A delightful time for teaDec 21, 2020 08:07AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Ken Mammarella
Afternoon tea at the Centreville Café is a friendly ritual, and no matter how patrons customize it, it’s still a jolly good classic. And most importantly, “it’s about having the time to get together,” said Erica Ferguson, a certified pastry chef at the café and a British native who grew up drinking tea all day.
Some customers dress up for afternoon tea; some go casual. “Whatever you prefer,” said owner Susan A. Teiser. The centuries-old building, on Kennett Pike and Owls Nest Road, retains the architectural homeyness of its history as a home, enhanced by art on the walls, books on the shelves and magazines and newspapers at the ready. Indoor and outdoor seating is available for afternoon tea.
Of course, the ritual has been adjusted to follow Delaware rules on social distancing and face masks. “Other than that, we are in full gear,” Teiser said. “Please come by.”
Afternoon tea consists of four courses: tea sandwiches (“we’re known for making among the best in the region,” she said), savouries (also known as appetizers, hors d’oeuvres, nibbles or noshes, depending on where you’re from), sweets (a selection of miniature desserts) and scones.
“It’s just lovely. It’s a time to sit and relax in such a calm atmosphere,” said fan Maureen Jarvis, adding that partaking of it “brings back memories of all those stories that I read as a child growing up in suburbia, like Eloise, the Brontes and Dickens. So very English.”
That lineup can go in multiple directions. First, customers are asked if they have any allergies and preferences. If not, there’s a choice of two dozen sandwiches; more than three dozen savouries, changing with the seasons; a dozen and half sweets, also seasonal; and nine kinds of tea.
Customized, and ending with scones
The tea comes with lemon or milk (not both, Ferguson noted, because the combination curdles) and lumps of white sugar (not unexpectedly, there’s another four choices of sweeteners). The house tea is Typhoo. Teiser all day is drinking African Nectar, a no-caffeine herbal tea.
The last course sticks to tradition: fresh-baked plain and raisin scones, with clotted cream, house-made lemon curd and strawberry jam. Speaking of tradition, there are two popular pronunciations for scones, rhyming with either “stones” of “Johns.’ Once again, it’s whatever you prefer, Ferguson said.
Wilmington resident Diane Dunham has enjoyed many afternoon teas at the Centreville Café, often as birthday outings for girlfriends. What keeps her coming back? “The selection. The setting. How they easily handle special requests. The cost. You are never disappointed,” she said, also praising Teiser and her staff for their “warm and welcoming approach. They’re truly appreciative you’re there.”
Afternoon tea usually takes about 90 minutes, Teiser said, and reservations are required 24 to 48 hours in advance. That time is needed to craft the fillings from quality ingredients, assemble the sandwiches on Pullman bread from Le Bus Bakery and cut them perfectly into triangles. Helping to keep them looking so neat are fillings that stick together nicely with binders like mayonnaise.
The time is also needed for the carefully prepared savouries and sweets. Garnishes include micro greens and herbs from Second Chances Farm, a Wilmington startup focused on hydroponic indoor farms in economically distressed communities. “We’re known for our pretty food,” Teiser said.
The scones, once again, are an exception to the advance work: they’re baked just before serving.
The rave reviews are in
“Great variety,” said one of the members of a family of four gathered to share a recent tea.
“Very creative,” said another.
They loved the experience, and they loved even more the chance to catch up. The family member who organized the ladies tea said she had enjoyed such events with her mother while in England.
Afternoon tea is one of several British meals featuring tea, said Ferguson, whose father is Scottish and mother is Australian. Before the café, she was head pastry chef of Harry’s Savoy Grill and Taste of Britain English Tea Room. The offerings get an Irish touch from another café chef, Kathleen Donovan, with an Irish upbringing and stints as chef/owner of Feasts of Fairville and Troll of Scandinavia.
“There’s still an afternoon tea culture in the United Kingdom. It’s like going to Starbucks,” Ferguson said, recalling some cross-cultural confusion while she was growing up in the United States. “As a kid, I invited my friends to tea,” she said. “I thought it was for dinner, and they thought it was for cookies.” She ticked off some common variations:
There’s tea for breakfast.
Elevenses refers tea and a snack served around 11 a.m.
Cream tea involves tea and scones.
High tea is a hearty meal like a dinner.
Of course, tea can also serve as a proper end to lunch or dinner.
And then there’s the expression “I’ll put the kettle on for you,” meaning let’s have tea and chat.
Catering by Montrachet Fine Foods, too
Teiser opened up the Centreville Café in 2003 following a career in corporate strategy, logistics and marketing. She operates two businesses out of the building: the café for dining in and Montrachet Fine Foods for catering. She’s been offering afternoon tea for a half-dozen years.
“Susan is just a dynamo of social interaction, introducing us to the community,” said Jarvis, who can walk – and does frequently – to the café. “My husband Bob calls her a connector.”
The business opened with the arrival of Hurricane Isabel, so Teiser was without power for four days. Her solution was to give away the food prepared for the opening. “When you hit adversity, you find a way to make it work,” she said. “In the end, we made a lot of friends.”
So many friends that many teapots used for afternoon tea at the café have been gifts, and some teapots in turn have been gifted to regular customers. That’s why the pots, cups and saucers don’t necessarily match, in way resembling the whimsical delight of an English cottage garden. Mismatched tea sets are also trends on Pinterest and Etsy.
“We have the most loyal and kind clients, polite and charming,” Teiser said. “We watch their children grow up. We are invited into their homes. We cater their funerals. It’s all very personal, and we like that.”
She interrupted her thoughts to speak to yet another familiar customer. “Come back,” Teiser said.
“I will,” the customer replied.
“I know,” Teiser said.
Afternoon tea is $29.95 per person at the Centreville Café, 5800 Kennett Pike, Centreville. It’s available every afternoon. The café closes at 6 weeknights and at 3 p.m. weekends, so the café recommends that weekend afternoon teas start by 1:30 p.m. Information is available at https://centrevillecafe.com/special-events/31-afternoon-tea, with reservations required at