Robin Haig and I are sitting in Boulder's Dushanbe Teahouse, eyeing a large triangular slab of pastry. It's been identified by our waitress as a scone. We break off pieces and nibble. They're very sweet. We try the scone with a bit of the teahouse's lemon curd -- not bad -- and ask the waitress for some butter. Meanwhile, my tea steeps. It's been set in a little strainer in the pot and simply refuses to come to full strength, no matter how long I wait. Eventually it's cool and slightly bitter, and still too weak. Because we haven't thought to make a reservation, this is a truncated version of the establishment's English tea, which normally comes with cucumber sandwiches, a small quiche, chocolate truffles and fruit. Still, it's enough to tell us that no matter how delectable their other offerings, or gorgeous, exotic and varied their teas, the people here have no idea what the English mean by "tea."
"Do you remember," Robin asks, "how every crisis in England was met with a cup of tea? You couldn't pay the rent, you'd have a cup of tea. Someone died, you'd have a cup of tea."
Robin grew up in Australia. At the age of sixteen, she worked in vaudeville -- her group was billed as His Majesty's Lovelies. A year later, she went to London to study with the Royal Ballet and eventually joined the company. She toured with Margot Fonteyn; she danced with Rudolf Nureyev. She went on to companies in Scotland and Australia. Robin wasn't always a fan of English food. "I can remember my horror facing my first smoked kipper at breakfast," she says, laughing. "And for dinner -- canned peas and two sorts of potato!" Her dance photographs show a tiny, delicate creature -- and she is still a small woman -- but, like most dancers, Robin was obsessed with food.
Unlike contemporary dancers, she happily indulged her obsession. Always broke, she relied on the kindness of suitors. She remembers one date to which she wore a pretty dress with little buttons going up the front. "I ate two appetizers, a main course and a whacking great dessert," she recalls. "When I left the restaurant there were diamonds of flesh showing between the buttons."
In the '60s she toured the provinces, staying at seedy theatrical digs. In those days, performers were considered only a rung or two above prostitutes. "We had steak and a glass of wine on Fridays, when we got paid," Robin says. "The rest of the week it was Chinese with chips." Dancers passed around the names of particularly hospitable places; to warn colleagues away from inhospitable ones, they hid pieces of fish in their rooms.
When Robin came to America on tour, she duly noted the food. A friend had read about chili con carne in a novel and made her promise to try it. She did. "I don't know what I expected," she says. "But it wasn't that." The size of the portions amazed her -- a steak that covered her entire plate, an individual chicken pot pie big enough to feed a family of four.
In Robin's England, as in mine, every afternoon was punctuated by tea. It was a custom that united bankers and barrow men, secretaries and lords. Somehow, Americans have gotten the idea that tea is a mimsy effete sort of thing, but in the England we knew it was a robust and universal custom. Construction workers would abandon their heavy equipment for a cuppa at 4 p.m. sharp; we knew that during the war soldiers had put on the kettle before battle. As for the accompanying food, it varied by class, affluence and occasion. When I came home from grammar school in the afternoon, my mother gave me tea or cocoa and a couple of biscuits. Other friends had toast-and. Toast and shrimp paste. Toast and baked beans. Toast and butter, lots of butter. When I went to Sheila Roxburgh's house, we got pastries from the bakery -- hard white rock cakes, flaky stars with bright cherry centers -- and, on especially good days, Mrs. Roxburgh's sausage rolls. Sarah Bloomfield's mother laid out sandwiches and cake with orange icing. In the books I read, people sat on green lawns spooning cream over strawberries at tea time, and poet Rupert Brooke, off fighting the First World War, inquired wistfully, "And is there honey still for tea?" The kind of tea you got when you entered a twee little establishment after a day of shopping or wandering round a seaside town consisted of finger sandwiches, or scones with butter, jam and cream and -- with any luck -- cream cakes. And when I was seven, I visited a rich aunt who was staying at the Savoy. I remember nothing about the no doubt ineffably elegant tea they served except that the waiter brought me my own miniature silver teapot, sugar bowl and milk jug.
Robin has given up on the Dushanbe Teahouse's menu and ordered a cup of Chai. She and I have searched for a proper tea in Boulder for years. We've tried conning regular restaurants into giving us tidbits at 4 p.m., with mixed results. We've sampled everything that advertised itself as English tea. Those at the now-defunct Nancy's Restaurant came close. Around a year ago, we finally found authenticity at the Gift Box in the Meadows Shopping Center, whose owners, David and Carole Scribner, are English. The scones are small warm ovals, waiting to be slathered with butter or jam and Devonshire cream, and there are also crumpets. The assortment of crustless sandwiches includes cucumber on brown bread; and the tea is properly brewed in the pot, fine and strong. But the Gift Box is also a regular shop and post office, and the Scribners are too busy for tea right now. With any luck, they'll resume serving by the end of the month. Certainly in January. Meanwhile, Robin and I will buy their biscuits and frozen crumpets and take them home for tea.
And home may be the best place for tea these days, because you can find Meyer lemons, which are particularly thin-skinned and fragrant, in Whole Foods and Alfalfa's this month and next. They make wonderful lemon curd (as well as a nice tart filling). The following ingredient list for lemon curd is from the Cooking School of the Rockies; the instructions are mine.
3/4 cup lemon juice
1 tbsp. finely grated zest
9 oz. sugar
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3 oz. butter
3 oz. heavy cream
Combine eggs, sugar, lemon juice, peel and cream in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring or whisking constantly. Add the butter, cut into small pieces. When the mixture coats the back of a spoon, ladle into clean jars. This will keep, refrigerated, for about three weeks; it also freezes well.