Call it part of the “Downton effect,” that phenomenon where fans of “Downton Abbey” seek out things of wealthy Britain past. Taking afternoon tea is in vogue, as the owners of Fancy That in Walpole can attest.
Indeed, co-owner Sarah Erlandson said every time a new season of the show begins, fans host parties and business goes up at her vintage china rental shop. And her tearoom, the other arm of her business, has been busy since it opened in May. Some customers have made reservations into November and December, she said.
This is not your grandmother’s tea room, though she would probably enjoy it. There are the classic touches: china everywhere in patterns of gold or blue-and-white chintz, lace decorating the windows, a lovely urn and pitcher in a corner.
But the rooms have a clean and bright look rather than stuffy. And then there are the antique sofas upholstered in hot pink.
“We’re kind of a slightly urban tea room in the suburbs,” Erlandson said. “Tradition is very important, but we also want to keep tea young and fun.”
I took my tea with two friends from my Jane Austen book club. I didn’t have to look further for a group of Anglophiles and tea enthusiasts. And they were enthusiastic.
The menu offers 31 teas, in black, green, rooibos, herbal, oolong, and white blends. Spring water with lemon and a pink hot chocolate are alternatives.
“Ah, you chose the best tea,” said Brad McCracken, Erlandson’s husband and co-owner, outfitted in a pink paisley bow tie. He took orders and served the tea.
I had chosen the Marie Antoinette, a Ceylon tea imported from Paris containing rose petals and dried apple from a garden in Versailles. The rose and apple were wonderfully aromatic, and didn’t overwhelm the Ceylon.
One friend picked the Downton Abbey English Rose, a mix of hibiscus, rose hips, apples, stevia, raspberry, and vanilla. It’s the official, new tea of the franchise, and a delicious and caffeine-free blend. My other friend enjoyed the Tower of London, a blend similar to Earl Grey that consists of Chinese black teas, dried fruit, bergamot, and honey.
The arrival of the food on a three-tiered stand is an impressive sight, a tower of finger sandwiches, scones, and sweets.
The lemon zest tea bread is moist and fragrant, bright with citrusy flavor. The cinnamon raisin scones are crumbly and my friends say a bit dry, in the English fashion. That doesn’t matter much, since they’re meant to be slathered with the Devon cream and strawberry jam from little jars at each place setting. I didn’t detect the cinnamon, but enjoyed the scone.
We liked the ham and Monterey Jack sandwich with honey mustard spread on swirled rye pumpernickel. It tastes basic at first, and then the sharpness and flavor of mustard come through. The cucumber in the cucumber sandwich is fresh and crisp against the richness of the cream cheese and the nice accent of chive.
The chicken salad sandwich with dried cranberries was all right, but could have used something more. A bit of onion, chive, or dill would have improved it.
I sometimes find cupcakes at afternoon tea a modern, trendy intrusion, but then I admired the flecks of vanilla bean in the frosting. The ingredient, more expensive and flavorful than extract, perfumes the moist pink vanilla bean cupcake and the creamy frosting.
The French-imported macaron was sweet and delicate, the meringue cookies soft with a crackly surface and the orange cream luxurious.
The mini trifle also is not traditional at tea, but it’s playful and utterly delicious. A small cup is filled with layers of a cake round, raspberry mousse, and a raspberry coulis — it’s indulgent, sweet and a little tart.
We were at capacity when the check arrived with some truffles, the tops decorated with pink polka dots. The dark chocolate is creamy inside and has a cherry center.
The afternoon tea ($26) is one set menu that changes monthly, but always includes a pot of tea, a scone, finger sandwiches, and miniature sweets.
The couple make the sandwiches and scones, but import items and use local pastry chefs for some of the sweets. Some may find the set menu limiting, but there’s something to be said for specializing in one thing and executing it well.
Erlandson maintains afternoon tea lovers want a particular experience. “You’re not going to get a cup of coffee here” or a burger, she said.
Their shop offers china, teas, and tea-themed accessories.
On occasion, the couple hosts an open house, where the public is invited to sample teas and treats at no cost. An autumn open house is scheduled for 1 to 4 p.m. next Sunday to showcase fall-flavored tea breads and tea.
“It’s a nice thing for the community,” Erlandson said. “How often do you get to go to something that’s really free?”
Shirley Goh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her blog at whataboutsecondbreakfast.blogspot.com.