Tea Off the Beaten Path

Tea off the Beaten Path
“Tea should be taken in solitude.”—C. S. Lewis.

Text and Photography by Vickie LoPiccolo Jennett

While little can take the gracious place occupied by a properly prepared and executed afternoon tea, there are times when an impromptu teatime must suffice. When travels take a tea aficionado off the beaten path, learning to make do provides a pleasant option—often bringing a sense of order and unexpected surprises to an unfamiliar setting.

Not too many tearooms populate the back roads that lead to mountain streams and remote hiking destinations. Nearby small towns sometimes proffer a chance to try otherwise undiscovered teas and accompaniments. Even though favorite antique teapots, vintage china teacups, silver spoons, and baking supplies may be tucked away at home, necessity can turn a Ball jar into a vase, a plastic cup into a finger sandwich cutter, and a casserole dish into a plate for tea sandwiches and sweets. Circumstances teach us that tea without the requisite accompaniments and accoutrements is tea nonetheless.

Enjoying a simple and sometimes solitary tea can be as much fun as an elaborate one. Let’s set the scene: A comfortably (but hardly lavish) refurbished 19th-century log cabin along a stream in Panguitch, Utah. No television, Internet, nor cell service. Family and friends are out on an adventure. Wood stove blazes. Plenty of magazines and needlework projects, but no tea. (Note to self: Check teatime travel bag before next trip.) Time to scour the cupboards for a stray tea bag amidst some rudimentary kitchen supplies, salt, pepper, and baking soda. There it was: a lone black tea bag but no teacups. Only mugs. Who left the tea behind? How long had it been there? No matter. It was tea. Was that bag of Milano cookies in the rental car? A few minutes later, a checkered napkin became a small table mat. The cookies were on a chipped plate, and steam swirled from the top of a heavy ceramic mug. The somewhat stark cabin had become eminently more civilized.

A similar experience in New Hampshire led to new discoveries where tea on the road is concerned. This time a side trip led to a wonderful package of flavored black tea. How frustrating on a dark, chilly morning to realize that a tea infuser was nowhere to be found. (Same note to self: Re-check teatime travel bag before next trip.) Scouring through a utensil drawer revealed an old wood-handled mesh strainer that did the trick. This time a bag of instant scone mix was in the suitcase, so 15 minutes later when the toaster oven dinged, tea was served. Primitive, rustic surroundings made homey by a cherished ritual.

Even though proper teacups and teapots aren’t exactly portable, they are accessible and affordable even when away from home. A surprisingly nice find was a vintage Calyx Ware cup and saucer discovered in an animal shelter charity shop. Bargain teapots turned up in Big Timber, Montana, and Ossipee, New Hampshire. After a few uses, they can be left behind at a cabin or Airbnb to be enjoyed by future guests. Friends have been known to find thrifted linens to set tea tables while vacationing in remote areas. During a paper-crafting weekend in the mountains, a piece of specialty paper doubled as the perfect place mat; the end result being the making of pleasant tea memories in a serene setting.

A huge part of the fun is adapting to circumstances that may seem less than optimal: Evergreen branches become table décor, prairie grass stands in for flowers, and a mesquite tree log becomes a tea table. The key is seeing possibilities and goodness in unexpected places. Wild raspberries from a hike in the hills can be added to simple tea biscuits. Fresh spearmint leaves floating atop a tall iced tea can make a blistering hot day bearable. A yard sale child’s tea set can introduce vacationing grandchildren to tea. Running out of sugar can turn into a treasure hunt with the discovery of Honey Pearls in a local book shop. Enjoying tea, you see, is a many-faceted passion with sometimes unforeseen discoveries in unique places.

WHAT’S A TEATIME TRAVEL BAG? A pencil case–size canvas zipper pouch containing a small tea infuser and a few disposable tea filter bags, a few favorite tea bags, a stray cloth napkin, a spoon, and a few packets of Honey Pearls.

The author of several books and many articles, Vickie LoPiccolo Jennett learned about the fine art of tea from her Great-Aunt Vera. She is grateful to the many mentors and editors who have shared tea with her while encouraging and cultivating her love of words through the decades. She and her husband live in Arizona.