Thursday, March 28, 2019

A visit with Bruch Richardson at Elmwood Inn: A serendipitious and delicious detour!

Barb Gulley of Barb's Tea Service with Bruce Richardson of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas

It's always a treat to stop into Elmwood Inn Fine Teas, but when owner, tea educator, writer and all-around Camilla sinensis guru happens to be there (less that 24-hours before leaving to Japan) on the day we took a spontaneous detour during a  Florida to Michigan road trip, there's no other word for it than "serendipi-tea"!

Elmwood Inn Fine Teas is located in Danville, Kentucky, an hour's drive south of Lexington, in the heart of Bourbon country

Earlier this month, my husband, Chris, and I traveled from Bradenton, Florida to our home in Michigan, driving a U-haul stuffed with heirlooms and treasures from my downsizing in-laws to be dispersed among the family. Along the way, we had planned stays in Savannah,  Asheville and Cincinnati -  but it was on our last leg of the journey, traveling from North Carolina to Ohio, that we decided on an impromptu side trip to see Elmwood Inn in Danville, Kentucky. This town is not only home to Elmwood Inn, but its in the heart of a region famous for Bourbon distilleries, and about an hour's drive south of Lexington.

Although I've met up with Bruce and Shelly Richardson many times of over the past 15 years, I was too late to the game to be a guest at the original Elmwood Inn  and, in more recent times, I never had the chance to visit their newer retail outlet, but it had been on my must-see list for awhile.

I first met Bruce at the Take Me 2 Tea Expo East in 2004 held in  Rhode Island. I took his class on tea basics and it solidified my determination to set up my own tea business in 2005.

With Bruce and Shelly Richardson at Kentucky Craft Fair in 2007

Since that first introduction, we've continued our Elmwood Inn connections at World Tea Expos and the Kentucky Craft Fair. At every encounter, I've come back with more tea knowledge and inspiration to bring back to Barb's Tea Service.  We're a huge fan of their teas and books, and sold many of them at our events over the years.

So, although it was our first time at Elmwood Inn, it felt like home. And, Bruce, ever the warm and welcoming host, made us feel like he'd known all day long we'd be there.

A treasure trove of herbal and black tea blends from Elmwood Inn to enjoy every day, throughout the day.

Best of all, we got to sample some of his tea blends, including "banana split", a delightful herbal tea packed with sweet ingredients, including banana chips, mango and strawberry. We picked up two more herbals and two black teas, including "Bourbon Tea", a smoky, hearty blend that pays tribute to the spirit of the region.

Back in 2005, I would never have imagined at that time, that I'd be writing  articles for Tea Time Magazine along with one of the most respected "tea maestros" in the industry. Bruce Richardson's passion and enthusiasm has nurtured many tea entrepreneurs and we were thrilled to catch him at "home" this month!

For more information on Elmwood Inn teas, books and classes, check out their website, Elmwood Inn.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Afternoon tea at The Inn: Inspired menu in Bitlmore-inspired ambiance

Afternoon tea at The Inn at Biltmore is a gourmet tasting-menu spin on the traditional sweet and savory fare

Afternoon tea at The Inn at the Biltmore is a small-er plates version of traditional afternoon tea and a foodies delight! Although traditional afternoon tea fare is already comprised of smaller versions of savories and sweets, The Inn scales down the size even further, but still packs it all with a wallop of flavor and textures that will satisfy your midday appetite.

Last week, after spending a full morning touring the Biltmore estate, my husband, Chris, and I were looking forward to a sitting down a spell to enjoy a light repast in elegant environs. The Inn, just a short drive from the Vanderbilt mansion and still part of the Biltmore grounds, is perched on a hill overlooking Antler Village. The tony hotel is filled with large windows that take in the spectacular mountain views.

The Dining Room is on the lower level of The Inn and finds inspiration from the Biltmore mansion

The dining room is on the lower level, and as you head down the stairs, you get a peek into the elegant setting which clearly draws inspiration from the Biltmore. Large wrought iron chandeliers hang from the ceiling of the dining area and look as though they could have been taken from the grand staircase of the Vanderbilt home.

Chandeliers in the Dining Room at The Inn
Chandelier at Biltmore

Another fancy connection is the china that the afternoon tea fare is served on. It's a replica of one of the fine dinnerware collections used at Biltmore. 

Fine china tableware at the Biltmore
Similar china at The Inn

But, the menu is what surprised us most. First up, was fresh fruit and scones - served with jam, curd and cream - but the latter was a tinier version of the traditional serving. Although the scones were bite-sized editions, each was strong in flavorful with a well-balanced ratio of outside crunch to inside crumble.

Unexpected twists and turns on traditional afternoon tea menu

And, in a total twist, traditional tea sandwiches were replaced with miniature gourmet delicacies such as a chicken empanada, polenta cake and a tea egg with pickled ginger served up on an appropriate "silver spoon".

Bite-sized scones served with jam, curd and cream

The presentation and employment of locally grown produce was more foodie gourmet tasting menu than the familiar afternoon tea offerings, but that was just fine with us.

Traditional tea sandwiches are replaced with inspired foodie savories like chicken empanada and polenta cake.

In that vein, before the sweets were brought out, a plate of raclette cheese accompanied by fingerling potatoes was served. Raclette is a favorite cheese of ours (back home, our source is in Traverse City) and the preparation at The Inn was a delicious as it was inspired.

Raclette cheese with fingerling potatoes served before sweets

The last course, sweets, followed suit in the unexpected-but -scrumptious-offerings including a blood orange tart with Italian meringue and a brown butter Bundt with toffee sauce. 

A delightful array of desserts included a blood orange tart and a brown butter Bundt

Of course, the essential ingredient for any afternoon tea is tea, and again, the menu did not follow tradition. As many BTS loyal readers know, Earl Grey is my afternoon tea go-to, so I asked our server what they might have in that family as it wasn't included in their tableside tea portfolio. I was told there was a smoky Earl Grey available that wasn't on the menu. We agreed to two pots full and found this hearty variation of my favorite tea to be the perfect pairing for this incredibly unconventional afternoon tea. 

When visiting the Biltmore estate, we'd recommend a short trip to its newer neighbor, The Inn, for afternoon tea ambiance inspired by the Vanderbilt home and an inspired tea menu of its own.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Vanderbilt Gilded Age House Party at the Biltmore: Partying like it's (around) 1899!!

A Vanderbilt House Party, a new Gilded Aged-themed exhibit at the Biltmore estate in Asheville continues until May

The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina is currently having a Gilded Age Vanderbilt House Party and I made sure I was in attendance before this exhibit concludes in May.  Last week, we crashed the party (and by "crash", I mean bought tickets a month in advance) and immersed ourselves in the lifestyle of the 19th century rich and famous.

Crashing the party with tickets bought well in advance

A self-directed, audio tour escorts one through the many rooms of the house that George Vanderbilt built in 1895, providing inside details of what it was like to host, prepare and attend a gala evening at the height the opulent and excessive Gilded Age.

While the narration is a little light, the highlight of the tour is most certainly the exquisite costumes displayed in many of the rooms - recreations of the actual gowns, suits and uniforms of the Vanderbilt family, staff and guests under the guidance of John Bright, award winning designer, and creator of many of the Downton Abbey fashions. 

A highlight of the tour, a recreation of  House of Worth gown by Downton Abbey costume designer

One of the most spectacular recreations on exhibit is a dress originally worn by George Vanderbilt's sister which came from the Gilded Age fashion designer, Charles Worth. A delicate gown decorated with mesh butterflies and extensive beading, it is a masterpiece of silk and lace. 

Edith and George Venderbilt welcome a daughter, Cornelia, in 1900

Many of the dresses would be "petite" sizes today, part of the rather uncomfortable legacy of the Victorian ideal figure, featuring an 18 inch waist. One curator on the tour told us they recently uncovered some of Mrs. Vanderbilt's dresses with a waist measuring 20 inches. (I'm still in pain!)

The Winter Garden (room 1)
Family & guest photos displayed in many rooms

The tour starts at Room 1, the Winter Garden, an impressive atrium entryway and guides one through almost 40 rooms, up three floors and down to the basement, the latter is where the staff lived and worked. Each room  on the tour is numbered and black and white photos of the occupants in their dress of the day is on hand to show the roots of the recreated costumes on display.

The library, featuring Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt and Edith Wharton

A favorite room of mine was the library, where George and his wife, Edith, entertained many well-known authors of the day, including Edith Wharton.

The tour takes you up three floors as well as down to the basement.
Knocking on Edith Wharton's door

The house party also  takes one to the guest rooms of some who visited the Biltmore. We knocked on the door of the Madonna Room, where Wharton slumbered and also walked through the Louis XV bedroom, where opera singer, Elizabeth Dodge, stayed.

Louis XV guest room where opera singer, Elizabeth Dodge, stayed during her visit to Biltmore

Two items of note on the Louis XV accommodations:  the china serving pieces on display and the adjoining bathroom.  We'll  get back to first item later, but regarding the second, it is one of forty-three bathrooms from the original construction. Indoor plumbing was a Gilded Age luxury quickly adopted by wealthy Americans, not gaining favor by English aristocrats for years, to the great disappointments of some of their "imported" brides.

One of 43 Biltmore bathrooms
Beautiful Vanderbilt Sevres china tea set. 

In all this extravagance, it's also noteworthy to remember the downstairs family that made such an operation possible. On the lower level, tour guests can view the bedrooms of the staff - austere and drab in contrast to their upstairs counterparts - and the kitchen, laundry room, and other work areas where cooks, maids and housekeepers made the "magic" happen.

Staff "on call"
Downstairs bedrooms, austere and drab compared to those upstairs

We concluded the tour near the Banquet Hall, where beautifully dressed mannequins are waiting for an elegant dinner to be served. I was inspired by the Gilded Age tablescape - a collection of silver, crystal, candles and an explosion of red, yellow and white flowers - and hope to recreate something, albeit much humbler, for my holiday table this year.

Our Biltmore visit didn't stop at the mansion, however. We had afternoon tea at The Inn, the high end hotel on the estate (future blog story!) and walked through  Antler Village, which is home to the Biltmore winery, more gift shops and more eateries.

Afternoon tea at the Inn on the Biltmore estate ( new blog story!)

Is the party over? Not by a long shot! I've purchased my own Vanderbilt reproduction china tea set from the Biltmore estate (just like the china in Elizabeth Dodge's guest room), so I can keep the Gilded Age tea party going in the year 2-0-1-9!. 

Two gilded thumb's up to the Biltmore's Gilded Age House Party!

 This year's holiday table at the Gulleys.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Gilded Age Afternoon Tea at Meadow Brook Hall: Prequel to Downton Abbey (Cora's Story)

BTS', Rachel and Barb Gulley presented a Gilded Age Afternoon Tea at Meadow Brook Hall in February

The end of February brought us to Meadow Brook Hall again to present a Downton Abbey-inspired afternoon tea and this time was particularly golden. We shared the tales of the Gilded Age and the "Dollar Princesses", the daughters of America's nouveau riche who married European aristocracy in "cash for class" transactions. This is much like Cora's story in Downton Abbey, where Lady Grantham's family money helped support and save the Crawley's family estate.

Almost one hundred guests took in  afternoon tea, Gilded Age and a tour of the Meadow Brook Estate

To a room filled with almost one hundred guests, we were thrilled to meet many new folks as well as BTS' followers and old friends, including Alicia M. and Rachelle W.!

Rachel with Alicia M.

Barb with Rachelle W. and friend

Although Cora is our favorite fictional Dollar Princess, we talked about one of the most well-known real-life, American Heiresses, Consuelo Vanderbilt. That branch of the Vanderbilt money supported and saved Blenheim Palace, which we visited last May.

Blenheim Palace, one time home to Consuelo Vanderbilt and happy recipient of the Vanderbilt money

We also covered "Vanderbuilding", the practice of the nouveau riche to construct extravagant and showy mansions, outdoing each other with every new residence. Many of these homes can still be seen today, including the "cottages" of Newport, Rhode Island and the Biltmore in North Carolina. (Coincidentally, the Biltmore's current exhibit is "A Vanderbilt House Party - The Gilded Age" and we just came back from taking the tour - as well as afternoon tea at the Inn -  this past week. And, yes, future blog story on that is coming next!)

Talking DA prequel and Vanderbilts at Meadow Brook Hall

A Gilded Age Afternoon Tea at Meadow Brook was a wonderful time spent in the very opulent Christopher Wren dining room with old and new friends. BTS looks forward to more tea times at this beautiful estate, a vintage jewel in our own backyard and an elegant backdrop to any Downton Abbey-themed tea!

Biltmore, more Vanderbuilding and more Gilded Age blog stories!

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Gilded Age Afternoon Tea is pure gold at the Townsend

Deanne Smith, Rachel, Barb and Barbara Tabb at the Gilded Age Afternoon tea at the Townsend

Last weekend BTS presented "The Gilded Age" at the Townsend Hotel's afternoon tea. With the luxurious ambiance of the hotel's tea lobby, the amazing service under the direction of Laura K, and the delightfully enthusiastic guests, many donning hats and vintage finery, the afternoon was pure gold.

Guests starting to get seated at the Townsend's tea lobby

Before heading back to the late 1800's, guests were treated to the Townsend's scrumptious afternoon tea fare which included many new sweets and savories.  The always perfectly baked scones were served with clotted cream and, my favorite, lemon curd. Bottomless pots of earl grey and fruity herbal tea were served along with bubbly mimosas.

Good friend, Barb Tabb came to tea with Deanne Smith, the former sporting beautiful new accessories received for her February birthday. Three other guests were celebrating February birthdays as well. 

Everything was beautiful right down to the candelabras and white flower arrangements on the table.

Enjoying afternoon tea, fireside,  before the presentation.
Another wonderful tea time at Birmingham's Townsend Hotel. A great way to celebrate whether it be a birthday, an extravagant time in history or just a get together with friends. Afternoon tea at the Townsend is always worth its weight in gold!