A New Leaf On Life

Tea is more than a beverage. As presented in our state’s best teahouses, it is an affordable luxury, a refreshing respite and a journey across cultures, from the ornate to the austere, even to the silently spiritual.

A waiter serves tea in Royal Doulton Old Country Rose at Cosy Cupboard in Morristown.
Photo by David Michael Howarth

The Sound of Feet on Straw
In Drew Hanson’s vision of Japanese tea, listening is as central as sipping.

BOUKAKUAN (Columbus): In many restaurants, a pulsing soundtrack and a cacophony of voices tell the owners that their customers—and the bottom line—are doing just fine. If your jangled nerves are begging for relief from such overstimulation, a visit to Drew Hanson’s little haven might be just the balm you need. At Boukakuan—in Japanese, a hut to inspire awakening—the loudest sounds you hear are the scuff of socked feet on straw tatami mats or water bubbling in a handmade iron kettle.

“Since the Japanese tea ceremony is a truly sensual experience,” says Hanson, “the awareness of hearing natural sounds is extremely important.” For Hanson—who teaches the Japanese tea ceremony at the Tea Institute at Penn State, his alma mater, and at the Japanese House and Garden in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park—the 400-year-old tradition aims to quench spiritual more than physical thirst.

“The Japanese aesthetic that is most significant to me is simplicity,” he says. “All that is extraneous is stripped away; only what is essential is left.”

That includes chairs. Hanson, 74, who conducts the ceremony in a solid-blue kimono, kneels on the tatami mat in traditional Japanese seiza posture. Guests—the room can accommodate up to 7—can make themselves comfortable in other positions, but are discouraged from stretching out their legs in the tight space. Water for tea has been drawn from a well on the wooded property, formerly Quaker meeting grounds, where Hanson began building the wooden teahouse in 1993, completed it in 1997 and began serving the public (by reservation only) in 2000.

Hanson teaches and practices the Urasenke tradition, which differs from others mainly in how the utensils are handled. He uses classic powdered green tea (matcha) imported from Japan, whisking it into a bright green froth, one handleless bowl (chawan) at a time, with a utensil (cahsen) that looks like an old-fashioned shaving brush. It’s made of bamboo, its bristles formed by hand-splitting the end up to 120 times.

As he prepares the tea, Hanson instructs his guests in each step of the ritual. Don’t come hungry. There’s no menu. Every guest receives a small, dry, colored sweet called higashi. That’s it. Easily eaten in one bite, its sole purpose is to prepare the palate to receive and savor the astringent tea to come. When you lift your chawan to your lips, cradling it in your left palm, you turn it to drink from the back—a sign of respect to protect the elaborate decorations on the front.

Hanson’s interest in Japanese culture was sparked as a student at Bridgeport High School in Connecticut. When the senior class put on The Mikado, the ceramics used on stage caught his eye. Soon his parents were letting the 15-year-old take the train to Manhattan, where he says he “devoured” the Asian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

His fascination with Japanese ceramics, wood-block prints, scrolls, gardening and tea deepened at Southern Connecticut State University and while earning his master’s in theater and his PhD. in American literature, both at Penn State. Hanson taught in the Westfield public schools, then for 18 years at Burlington County College. In 1991 he joined Bristol-Myers Squibb in Princeton as a specialist helping foreign scientists writing research papers in English. Long before his retirement in 2006, he began building a Japanese-style garden on the grounds in Columbus, where he has lived since 1974.

After Hanson finished the garden, he and a friend put in a 4,000-gallon koi pond. Then his thoughts turned to creating a teahouse, less for the beverage itself than for the spiritual practice and the opportunity to display Japanese art, such as the calligraphic scrolls he hangs on the walls. The characters on one of these translate as “the needles of the pine tree are always green.” Well, duh, right? From a Zen perspective, the message is less obvious: Strive to emulate the evergreen. No matter how old it gets, it greets each new day in a fresh and youthful state.

Boukakuan is open all year. Allow at least an hour for the ceremony and tour of the garden. The cost is $30 per person. Reservations should be made at least a week in advance. 1832 Jacksonville-Jobstown Road (Route 670), 609-265-9566.

A Piece of the Palace
James Howard, scholar and engineer, democratizes British afternoon tea (while retaining the luxury).

COSY CUPBOARD (Morristown): James Howard may be unique in the hospitality field in having a CIA background. Not the culinary one. The other one. In the ’90s, Howard Industrial Design Associates, which he founded in Morris County in 1987 and built into one of the leading minority-owned industrial-design firms in the country, designed products for the spy agency. “It was a daunting task because we had to be innovative,” he says, “and I knew people’s lives in the field depended on the things we designed.”

The path from cloak and dagger to clotted cream and doilies is not as circuitous as it might seem. Growing up in Chicago, Howard took after his mechanically inclined father, who started a dry cleaning and TV and camera repair businesses, and also his mother, a seamstress with a fine fashion sense. The seventh of eight children, he grew up doting on his growing brood of nieces and nephews. He discovered that he “had a passion for focusing on the needs of children.”

That led to his award-winning 1982 master’s thesis in industrial design: a biofeedback system that helps young children with cerebral palsy develop motor control of their heads, a precursor to further muscular development.

After presenting his thesis, Howard accepted a job from a Wayne company that makes products for people with disabilities. He married, raised two children, started his own firm, and eventually became a professor of architecture, design and fashion at County College of Morris, where he still teaches. Along the way, he designed Melitta’s award-winning Aroma Brew, whose hourglass shape influenced the design of coffee makers for years to come. As a result, “I was emboldened to study coffee and open a coffee shop in Rockaway from 1996 to 2000.”

But tea—the healthful beverage and the sumptuous style around it—brought all the strands together. On vacation cruises, Howard, his wife and two children first encountered British afternoon tea and were entranced by its gracious pace and pleasure. After that, “every year on vacation, we always looked for a tea room.”

Howard’s children often challenged his exacting critiques. “They’d say, ‘Hey, Dad, if you think you can do better, why don’t you open your own tea room?’” In 2007, he decided to do just that. It took three years to find the right building, formerly a home in a bucolic part of Morristown, and totally redesign the interior. “I teach Edwardian history and Victorian architecture,” Howard says. “I know these details very well.”

Howard’s son, Vincent, now 24, signed on as general manager after graduating from Ramapo College with a degree in marketing in 2011. “In the two years he’s been with me,” says Dad, “sales have more than doubled, largely because he greatly expanded our bridal shower business and introduced things like Cosy Jazz nights and our Downton Abbey series.”

What Howard loves about the Edwardian era, which followed Queen Victoria’s reign, “is that it took the tea experience out of the palace drawing rooms and placed it in the fine hotel lounges of London, opening up tea to the public.”

That spirit reigns at Cosy Cupboard. Ever the educator, Howard, 55, loves to talk tea with his customers (or not, as they wish). His first chef, Tom Szypiotko (non-spook CIA) made clotted cream fresh daily and trained the two current chefs to do the same. (“I refuse to serve runny clotted cream,” Howard says.) Scones are made according to the classic, bare-bones recipe. Howard’s sine qua non keys: 1) use very cold whole milk and very cold butter 2) do not overwork the dough and 3) refrigerate the dough before baking.

Scones, the professor points out, are rightly pronounced “scahns”—following the example of the Scots, who invented them in the 1600s.

Multicourse afternoon tea packages—offering treats such as chicken roulade and imported English Stilton—range from $24 to $29. “We do something few tea rooms do,” Howard adds. “We offer you a bottomless pot of tea—not just refills. Come here and try every single one of our teas if you want.”

The Cosy Cupboard.
4 Old Turnpike Road, 973-998-6676,

The Global Hangout

Veteran traveler Mary Fritschie brings people together through tea.

INFINI-T CAFÉ (Princeton): Growing up in Bergenfield, the eighth of nine children, Mary Fritschie learned early that “tea was family. If you had a bad day, you could go home, talk about it over a cup of tea, and everything was better.” She never forgot the lesson when she began to travel the world at 17 “to understand the plights people have and explore the cultures of people, both domestic and abroad.”

In early 2011, after sandwiching careers in venture capital and later the oil industry around years as a stay-at-home mom, Fritschie reached a crossroad. With her son and daughter in their 20s and largely on their own, she quit her job and cashed in her retirement savings. “I wanted to do something in tune with local and global people,” she says.

Encouraged by her kids, who love hanging out in coffee and tea houses with their friends, Fritschie embarked on a journey of discovery that included a week-long stay at the Khongea Tea Estate and Tocklai Tea Research Association, both in Assam, India. “I spent time,” she says, “with scientists and specialists from around the world, learning about global climate change, soil conditions, cloning, pruning, picking, processing, storage and serving of tea.”

Inspired, Fritschie decided to open a teahouse. She named it Infini-T to reflect her philosophy (“The people you meet and the connections you make are never-ending”) and Princeton, where she lives, for its sophistication and international mix of people. Infini-T opened in October 2011.

“This is why I opened,” she said recently, smiling as she looked around the room. “I love people. This is probably the most diverse place in Princeton. It’s everybody.”

Furnishings and artifacts from Fritschie’s travels—especially to tea estates in India, where she buys her exclusively Fair Trade and Ethical Tea Partnership products—contribute to Infini-T’s eclectic, laid-back vibe. Her collection of pots includes a bone china vessel given to her by an elderly couple who invited her to stay with them during her first trip to England when she was 17. Cafe owners in Dubai taught her to make proper Moroccan mint tea. She learned to make Turkish coffee and tea in Istanbul.

Black, green, white, oolong, maté, rooibos, herbal and fruit teas are served by the cup ($2-$8) or pot ($5-$18). Coffees, lattes and such are available, too, along with a full breakfast menu, sandwiches and salads, plus a menu of global treats like masala eggs (scrambled with Indian spices and chili peppers), Chinese tea eggs (hardboiled then peeled and reboiled in tea), yellow dahl (an Indian spiced soup), Italian caprese salad and cucumber sandwiches. Sweets include vegan matcha cupcakes, gluten-free cappuccino muffins and vegan raspberry scones. It all contributes to making Infini-T “a place where transplants can feel at home,” she says.

Infini-T, 4 Hulfish Street, 609-454-3959, infini-tcafe.com

Formality Can Be Fun
Jane Wehr delivers thrills with frills (her etiquette pointers are optional).

LILLAGAARD TEA ROOM (Ocean Grove): Dick and Jane Wehr had a midlife crisis in reverse. Instead of leaving jobs that pinned them down, selling the money pit and buying a motorcycle, they sold Dick’s Harley-Davidson Electra-Glide (and Jane’s Mercedes sports car) to help renovate what Dick laughingly admits “was a money pit.” That was the rundown, shut down Lillagaard Hotel, which they bought in 1996 to fulfill Jane’s dream of running an inn. Built in 1871 with 22 rooms, it stood two houses from the beach, but had no fire escapes. After nine months of work, they reopened it, and about five years later opened a Victorian tea room.

As a child growing up in Hoboken, Jane associated tea with formality and special occasions. Her family ran a record store, Campus Records. They shopped at thrift stores, but in the winter, Jane’s mother would take her and her older sister to ice skate at Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park and then to the Plaza Hotel to warm up over a proper British tea. An Emily Post proponent, their mother schooled the girls in etiquette and hospitality and enlisted their help when she entertained at home, serving guests on Rosenthal, Limoges and Wedgwood china she had collected.

Jane became a nurse and in 1976 married Dick, a medical researcher. Over the years, she began to appreciate her grounding in good manners, hospitality and old things. When she inherited a small commercial building on Washington Street in Hoboken after her parents died, she and Dick converted the doctor’s office on the ground floor to an antiques store and later to a bagel bakery, Hot Bagels, now run by Dick’s son from his first marriage.

When they thought about the future, the word “adventure” repeatedly sprang to mind. For Jane, it condensed into the vision of an inn. They looked in and around Monmouth County for about a year, then found the Lillagaard.

Tea by the Sea, as the Wehrs call their presentation, unfolds amid antique lamps with fringed shades, floral wallpaper, embroidered white tablecloths and tiered silver serving platters laden with finger sandwiches, scones and other house-made goodies. Enthusiastic patrons often add to the atmosphere by dressing up in Victorian gowns, gloves and broad-brimmed hats. Jane, 70, in recent years a student of etiquette guru Dorothea Johnson, is happy to share the etiquette on the right way to cut a scone and hold a tea cup (and why it matters), but acknowledges that “some people just want to have a nice time.”

Tea service is by reservation only, afternoons all year round, even though the hotel closes for the winter. With a choice of 30 black, green and herbal teas, prices range from Cream Tea (house-made scone, lemon curd, Devonshire cream and preserves, $7.50) to full five-course Afternoon Tea (cheese and crackers, mixed nuts, cucumber salad, quiche, tea sandwiches, scone, fruit and dessert, $23.50).

Much of the china comes from Jane’s mother’s collection. “If one breaks,” she says, “I replace it through replacements.com.” Sacred it’s not. “When I have my kids and grandkids for dinner, I look up to heaven and say, ‘Sorry, Ma, the Rosenthal is going in the dishwasher!’” Cash or check, no credit cards.

Lillagaard Hotel, 5 Abbott Avenue, 732-988-1216, for tea reservations call 732-245-2822 and ask for Marilyn.

Haven’t had your fill? Check out these Tempting Tea Houses.

 

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