A woman who calls tea the “original comfort food,” Elizabeth Knight is never far from kettle and cup.
Q: Tell us a little about your personal history with tea. How did you come to love the beverage and the ritual?
A: I grew up in a military family that was English, Irish, Scottish, and Southern, so there was tea on the table at every meal. For me, tea was the original comfort food. No matter where in the world we found ourselves, one of my mother’s first acts, in her new kitchen, was to take a battered kettle, travel mugs, and tea bags out of our “open-me-first box,” and brew the cup that cheers. Mom liked her tea hot, but my Southerner dad drank iced tea. Naturally, I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to ditch my milk and graduate to drinking tea.
Q: You are a certified English tea master. What kind of studying and training goes into this certification? Are there specific requirements you must meet?
A: Ten years ago, when I quit my corporate job and took professional cooking classes, I decided that I wanted to cater afternoon tea parties, so I traveled to England to do research. I interviewed food and beverage managers, wait staff, and chefs, as well as tea sellers, buyers, and blenders for the Ritz, Claridge’s, Fortnum & Mason, and Taylors of Harrogate, among many other establishments. I took a private seminar on the history of English tea, dealing with world history and marketing, as well as how teas are blended and prepared for English afternoon tea.
Later, I wrote an article about the Whittard of Chelsea Tea Company and, as part of the preparation, was permitted to take the tea certificate course taught to their employees. The seminar included tea history, tea cultivation, and manufacture including growing, plucking, and processing. The class also sampled teas, learned how to store and make tea properly, and studied the characteristics of tea from the main producing countries.
Q: Is there one tea experience in particular that stands out in your mind because of the location, service, or your company? Please describe it to us.
A: Sean Davoren, whom I first met when he managed Afternoon Tea at Claridge’s Hotel in London, took me into their kitchen to demonstrate brewing loose tea using a cloth tea sock. Years later, our paths crossed again when I was writing an article about tea at the Lanesborough Hotel, where Mr. Davoren was then head butler. We recognized each other in the elevator, and that charming Irishman, who had also worked with royalty, rock stars, and politicians, was kind enough to set aside time to answer my questions about tea etiquette. He arranged the entire tea service in my sitting room and showed me how to pour properly, use the strainer, and pass the milk jug, by candlelight (a freak snowstorm had caused a power outage), while entertaining both of us with hilarious stories about creative ways of teaching manners to his five children and unnamed, unruly others. He was later lent to Buckingham Palace to train the Queen’s butlers and published Manners from Heaven: The Easy Way to Better Behaviour for All the Family.
Q: You have authored several books about tea. Tell us about the research that went into your book Tea in the City: New York, published by Benjamin Press. Did you have a favorite tearoom?
A: Well, in a sense, I’d been doing research for over 20 years—every time I went on the hunt for a new place to enjoy or buy tea in my favorite city. Friends and other tea lovers generously shared their discoveries, too, online or in person. The actual tramping the streets in an organized way, neighborhood by neighborhood, to collect entries for the book took about nine months. Among my favorite places are Mandarin Court for a traditional dim sum tea, Cha-An for Japanese tea, Tamarind for an Indian tea, Arium for a traditional afternoon tea, and Cendrillon for its weekend Merienda brunch tea.
Q: In correlation with the book, you now host walking tours of Tea in the City. Tell us about these.
A: I wrote the Tea in the City guidebook because people constantly asked me where they should go for tea in New York. People who own it kept asking for suggestions for places to go and tea-themed things to do for special events such as bridal showers and birthday parties. Tea educators also wanted private hands-on educational events where they could discover experiences they couldn’t find on their own. Tourists with limited time to spend wanted to make the most of their tea adventures. So, I developed the walking tours and seminars, highlighting experiences such as an authentic Hong Kong–style dim sum tea with a Gongfu tea–making demonstration or a walking tour focused on English and French tea traditions. It’s been such fun to meet a wide variety of people, all connected by their love of tea.
Q: You often speak about your travels regarding tea. What is one of your most memorable experiences from those trips?
A: On a tour of Indian tea plantations, arranged by the Specialty Tea Institute, our group was hosted in a lovely 19th-century plantation house in Darjeeling. I was awakened at dawn by what sounded like women singing. Sure that I had dreamed it, I rolled over and went back to sleep. When I mentioned it later that day, I was told that the women pluckers do indeed sing to the tea plants—living things “deserving of kindness.” Indians believe that you can taste the difference in the cup when leaves are treated well, and I like to drink tea from a country with that sensibility.
Q: You are regarded as an authority on tea and hospitality. What is one piece of advice you give others for hosting teas in their homes?
A: Remember to invite the stranger (or someone who needs a little TLC) for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
Q: Do you get to enjoy your own daily tea ritual?
A: Like many tea lovers, I have a collection of tea scoops that I use to measure the loose leaves. I like to choose one to match the style of the tea of the day. One of my favorites is a battered metal spoon that reads “Tea, the drink of health.” If I’m brewing a hearty black tea, like Kentucky Breakfast blend, I’ll pop a tea cozy on the pot after I’ve removed the leaves. My favorite tea cozy is a handmade vintage felt piece shaped like a thatched cottage and embroidered with a cascade of red roses. Then I settle myself and my steaming “cuppa” in my chair to read the New York Times with a cat burrowed in my lap. Morning doesn’t get much better than that—unless I’m in the country and can do the same thing while watching the birds gather at the feeder.
Q: You speak about the Celtic history of tea. How did you get so interested in this realm?
A: During the years I lived in London, my husband and I took a train every other weekend to explore some part of the U.K. We always stayed at B&B’s and, being curious cooks, often ended up hanging around the kitchen, chatting about food and drink. I asked people to tell me tea stories, and after they stopped laughing, they very kindly lent me books and sent me on to friends or museums and out-of-the-way places to taste the best local tea specialties such as meringue “tea sandwiches” made with Cornish clotted cream or Kinnell’s Blue Lady tea in Edinburgh.
Then on a vacation in Ireland, an old woman looked me up and down as I bought an apple and said, “You’re American, but Irish, too.” She asked me if I knew where my people came from, and when I said I didn’t, she said, “What a pity. They’re looking for you, waiting for you, wanting for you to come home.”
With the help of a genealogist friend, I began to look for my Irish tea-drinking ancestors about the time I made the trip to India. On that trip, a member of the Indian Tea Board, to whom I had given a copy of my book Tea With Friends, asked me what I was working on next. I replied that I was interested in Celtic tea traditions because they were not as well known. “You’re Irish, aren’t you?” he asked and then said, “This book you must do to get your own back from the English!”
Q: How has being in the tea business enriched or changed your life?
A: It got me out of a drab corporate office and into a colorful, multicultural world united by the passion for three leaves and bud. Tea people are the nicest people. They’ve invited me to stand on a hill in the foothills of the Himalayas, drunk on the scent of tea leaves warmed by the sun; to drink buttered Bocha tea with a Tibetan family; to sip Sencha in a horn cup with a sake chaser; and they’ve taught me how to make a proper scone. I can’t wait to discover who’s going to lead me on my next tea adventure.
For more information about Elizabeth Knight, go to teawithfriends.com.