“Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” ~Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
An invitation was generously extended to my mother and me on Friday. We were to attend a tea party if we had no prior plans. A day visit to my elder brother and his family had been on the agenda but weather conditions prohibited us from driving north effectively freeing our afternoon for the occasion. My children were left with their Sampa (my father: Sam + grandpa = Sampa) and off we women went to join the ladies for afternoon tea.
Margharite, our German hostess, was absolutely delightful and this was most evidently not her first tea party. Set beautifully was the Christmas china. Displayed artistically were cakes, sweets, biscuits and the like that are not often served in any American setting. The tea was excellent. The conversation was delightful (despite the fact that I was the youngest attendee by at least twenty years) and it was over far too quickly for my taste.
Oh, how I have missed tea time.
At Brackenhurst Baptist Conference Center, where I spent my childhood, morning tea was always served precisely at 10:00 a.m. Served in white china left from the compounds days as a British hotel, I could have English tea or the more traditional Kenyan chai (Please note: This is not the chai that is being marketed and sold in coffeehouses and supermarkets today, but a tea served scalding hot with a lot of milk and usually very sweet.) One did not have to look far to see where the tea had originated as Brackenhurst was surrounded by blankets of green tea fields. I would have my chai with a mandazi (a fried Kenyan doughnut much like a French beignet). During my elementary school days (before attending boarding school) I would look forward to the days where I was not in classes and could loiter around the Brackenhurst kitchens waiting for that wonderful mid-morning tradition.
On very special occasions, which usually translated as having guests from the U.S.A., I had the joy of taking afternoon tea with Mrs. Mitchell. English born during Kenya’s colonial times, Mrs. Mitchell was a firm believer in a proper tea time … even if she did use the tradition to turn a wee bit of a profit. For a nominal fee one could enjoy a proper English tea, a tour of her estate, and listen to her wonderful stories about growing up in British East Africa. If the weather was sunny and beautiful, tea was served on her gorgeous lawn under a white canopy. I would close my eyes and imagination the lot of us engaged in a game of lawn bowling or a friendly match of cricket. When the foggy, dew-laden days of the highlands threatened the comfort of tea outdoors, everything was moved into the parlor which sported an amazing fire place where I would sit and listen to Mrs. Mitchell’s stories. It was these tales that kept me anxious to return to her home whenever given the opportunity. The tea I’d had before … the stories were always something new.
My boarding school (Rift Valley Academy) even honored the tea time tradition with a mid-morning break between classes. First we attended a daily chapel but that short service was quickly followed by tea time. It was necessary for one to bring their own mug or tea cup or some sort of drinking vessel to the back door of the school kitchens in order to be served. There, in an enormous vat, would be gallons of the aforementioned Kenyan chai. Many staff and students did not partake of this morning tea. In fact, it was my final two years of school before I could be found with mug in hand each day, enjoying my tea and scrambling for a refill to carry into my next class. I do love chai.
The hotels throughout Kenya still honor the tradition of afternoon tea. I have enjoyed my tea time at Mountain Kenya Safari club overlooking the immaculately groomed grounds at the base of Mt. Kenya’s jagged peaks. I have taken tea on the roof of the infamous Treetops hotel near the site where Queen Elizabeth II entered the hotel a princess and departed the next morning a queen. All have been memorable experiences, but none quite as memorable as enjoying afternoon tea at any one of the many resorts dotting the Kenyan coastline.
In the midst of swimming in the hotel pool, walking the beach, or learning to scuba dive in the clear Indian Ocean … the tradition of afternoon tea brought hotel guests together. Depending on the season, but more often than not, an afternoon rainstorm would roll off the ocean and onto the shore just in time for tea. I used to wonder at Mother Nature’s punctuality there in Mombasa. It was almost as though she knew we humans needed a break from our activities. No lightening. No thunder. What fell was a warm rain shower that lasted anywhere from ten minutes to an hour. Covered only by a thatch roof and having no walls, there is something incredibly earthy and serene about watching the rain drops swallowed by the ocean while lounging in a wicker chair, drinking tea and having a scone or a finger sandwich in one of the hotel’s outdoor living areas. And, just as quickly as it had begun, the rain would pass and the sun would emerge for the remainder of a brilliant afternoon.
Yes, morning or afternoon, I have missed having a proper tea.
I realized while sitting in the tea room of our German hostess this past Friday afternoon that I have not had a proper tea time since my last trip home to Kenya. That, my friends, was thirteen years ago. No wonder I drank in, not only the tea, but every moment and every resurrected memory.