Eats: Tea and cheerio at Bridgton's Clipper Merchant Tea House

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The Tower of London, the basis of the high tea at the Clipper Merchant Tea House in Bridgton, features tea sandwiches, scones and petit fours. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Imagine hopping in your car in central/southern Maine and, in just over an hour, being in another country and another time. A place where people take a break in the middle of the day for a piping hot cup of aromatic tea and maybe a scone. Sound delightfully quaint and other-worldly?

Where might your vehicle have brought you?

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Why, you’d be in Bridgton, at the Clipper Merchant Tea House, where tea mistress and business owner Melinda Thomas awaits. The kettle is on.

Located in an elegant historic structure on Main Street, the William F. Perry House, tea aficionados and first-time tea drinkers alike should prepare themselves for an authentic British tea experience. Thomas insists “we do everything the British way,” including steeping loose tea leaves, using a china pot on a tea warmer and heating the water to the perfect temperature.

Thomas lived and worked in Wales, Scotland and Ireland. While living in Dublin she managed Bewley’s (a tea house), and while in Scotland she learned how to make authentic Scottish meat pies. At her Clipper Merchant Tea House she continues serving tea and making these meat pies — when she’s not writing prose and poetry, having studied with Irish poet and Nobel prize winner Seamus Heaney.

Thomas bought Clipper Merchant from a couple who ran it out of their home in Limington. The business was well-established and had a good reputation. Thomas made some modifications to the menu and began looking for the right venue. She was captivated by the William F. Perry house and knew she had found a perfect location for her vision of a Victorian tea house.

Thomas threw herself into the project, restoring and brightening the spaces and bringing in her own art, furniture and tea ware. She lovingly created rooms that embody her own recollections of tea time in the British Isles, opening in July 2016.

TEA CULTURE

Thomas says her mission is to “serve tea the traditional way” and “acquaint people with tea culture.”

She begins pouring at 11 a.m. — the time many Brits take a morning break. Known as “elevenses,” this break includes tea and a light snack. Should you take “elevenses” at Clipper Merchant, to accompany your pot of tea Thomas serves scones (with or without lemon curd and Devon cream) or Irish soda bread.

If you need more than a snack, the menu also has lunch selections that include soups, salads, quiches and meat pies. Scottish meat pies, one of Thomas’s specialties, are composed of local grass-fed beef and lamb in a double crust made with lard, which is the traditional ingredient for a flaky crust.

Thomas does all the cooking from scratch each day, generally starting at 5 a.m. “I’m really committed to that; that everything I serve or prepare is something I make,” she said.

She’s also committed to using local ingredients as much as possible. She uses European butters and likes “Kate’s Homemade Butter” (a European-style butter made here in Maine). Additionally, Thomas makes her own Devonshire cream, her own scones and her own Irish soda bread. She uses fresh produce from local farms in Harrison and Denmark and from food distributor Native Maine.

Also on the menu is the “Tower of London,” a three-tiered stand of tea sandwiches, scones and desserts. This option is the basis for a “high tea” and represents a meal in and of itself.

120 DIFFERENT TEAS

And what of the tea?

First, be overwhelmed! Clipper Merchant carries 120 different teas, more or less. Green, black, white, Matcha, Rooibos, Oolong and Pu-erh are among them. Making tea decisions is a pleasant experience, with assistance from Tea Mistress Thomas. She says some customers know exactly what they want, while others “are open to suggestions.”

She offers an easy-to understand tea registry that guests can peruse that provides flavor and strength information. And there is an “aroma bar” where guests can smell each tea before making a decision.

Thomas also offers tea for sale by the ounce and tea paraphernalia, including tea pots, warmers and the like.

If tea — and its traditional tasty accompaniments — are in your future, be prepared for something far beyond the more local orthodoxy of a Styrofoam-cup-with-a-tea-bag-plunked-in-it experience. Clipper Merchant is quiet and peaceful, and Thomas says “people often stay a long time” enjoying their tea and company.

Cell phones are not permitted in the tea rooms. Thomas says customers respect that request and thank her for it. She said she is “trying to preserve a historical ambiance” that stands out from today’s demand for instant and urgent. That sense of tradition, which reflects the British tea house model, extends to the staff, which is trained to be fully attentive to each customer, she said.

The Clipper Merchant Tea House is a “smaller kind of more intimate operation,” says Thomas, who admits with a laugh, “What I do is very subversive.”

Thomas considers her tea house a place where guests can “come and feel like you’re in a whole other time.” Subversive or not, time travel through tea sounds divine!

Julie-Ann Baumer lives, writes and gardens from her home in Lisbon Falls. Sometimes she drinks tea. Read her blog www.julieannbaumer.com or follow her on twitter @aunttomato.

Types of teas

Black

As the name implies, black tea is produced by oxidizing freshly picked tea leaves until they are darker in color and fully fermented. Brisk and uplifting, all black teas contain caffeine. Caffeine levels vary by type of black tea. Some commonly known black tea types are Earl Gray, English breakfast and Darjeeling. Chai tea is also created with black tea leaves, plus spices, sweeteners and milk.

Green

Green tea leaves that do not go through the oxidization process are, well, green! Earthy in flavor and thought to have health-promoting properties, green tea contains less caffeine than black tea.

Oolong

Think of Oolong as a cross between black and green tea. The leaves are partially fermented, producing a blend high in antioxidants and low in caffeine.

White

White tea, the least processed of all, is made from immature tea leaves and is not oxidized. Generally fragrant and light in brewed color, but high in antioxidants.

Matcha

Matcha tea is made from finely ground green tea leaves. At Clipper Merchant, matcha is served in a cup and sippers can request it thick or thin depending on preference.

Rooibos

A caffeine-free herbal tea, rooibos or red tea, is made from a South African plant. Pronounced “roy-boss,” this tea is low in tannins and high in antioxidants. Clipper Merchant offers many, including “Corsican Pear Spice” described on their tea registry as “pear cobbler in a cup — without the calories.”

Pu-erh

This black and earthy tea comes from the Yunnan province of China. It is considered a living tea because it’s fermented. And continues to ferment. This improves its taste and character, and is believed by some to provide healthful digestive benefits. It contains less caffeine than black tea.

Tisanes

Tisane teas are true herbal teas, made from dried ingredients like chamomile, almonds, fruits, spices and mint. At Clipper Merchant, guests can create their own tisane by selecting from a large list of ingredients, or enjoy pre-blended combinations like “Madagascar Almond Spice” or “Renaissance Fruits.”

Melinda Thomas, proprietor and tea mistress at the Clipper Merchant Tea House in Bridgton, brings the Tower of London to a table for Carol Strout and Cheri Dwinnell. Patrons are invited to borrow stylish English hats to wear while having their tea. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Clipper Merchant Tea House

32 Main St., Bridgton, Maine

207-803-8111

Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Reservations are encouraged for groups of three or more.

Special events (bridal showers, family reunions, etc.) upon request

Tiny cucumber sandwiches and other savory finger sandwiches are the final course of the high tea at the Clipper Merchant Tea House in Bridgton. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Earl Grey tea cake with lavender frosting

For cake:

1/2 cup butter

1 cup sugar

2 large eggs

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups flour

4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup whole milk

5 teaspoons Earl Grey tea or 3 teabags

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a Bundt pan by buttering and dusting with flour. Heat the one cup of milk until almost boiling, then add the Earl Grey Tea and steep for 10 minutes or longer and remove bags.

In mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Add eggs and vanilla. In separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder and salt. Add flour mixture and milk tea to butter mix and beat on medium for 2-3 minutes. Pour into prepared Bundt pan and bake for 40-50 minutes.

For lavender icing:

1/3 cup butter

1 cup caster or confectioner’s sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 tablespoons cream

4 tablespoons lavender flowers

1 teaspoon loose Earl Grey tea

Mix together until consistency is good for spreading. Add lavender food coloring for a more dramatic effect.

The gift shop of the Clipper Merchant Tea House in Bridgton features a traditional British phone booth. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

High tea at the Clipper Merchant Tea House in Bridgton features homemade petit fours and finger sandwiches. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

English teas, marmalades and biscuits are available at the Clipper Merchant Tea House gift shop. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

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