“There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea,” wrote Bernard-Paul Heroux, a writer best known for the remark. When sister/brother owners Terry Fegan and Tom McCormick—second generation Irish Americans—opened The Isles five years ago, it was their heritage and that tea-loving thought that inspired this quaint bungalow.
Traditional English lunches, High Tea, a modest assortment of British imported foods and a curio shop representing Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales make this small house on Center Street ideal for a British tea house. Prior to the introduction of tea into Britain, the English had two main meals: breakfast and dinner.
Anna, the Duchess of Bedford (1788-1861), is credited as the creator of teatime. The Duchess suffered from “a sinking feeling” at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. At first the Duchess had her servants sneak her a pot of tea and a few breadstuffs. Adopting the European tea service format, she invited friends to join her for an additional afternoon meal at 5 o’clock. The menu centered around small cakes, bread and butter sandwiches, assorted sweets, and, of course, tea.
During the second half of the Victorian Period, working families would return home tired and exhausted before a dinner of meats, bread, butter, pickles, cheese and of course tea—none of the dainty finger sandwiches. Because it was eaten at a high dining table rather than the low tea tables, it was termed “high” tea.
The Isles seats 24 inside. It has high tables and a room with high-back chairs and tea tables. The patio holds 24. It’s an eclectic hodge-podge of furniture giving the place its cozy character. On Sunday, there’s a High Tea menu ($14.95; children, $10) with assorted traditional tea sandwiches, cakes and a “bottomless” pot of tea.
During the week, a menu with sausage rolls ($3), curry chips ($2.75), pasties ($8.25), cucumber and watercress sandwich, of course ($6.50), corned beef ($7), roast beef ($7), and apple and cream cheese sandwich ($6.50). I wanted to try the Ploughman’s Lunch: pork pie, cheese, Branston pickle, piccalilli, pickled onions and coleslaw ($9.25).
I got a half pie that was moist, savory and filled with nice chucks of pork from The English Pork Pie Company. A side of House of Parliament sauce—HP sauce—added a tangy-sweet taste. It has a malt vinegar base, blended with tomato, dates, tamarind extract, sweetener and spices.
The Branston pickle is made up mostly of small pieces of fruit and vegetable—mainly cauliflower, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, rutabagas, apples, and dates—in a tangy sweet sauce made of pepper, mustard, coriander, nutmeg, garlic, cinnamon, cayenne and cloves. Piccalilli is yellow from turmeric grown throughout India, and it’s common in curry powders, mustards and cheeses. Also, Hayward’s Pickled Onions are crunchy, large marble-sized onions pickled in malt vinegar—a lot of tart, a theme of this lunch offering.
Dubliner is a sweet mature cheese, aged over 12 months, and named after the city of Dublin, although it’s made in County Cork. It combines the sharpness of mature cheddar, the nuttiness of Swiss cheese, and the bite of Parmesan. And the tea, Barry’s Gold Blend Loose Leaf Tea, has a bright, golden color made by blending some of the finest teas from the high mountain slopes of Kenya and the Assam Valley of India. It’s a luscious, proper cup of tea.
Most Americans have not experienced this Victorian ritual, and it’s too bad. There’s a place to share a pot of tea, really talk to one another, and take an imaginary voyage to another time, another place. It’s called The Isles.