No discussion of British food would be complete without a mention of afternoon tea. Many Americans consider it to be the quintessential English meal, and although few Brits sit down to lavish Downton Abbey-style spreads on a regular basis, tea and teatime treats are still a big part of the national psyche.
This month I’m featuring Tina’s Traditional Tea Room, with locations in Carmel and Columbus, Indiana. It offers one of the most authentic English tea experiences in the United States. English owner Tina Jesson says “Our brand stands for being the most authentic we can be. We don’t Americanize anything.”
THE ORIGINS OF TINA’S TRADITIONAL
Tina and her husband moved from England to Indiana in 2008. When we spoke, she recalled the day her husband came home from work and said “I’ve got this perfect job opportunity, but it’s in America.” They agreed to try it for a year. “We’ve been here for eleven years,” she says with a laugh.
Tina grew up in Derbyshire, where her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother taught her to cook and bake using traditional family recipes. After acclimating to life in America, Tina started selling her authentic English scones at local farmers markets. Due to market regulations, she had to pre-package the scones and couldn’t sell them with clotted cream. “People were eating them plain,” she says in mock horror. “I knew I needed a tearoom to give them the full experience.” She opened her first tearoom in Carmel in 2014, followed by a second location in Columbus, about 50 miles south of Indianapolis. Both are warm, welcoming establishments where every guest is invited to feel at home. “It’s like having tea in someone’s front room,” Tina says.
SPOILT FOR CHOICE
There are hundreds of recipes in Tina’s collection, some going back almost a hundred years, and I asked her how she decided which ones to include on the menu. “It has been a bit of trial and error,” she admits, noting that the farmer’s markets were a good testing ground. “There are some things that just didn’t work, such as certain cakes. There are other things like sticky toffee pudding – that’s one of our most popular.”
Tina’s Traditional menu is filled with offerings such as pasties, sausage rolls, coronation chicken salad, cheese and chutney toasties, and a daily selection of cakes. The scones are particularly tasty. They’re light and tender and just firm enough to hold the house-made jam and authentic clotted cream without crumbling to pieces. Tina’s also offers a full English breakfast on the first Sunday of the month (by reservation only).
Like many guests, I look forward to the full afternoon tea. It’s served all day at Tina’s, a practice I wish more tearooms would emulate! Her Majesty’s Royal Afternoon Tea includes an assortment of finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam, a selection of pastries, and a pot of tea or coffee. If you’re looking for something lighter, I recommend the Devonshire cream tea or a slice of one of Tina’s delicious cakes.
Tina serves over 20 loose leaf teas, including more than half a dozen of her own blends. “We work with a tea merchant here in Indiana who imports tea direct from country of origin,” Tina says. She then works with a master tea blender to develop her signature tea blends. There’s a timer on every table to help you steep your tea to perfection. Tina’s also offers a selection of beer, wine, and cider.
Tina’s Traditional presents a full slate of special events often themed around popular British TV shows and movies such as Downton Abbey, Harry Potter, and Outlander and British authors such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.
Tina has a special affinity for the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Her great-grandmother was born in 1889 and worked as a scullery maid in an aristocratic manner à la Downton Abbey. “I do a Downton Abbey program and share artifacts from the period,” she says. Special events for young audiences often feature princess and fairy themes.
You can also sign up for one of Tina’s Traditional Great British Cooking Experiences to learn how to make some of her family recipes, such as scones and mince pies. Look under the “Happenings” tab on the website for upcoming events. They often sell out, so be sure to book early.
Tina also works with local nonprofits such as Indiana Landmarks (which restores historic buildings) to create fundraising tea parties, often featuring a Victorian theme. “We work on bringing history to life and making it relevant,” she says. “That’s something that’s really dear to my heart.”
EXPANDING THE TINA’S TRADITIONAL BRAND
“I opened my first tearoom when I was 48 and I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” Tina says of the physically demanding job. “I think it takes a good couple of years until you can take time away from a new business,” she notes, citing the importance of creating good operational processes and training her team as two major keys to her success. “I see a lot of owners who wing it and they burn out in a few years.”
Now that Tina has developed these supports, she’s moving her focus from day-to-day operations to expanding other aspects of the Tina’s Traditional brand. One new venture she’s launched is a unique series of UK tours. “What I’m looking for is giving an experience like no other. Things you can’t get as an independent traveler or with a large group tour,” she says enthusiastically. In May 2020, she’s taking a small group on a tour of the Scottish borders. They’ll stay in a Georgian manor house and make daily forays for activities such as a tour of a Scottish castle followed by lunch with the Laird himself and a private tour of the Royal Yacht Britannia. You can find more information about the tour on the Tina’s Traditional website.
Tina has also started sharing her extensive knowledge and experience with other tearoom owners through a Facebook page and program she calls Tearoom Secrets. “Opening a tearoom is such an expensive thing to do,” she says. Her advice helps current and future tearoom owners avoid common pitfalls and build a firm foundation for long-term success. Tina notes that it’s important to have a clear vision of what you will and will not compromise on, and to have patience. “It doesn’t happen overnight,” she says.
Tina recently made the momentous decision to sell her Columbus tearoom. “I’m focusing more on the training and the tours and I can’t do more without cutting something out,” she told me. “I think it will be a great opportunity for someone who wants to be an owner/operator,” she says, noting that because of her diligence in building the business, it will generate revenue for its new owners from day one.
A TASTE OF TINA’S AT HOME
If you can’t make it to Indiana, it’s easy to bring a bit of Tina’s Traditional to your own home. Tina offers a selection of teas, house-made jams, baked goods, and accoutrements in the store’s Tea Emporium, and many of these items can be ordered online. Her cookbook, Tina’s Traditional Book of Scones, is available on Amazon, and she’s graciously shared one of her favorite scone recipes so Anglotopia readers can enjoy them at home.
Tina’s Traditional Cranberry Scones
Makes about 30, depending on size
2 pounds flour
8 teaspoons aluminum-free baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
8 ounces butter, cut in slices
4 ounces sugar
Slightly less than a pint (16 ounces) of milk
4 ounces dried cranberries
- Preheat oven to 375˚F.
- Line baking trays with parchment paper.
- Place flour, baking powder, salt, and butter in a bowl and mix on low speed until it’s the consistency of breadcrumbs.
- Add sugar, milk, and cranberries and mix until it forms a ball (add the remaining milk if the dough appears to crack).
- Place dough on a floured surface and knead into a smooth ball (it will be slightly wet).
- Roll out to 3/4- to 1-inch thick.
- Cut scones using a round pastry cutter and place on prepared baking trays, leaving at least 1/4-inch between each scone.
- Form leftover dough into a ball, re-roll (making sure the surface is smooth, not cracked), and cut out the remainder of the scones.
- Brush the scones with milk.
- Bake at 375˚F for 25 minutes, until slightly browned.
Tina’s Traditional is a popular venue for wedding and baby showers and has even hosted small weddings. “There’s no better connector than food, is there?” Tina said to me as she reflected on her role in fostering intergenerational bonding among her customers. “When they go through the ceremony of taking tea and spending time with people they care about, I get goosebumps. I never realized it would be such a special thing to do for the community.”
Tina’s Traditional Tea Room
• 30 N. Rangeline Road, Carmel, IN
• 1702 Pennsylvania Street, Columbus, IN
For more teatime inspiration, check out the British Tea Traditions and Favorite Tea Breaks boards on my Pinterest page. You can also check out my Christmas in England board, which will help put you in a festive mood. Stir-Up Sunday is November 24 this year, so it’s time to make your Christmas puddings!