Text by Jane Pettigrew • Photography by Stephen DeVires
Some tearooms are just simply tearooms. They serve tea, they sell tea, and they may even teach a bit about tea. But The Tea Box in London’s posh borough of Richmond is so much more. Take the lid off, and this box is full of surprises.
When Jemma Swallow and Mike de Souza nurtured the idea of opening a tearoom that would really do Britain’s national drink justice, they determined that it would bring together east and west, happily blend different elements of the tea story, and create a space in which absolutely everyone feels comfortable. So, when The Tea Box opened on appropriately named Paradise Road in 2007, the décor combined a beautiful Indian carved wooden screen with a Moroccan table, crystal chandeliers, Vietnamese images on the lacquer menu covers, brocade curtains, a large brass clock on a wrought-iron wall bracket, comfy armchairs, a wall painting of Darjeeling tea pickers, and dining chairs with barley-sugar twisted spindles arranged around solid wooden tables.
What Jemma and Mike have succeeded in fashioning, with Jemma’s vision and Mike’s creativity and wide experience as a chef, is a venue that feels wonderfully comforting, safe, and totally unpretentious. As visitors step into the tearoom from the street, they immediately recognize the inclusive, easy atmosphere. The clientele is very mixed, and customers tend to stay for a long time— and then they come back, and back, and back. And no wonder! All the events and activities at The Tea Box make it so much more than just a tearoom.
On a Tuesday evening, you’ll find members of The Social Knitwork gathered around pots of tea and slices of homemade cakes, knitting away—sharing ideas and teaching each other new skills. (For the Queen’s Jubilee in 2012, they knitted the red, white, and blue bunting that decorated the outside of the shop.)
On the first Friday of each month, The Tea Box is host to an evening of storytelling at which professional writers and storytellers narrate tales of any length, in any style, and on almost any theme. And they support new taletellers in true Tea Box peer-to-peer style. Indeed, The Tea Box has become Richmond’s hub for this oral tradition.
According to meetup.com, on the second Friday of every month, “Innocence meets Experience as The Tea Box invites meet up members to another open mic Poetry Jam where new voices can perform alongside established poets.” Amateurs and professionals inspire each other over cups of tea and tea cocktails.
Thursday is Book Club night, and on Sunday evenings, The Tea Box vibrates to performances of jazz and opera. Plans are also afoot for film nights—and who knows what else Jemma and Mike have tucked into the menu for the future entertainment of their customers.
The Tea Box menu is brilliantly designed to suit all the events, as well as to provide something for all tastes. The tea list is long and comprehensive, ranging through favorite black teas from India, Sri Lanka, and China; greens from China and Japan; Chinese white and flavored white blends; a connoisseur selection of top-quality blacks and oolongs; and a number of tisanes. Instead of list- ing standard flavored teas, the hosts invite customers to create their own by selecting a tea and adding their choice of star anise, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, etc. The hot “Frooteas” are unusual and clever. (Eve’s Temptation is white tea with hot pure apple juice and fresh ginger juice; Ruby Tuesday is oolong with hot pomegranate juice infused with star anise.) The chilled Sum- mer Frooteas blend green tea with pink grapefruit juice, white grape juice, or pineapple juice with a squeeze of lemon or lime or an invigorating dash of ginger. And Tipsy Cocktails add a splash of alcohol to various teas—Earl Grey with lemon verbena and a shot of amaretto or vanilla black tea with Baileys or Raspberry Chambord.
To accompany the tea (or coffee, hot chocolate with a tea twist, mocha, matcha latte, chai, juice, or smoothie), dip into Chef Mike’s creative menu, and choose from sandwiches on pumpkin-seed bread, salads, traditional essentials such as porridge, toast with marmalade, scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, and eggs benedict, or one of the set teas, such as Afternoon Tea, Champagne Afternoon Tea, High Tea, or Kids Afternoon Tea. The selection of scones includes plain, apple and cinnamon, pumpkin and chocolate, cherry and almond, orange and cardamom, lemon and poppy seed, blue- berry, apricot and almond, Devon, and fruit. There is also The Raj (a scone flavored with carrot, coriander, and curry) and scones made with cheese, with goat cheese and onion, or with pumpkin and chile powder. To go with this amazing assortment, there are preserves, honey, clotted cream, relish, and chutney!
And don’t leave without tasting at least one of the cakes. Like everything else at The Tea Box, the list is unusual, witty, and delicious. Try Green Tea Cake, Nutty About Coffee, Monkey Nuts (made, of course, with banana and pecan nuts), or 24 Carrot Cake. There is enough on the menu to offer a different indulgence over several months of visits. And by then, Jemma and Mike may have added yet more treats, beverages, activities, and entertainments. The Tea Box is truly so much more than just a tearoom!
Reservations for tea can be made online at theteabox.co.uk or by telephoning +44 20894 03521. The Tea Box is located at 7 Paradise Road, Richmond, Surrey, London TW9 1RX and is open daily.
Contributing Editor Jane Pettigrew is an international tea expert, who has written 14 books on the subject, including the new edition of A Social History of Tea, published by Benjamin Press. A former tearoom owner, she is a much-sought-after consultant to tea businesses and hotels, a conference speaker, and a tea educator. Jane is the first recipient of the World Tea Award for Best Tea Educator. Although her travels take her around the globe, she resides in London.