy – hitting just the right blend of fun and elegance.

Tea rooms, quite the rage in the first half of the 20th century, were one of the first entrepreneurial businesses that women pursued in the United States.   And although called a Tea Room, they often provided somewhat heartier meals such as sandwiches, salads, a few savory dishes, etc.  The Camellia Tea Room falls into that category.  While their traditional English tea is wonderful, you can also choose from a selection of luncheon soups, salads, and sandwiches if that is more to your liking.

Traditional Tea at the Camellia Tea Room in Benicia, CA

Traditional Tea at the Camellia Tea Room in Benicia, CA

I ordered the traditional three-tier English tea and was pleased to find Kenya tea on the menu which I ordered.  The tea was full bodied with a lovely aroma and the servers did a wonderful job of replenishing the pot with hot water so my tea was always hot – a strong personal preference.  The Camellia’s tea sandwiches were among the most interesting I have enjoyed anywhere – a wonderful crustini topped with hummus and an artichoke black olive tapenade, an equally delicious thinly sliced roast beef with a red pepper butter spread and a delightful cucumber sandwich, always my favorite.  (Whoever made the first cucumber sandwich was simply brilliant!)

A couple other points about the Camellia Tea Room.  If you call ahead, they will work to accommodate special food needs – specifically vegan, gluten-free, and/or dairy free.  On my visit, they were serving a vegan cauliflower soup, lightly curried, that was sublime. They consistently provide vegetarian options.

I have some regular tea places I take out of town visitors for a tea adventure – Tyme for Tea in Niles, Samovar in San Francisco and, now, the Camellia Tea Room in Benicia.  A fabulous addition to my local menu of places to take and savor tea.

 

Do you have a Vegan coming for tea?

So many people have food allergies today that having an easy ‘go to’ set of recipes for those with restricted diets can come in handy.  Here’s a cake you can be proud to serve that is vegan and dairy-free (yes I know that’s redundant).  It’s Vegan Orange Cake from, you guessed it, my Alice’s Tea Cup cookbook.  It is so remarkably easy to make, presents nicely, and is delicious.  And when I say easy to make, I seriously mean easy.  No mixer required.  Simple ingredients, quick, and yummy.

Alice's Tea Cup Orange Vegan Cake as shown in their cookbook

Alice’s Tea Cup Orange Vegan Cake as shown in their cookbook

Vegan Orange Cake  (From the Alice’s Tea Cup” cookbook by Haley Fox and Lauren Fox)

  • 2 ¼  cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 ½  cups turbinado sugar
  • 1 ½  tsp baking soda
  • ¾ tsp kosher salt
  • 1 ½  cups freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 1 ½  Tbsp freshly grated orange zest
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • 1 ½ Tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • 1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
  • Orange Glaze
  • 1 Tbsp freshly grated orange zest
  • ¼ cup freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 1 cup confectioners sugar

    My version, not quite as elegant, but yummy and partially eaten.  By the way, the cake salver is Fostoria.

    My version, not quite as elegant, but yummy and partially eaten. By the way, the cake salver is Fostoria.

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Spray a deep 9” round pan with cooking spray (I used canola oil)
  2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, turbinado sugar, baking soda and kosher salt together.  Set aside.
  3. In a medium bowl, combine the orange juice, orange zest, vegetable oil (I used canola), apple cider vinegar, and vanilla extract together.  Whisk a bit.
  4. Using a mixer, or with a whisk, add the wet ingredients to the dry, mixing until the batter is totally smooth.
  5. Pour into the prepared pan.
  6. Bake 25-30 minutes (mine took 35 minutes but was in an 8” square pan) until a toothpick stuck in center comes out clean.
  7. Remove to wire rack for cooling.
  8. When completely cool, carefully remove the cake from the pan and transfer to a cake plate or salver
  9. To make the orange glaze, whisk all ingredients in a bowl until smooth.
  10. When cake is cool, pour the glaze in the center of the cake so it spreads evenly across the top and down the sides (I used a spatula for this)
  11. Let it sit for 30 minutes – if you can – and serve.

If serving to adults, might be fun to add Grand Marnier to the glaze – not too much.  Also more orange zest would be ok or even including a bit of lemon zest.  Enjoy.  If you have comments or delicious recipes for vegans, non-dairy, or gluten free, please feel free to share them.  Next up on the vegan side will be a wonderful vegan ginger cookie so stay tuned.

 

 

 

Jane Pettigrew and Henrietta Lovell – Passion and Courage

This week has been quite an eye opener for me.  I find myself inspired by two women, both of whom had the courage and passion to move from an assured lucrative career to another less assured career but one that resonated with their values, interests, and quest to learn, explore, and communicate about the world of tea.  Jane Pettigrew, the renowned tea shop owner, writer, lecturer, tea historian, and world traveler, and Henrietta Lovell, the Rare Tea-Lady, and owner of The Rare Tea Company.

I have many of Jane Pettigrew’s books.  They are among my ‘go to’ for tea history, recipes, and style. Before I knew anything about her, I stumbled on to her first book, “Tea Time”, published in 1986 which details the basics of traditional English tea and tea parties, with wonderful English recipes (alas, in English metrics).  (“Tea Time” is out of print but you might be able to find it on Alibris, the used book site) or at Amazon.  Just reading the ingredients of the recipes will make your mouth water and you will hunger for a lovely tea setting, hot tea, wonderful tea treats, and terrific conversation.  It’s a very English book, which makes it all the more charming and delectable.

Tea Time (Out of Print) and A Social History of Tea, both by Jane Pettigrew

Tea Time (Out of Print) and A Social History of Tea, both by Jane Pettigrew

Ms. Pettigrew is a prolific writer (I have four of her books) and she clearly thrives on discovery, history, and adventure.  If you are looking for a history of British tea, her book, A Social History of Tea will educate and delight you with the history and social evolution of tea in Britain and beyond.  The lady rocks!

What got me on this today?  I’m still reading Katrina Avila Munichiello’s A Tea Reader and there is a wonderful writeup by Ms. Pettigrew entitled ‘Around the World with a Cup of Tea’ in which she details her career evolution from communications professional to tea shop partner and owner to tea writer.  When they say, ‘follow your bliss’, she has!

And, as I mentioned in my earlier blog this week, Henrietta Lovell, the Rare Tea-Lady is equally inspiring with her Rare Tea Company.  Another heavy hitter in the corporate world who stumbled on a new passion and had the courage to follow that path.  Both these women are wonderful role models and remind me that there is so much adventure still to have in life and with hard work, courage, passion, discipline and the willingness to push another door and another door and another door, there is lots of adventure, learning, and community ahead.

 

 

The Rare Tea Company and the Business of Kindness

RAF Tea, Oolong, and Lost Malawi Teas from the Rare Tea Company

RAF Tea, Oolong, and Lost Malawi Teas from the Rare Tea Company

Recently, a good friend recommended listening to a BBC Business Services radio broadcast, “The Business of Kindness” literally about incorporating kindness into your marketing and business strategy.  Fascinating series of interviews with various business leaders but at the center of the article is the story of Henrietta Lovell, the Rare Tea-Lady who founded the Rare Tea Company in England almost a decade ago.  Introduced to an extraordinary oolong tea while on a business trip, Ms. Lovell developed a passion for high-end tea and opened a niche business to bring these extraordinary teas to England.  She works directly with the tea growers to source her teas from small mountain tea gardens in Nepal, India,China, Japan, and Africa.

The tea sounded interesting as did the packaging.  As a marketing person myself, the extra touches she included with her packaging including short vignettes some written by Alexander McCall, that are inserted into the tea tins.  Another interesting detail is that after Ms. Lovell met Terry Clark, a RAF WWII veteran, she created a special blend to honor the Royal Air Force Tea for the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.  Seven percent of the revenue from this tea goes to the RAF Association Wings Appeal and to the RAF museum.

Royal Air Force Tea from the Rare Tea Company

Royal Air Force Tea from the Rare Tea Company

I was hooked and quickly found myself online at rareteacompany.com purchasing tea from England.  To my delight, my tea arrived this weekend.  I ordered three teas – an oolong since that was the tea that inspired Ms. Lovell, an African tea, Lost Malawi, and the RAF tea.  The packaging is charming with each tin having its own colors and graphical design.  More than than, it included a hand-written thank you note and a small thank you gift package of the RAF Tea in tea bag form.  Charming.

Gotta love handwritten thank you notes!

Gotta love handwritten thank you notes!

I started with the RAF tea, a blend of Makaibari Estate in Darjeeling (which I visited in 2008 when I participated in Dan Robertson’s World Tea Tour to Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal) and Satemwa Estate black tea from Malawi.  It’s a strong brew, with a tag line “Calming in times of national peril, fortifying when courage is required”, an homage to the courage and sacrifices of RAF pilots during those dark days.  I followed the instructions, pouring the not quite boiling water over the tea leaves and steeping for 3 minutes.  It made a wonderful cup of strong invigorating tea – perfect for the unusually cold northern California day.

Discovery is so much fun and I am indebted to my friend for passing on the story of the Rare Tea Company.  I’ve not only found a new tea that I enjoy, but also a company I admire!

 

Indonique and “The Tea Effect”: Re-inventing a tea business

A Tea Reader, Living One Cup at a Time, by Katrina Avila Munichiello

A Tea Reader, Living One Cup at a Time, by Katrina Avila Munichiello

While in NYC over the holiday, I stumbled on Katrina Avila Munichiello’s A Tea Reader: Living Life One Cup at a Time, a nifty compendium of tea writings some of which go back hundreds of years.  It’s an interesting little book that she organizes around Tea Reveries, Connections, Rituals, Careers, and Travels.  Regardless of whether or not you are a tea aficionado, you’ll recognize names like Rudyard Kipling and Louisa May Alcott but there were so many names I across the centuries that were new to me.  I’ve found this little volume to be educational, delightful, and revealing in ways that have surprised me.  Pieces and observations written 100-200 years ago are so current, the language and expressions often like what I read and write today.   Guess it is true that every generation discovers anew many of life’s pleasures.

One entry in particular touched me.  Written by George Constance, The Tea Effect discusses his Indonique Tea and Chai Cafe on Magazine Street in New Orleans, its relatively short life and its demise brought on by Hurricane Katrina.  The little cafe comes alive as he talks about its opening, first customers, and the positive impact the shop had on other local small businesses.  Offering both bulk high-end and teas to savor in the shop proved to be a winning combination with other small businesses wanting to feature Indonique’s teas in their restaurants, kiosks, and the like.  True to New Orleans reputation, the cafe’s clientele was diversified and entertaining.  Small businesses are such a treasure and as a lover of tea rooms and shops, it saddened me to read about the impact of Katrina and the decision to close and relocate to Connecticut where he and his wife have re-opened the business as an internet tea retail site.

Here’s the good news.  George Constance and his wife, Daya, are part of the new socially committed entrepreneurs.  Mr. Constance writes “We pledge 10% of every sale we make to the communities that pick our tea through Non-Governmental Organizations like Mercy Corps that can most effectively make change and provide oversight…our website is dedicating percentages to organizations that fight the trafficking of children….We’re rebuilding Indonique as a cause….”   And I, for one, wish them every success in their new re-invented venture.

Alice’s Tea Cup – a holiday visit

Over the holidays I got another chance to visit Alice’s Tea Cup (ATC) on 73rd and Columbus Ave in NYC.  ATC has been written up so much that it can be quite hard to get into with waits as long as 1-2 hours – especially during the holiday season.   Here’s a tip IMG_0594that one of the gals behind the counter gave me and it’s worth following.  Go for breakfast between 8 and 10 AM when you can usually be seated immediately.   Three of us arrived at 9 AM on a holiday weekend and after a very short wait were seated.  The Eggs Florentine were simply delicious – wonderfully poached on a bed of spinach accompanied with a small green salad with their house dressing (available to purchase).  I asked for my buttermilk scone on the side and was glad that I did as it allowed me to savor it slowing with no intruding flavors.

Mt. Everest Breakfast tea - so delightful.  Love the packaging with the handwritten instructions.

Mt. Everest Breakfast tea – so delightful. Love the packaging with the handwritten instructions.

I also tried and fell in love with their Mt. Everest Breakfast tea that is mildly smoked.  This is not a Lapsang Souchong or Russian Caravan but more like a heavy Darjeeling with a hint of smoke.  It was so delicious that I brought some back to California with me.  Love their packaging and hand written instructions on the label. Charming.

Chocolate Cake with Buttercream Frosting.  This is from their Alice's Tea Cup cook book but the cake looks exactly like this.

Chocolate Cake with Buttercream Frosting. This is from their Alice’s Tea Cup cook book but the cake looks exactly like this.  Exquisite.

 

And, once again,  I want to wax about their chocolate cake.  I bought a piece and ate it over several days. So many cakes are a disappointment that I seldom order a slice.  At ATC, their cakes are as beautiful to look at as they are to savor slowly.   Great to share or take home as I did.