AS THE WORLD CONTINUES TO EMERGE from its Covid-19 slumber, it’s nice to know that not all facets of life aim to come roaring back. For nearly a quarter of a century, Albuquerque’s St. James Tearoom has offered a genteel respite from the busy Duke City, thanks to co-owners Mary Alice Higbie and her son, Daniel. Mary Alice, a self-described “tea toddler who grew up to be a tea lady,” began serving tea to her imaginary friends—luminaries like the Queen of Sheba, Queen Elizabeth II, Peter Pan, and the fairies who lived outside her childhood bedroom in Albuquerque.
As an adult, she found a way to continue the tea party, steeping herself, if you will, in the study of British teas. She is a tea-etiquette lecturer and consultant, certified by the Protocol School of Washington, in Washington, D.C., and a part-time porcelain artist. A decade in, the St. James Tearoom moved to its current location, a hideaway off Osuna Road.
“We found a vacant lot attached to the most beautiful hidden garden in Albuquerque,” she recalls. “We bought the lot with the most charming little adobe building adjacent, within the garden. That became our market.” She wanted to ensure that guests came in through the garden so they could “have a moment to be immersed in beauty and decompress a bit” before having tea.
The elegant yet cozy restaurant and gift shop in Albuquerque coaxes folks of all ages to stop and smell the roses—or a fragrant cup of tea. The gift shop realizes a tea drinker’s fantasy, offering everything you might need for the perfect cuppa: personally selected varieties of black, green, white, herbal, oolong, and pouchong teas, and a lovely collection of teapots, cups, and saucers. The politesse of the knowledgeable staff, dressed in Victorian garb, helps transport visitors to the 19th century.
Once you’ve made it through the shop, you are directed to your personal tearoom, one of 17 curtained-off areas with comfy couches and chairs and tea tables for tiered platters of gorgeously presented goodies. On the afternoon I visited, I peeked in to see little girls dressed in their Sunday best and mothers introducing them to a gentler time.
I wanted to tap the St. James Tearoom for some tricks of the tea trade, so I caught up with Mary Alice via email, where her well-mannered enthusiasm bubbled through. She also shared a few of her favorite recipes.
Chef Johnny Vee: Your restaurant is about to be 25 years old. Any special celebrations planned?
Mary Alice Higbie: We had a huge celebration planned for our 20th anniversary. We wanted a special event to honor our longtime guests who had been coming monthly for 20 years, and we planned a big celebration in a park for our beloved alumni staff over all those years. And then, pfft! Covid-19 happened and it all went out the door. But, yes, we are beginning to plan for a 25th anniversary celebration in 2024.
JV: Did the tearoom concept take off immediately?
MAH: Some friends told me not to start a tearoom in Albuquerque, that I should move to a different state with larger, more metropolitan cities. But I knew there were people here that would love to experience afternoon tea as I would serve it. Sure enough, they did. We needed to expand three times in the first 10 years.
JV: Has your menu changed over the years?
MAH: The basic shape of our menus has changed little over the years. It is still three courses: savories, breads, and sweets. The individual items change monthly, according to our theme, which has included Dublin’s Fare, Around the World in 80 Days, and our Jane Austen theme: Tea with Mr. Darcy. We have an incredibly creative and gifted kitchen team.
JV: Do you ever sneak New Mexico ingredients into a dish?
MAH: Never. As tried-and-true New Mexicans (Daniel and I both were born here), we need our chile fix, and we love both red and green. But the tearoom is a British place, and we want to transport our guests to another place and time.
JV: Which room is your favorite?
MAH: The 18 Duke Street room is one of our highly prized seating areas. We have several guests who insist it belongs to them! We decided to have a British great attached to each seating area. So, for instance, 18 Duke Street is where Isambard Kingdom Brunel lives. Newstead Abbey is Dr. Livingston’s home away from home. Gertrude Jekyll lives in Munstead Wood, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien belong in Bird and Baby, and Winston Churchill lives in Chartwell. This way, we get to share the people we love, as well as have interesting names for our areas.
JV: What is your favorite tea?
MAH: For what season? For which mood? On a dark and chilly winter’s morning, give me China Keemun, with milk and brown sugar lumps. For a bright spring afternoon, Island Garden Pouchong, please. For tea and shortbread cookies with a friend, Amaretto Rose, with a pinch of white sugar. When my tummy is upset, I need genmaicha, straight. If I’m feeling revved up and well put-together, give me James Bond’s favorite tea, Yin Hao jasmine. Tea is a mood drink, and we find our favorite tea to accompany our every one.
JV: Can you share your technique for brewing the perfect cup of tea?
MAH: We are a little—maybe I should say quite—particular about brewing the perfect pot of tea. We include a steeping time on every package of tea we sell. We encourage tea brewers to use a small tasting cup as they brew their tea, so they can remove the leaves the instant the tea is perfect for their taste. We do not encourage the use of tea balls—even though we sell a ton of them—because as the leaves expand, there is no space for the water to flow in among the leaves; they are too tightly packed. To get the best flavor, there must be room for water to move freely around the leaves. We recommend our disposable paper tea sacs or tea socks (my favorite), which are made of cotton and reusable. Please, please, never put tea leaves in the bottom of the pot and pour your water over them. This is stewing the tea, not brewing it! Also, never dishonor your beautiful tea leaves by using tap water. You will be surprised at the difference in flavor between tea made with tap water and that made with purified water.
JV: Do you know the history of proper high tea?
MAH: Truthfully, high tea was never very proper. And we never serve high tea. We only serve afternoon tea. High tea was invented later than afternoon tea and is a substantial laborer’s supper, served on a high table (not a low tea table, like afternoon tea), at a high hour (late in the day). It is a hearty meal eaten with a knife and fork and consisting of dishes like bangers and mash, toad in the hole, and the like. Afternoon tea has an entirely different raison d’être. We love to have fun, and we truly enjoy serving a beautiful afternoon tea meal in a beautiful space to our guests. There is nothing highbrow about it; it is simply lovely.
JV: What are some of your favorite items on your rotating menus?
MAH: I think almost everyone would say our scones. We use the original recipe I started out with, from the first cookbook I ever bought when I was 19—a British cookbook, all in ounces and pints. The curd, of course, too. My favorite is the rose-pomegranate curd. But everyone has their favorite. Every month we all seem to say, “This is my favorite menu!”
JV: Your philosophy about slowing down and enjoying life is so important to remember. Do you feel your work in porcelain art was an influence?
MAH: My porcelain work was certainly a means of slowing down and luxuriating in the moment. How could one not delight in silky porcelain clay slipping through one’s fingers at the wheel? We need to squeeze all the good out of life that we can, and we can’t do that by whizzing by at top speed.
This sandwich is quick and easy to make and looks lovely on the plate. Gluten-free bread, rice crackers, or even cucumber wedges can replace the white bread, if desired. “It’s the perfect combination of the classic dill tea sandwich with a fresh lemon twist,” Mary Alice Higbie says. She recommends pairing with the St. James’s Margaret’s Hope Darjeeling traditional black tea or Charleston Green tea.
Juicy blueberries are found in every bite of these scones, along with the crunch of toasted almonds and a zingy citrus glaze. These will especially delight gluten-free guests. Mary Alice Higbie recommends the following loose-leaf St. James teas to be served alongside the scones: Morning in Giverny, Blueberry Festival, and/or Lemon Soufflé.
BOOK THE ROOM
With some guests visiting once a month for decades, it’s a good idea to plan well ahead to book your culinary breather. The St. James website also offers a multitude of treats, including carry-out tea with traditional cream scones, loose-leaf tea, and rotating monthly menus, so you can host your own tea party at home. 320 Osuna Road NE, Building D, Albuquerque; 505-242-3752, stjamestearoom.com