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Deer Park woman relishes hosting Victorian tea parties

Wed., March 25, 2009

Ninna Gendreau has a passion for all things tea. From collecting tea memorabilia to hosting high tea in her home, Gendreau takes her hobby seriously.

Gendreau has been hosting Victorian teas in her home for more than 10 years. She started by organizing teas for church friends, once serving more than 70 people. “They were my first victims,” Gendreau said with a laugh. What started as an interest in the Victorian era grew into a serious hobby.

Walking into Gendreau’s Deer Park home is like stepping back in time. “We weren’t using the front room, so I turned it into a tea room,” said Gendreau’s husband Jerry. The sunny windows in the tea room show off tables elegantly set for tea. No detail has been overlooked: fine crochet-edged linen tablecloths, china tea cups, hand selected silver, and etched glass sugar bowls and elaborate table decorations that change with the seasons. Despite the snow on the ground outside, Gendreau’s tea room is the perfect picture of spring.

In addition to the formally set tables, the tearoom is a museum of sorts, displaying the many tea-related items and Victorian antiques Gendreau has collected over the years. A mannequin in one corner wears an authentic Victorian woman’s walking suit, hat, gloves and matching boots.

In the far end of the room stands a hutch that contains an impressive collection of china in pink, blue, amber and green. “The dishes came first,” Gendreau said. “I’ve always been interested in the Victorian era.” She describes her tearoom’s style as a light, airy interpretation of Victorian décor.

When guests visit Gendreau’s home for tea, she encourages them to dress for the occasion, including wearing a hat. But don’t worry if you don’t have one, she will happily lend you one from her collection of over 50 Victorian style hats, with the perfect style to fit the season. “Wearing a hat gives you a different attitude,” she explained.

Guests come to Gendreau’s tearoom by word of mouth. The teas are intimate gatherings, limited to 12 guests. They come to unwind, visit, or celebrate special occasions. She doesn’t impose a time limit, but instead pampers her guests with several courses. Depending on the season, a guest might enjoy creamy tomato basil soup, bruschetta, warm chicken salad, spinach salad with mandarin oranges, strawberries, candied pecans and huckleberry vinaigrette, followed by Gendreau’s homemade scones and miniature desserts.

Just plan ahead and budget your calories.

“I don’t do anything low-fat or sugar free,” she said.

Her culinary passion is evident in the food she prepares for her teas. Everything is as fresh as possible, including raspberry jam from her own berries, freshly made Devonshire cream, homemade lemon curd, and hand decorated miniature cakes.

“I love to cook. I started when I was 9 years old. I took classes one summer and my dad thought I was a better cook than my mom,” Gendreau said. From that point on, she was regularly preparing dinner for her family.

Gendreau couldn’t host her elaborate teas without the support of her family. Her husband, Jerry, hand washes the dishes, which could easily number 150 serving pieces for a tea for 12 people. Her son Craig has also been known to help with the dishes, and daughter-in-law Leora comes to help serve.

Gendreau’s daughter Monique Hill is the creative force in the family. Depending on the occasion, Hill creates a unique theme for each tea, coordinating the food, invitations, menus and party favors. One year, the two women hosted a Halloween tea, with Mummy Wrap sandwiches and Witches’ Brew. Guests were invited to come in costume. For another tea, Hill made elaborate paper doll invitations, and handcrafted paper purse tickets with a pocket for a keepsake tea bag.

Hill likes putting on the teas with her mom. “It is fun to do because it’s something different. Everything these days is jeans and paper plates. It’s neat to drink out of china tea cups and eat fine food,” she commented.

Hill and Gendreau took a cake decorating class together to perfect their skills. Hill’s desserts are delicate mouthfuls individually decorated with her own edible creations, such as pastel candy tulips.

In addition to creating a relaxing atmosphere with delectable treats, Gendreau educates her guests with the finer points of Victorian etiquette. “I want them to feel comfortable,” she explains. Tea food is finger food, she tells her guests. But don’t make noise when you stir your tea. Gendreau demonstrates how to quietly stir in a figure eight pattern so the teaspoon doesn’t hit the side of the cup.

On the day of my visit, both Gendreau and her daughter were dressed in Victorian-style clothing, with heavy, layered gowns, boots and hats. Gendreau had her dress made and wears it when she visits other tearooms to give presentations on the Victorian woman and her clothing and lifestyle.

“People are always curious about the clothes. A Victorian woman’s clothing weighed about 20 pounds,” she said, demonstrating the many layers to her gown.

Fellow Deer Park tea enthusiast Thada Ziegler also hosted teas in her home and Gendreau visited Ziegler on occasion in full Victorian costume. “She greeted people at the door and gave presentations between courses, mostly on Victorian etiquette,” said Ziegler. In 2003, Ziegler started Taste and See Ministries, a nonprofit tearoom that supports women in transition.

“Victorian women couldn’t go out alone. Their husbands bought their clothes for them. Tea gardens allowed women to go out and offered them a place to meet, although they had to be escorted there by a husband or other respected male,” said Gendreau, commenting on the importance of tearooms to the Victorian woman.

Gendreau’s husband explained the importance of tea in Victorian society. “Tea was a status symbol, a symbol of wealth,” he said. It was a luxury kept under lock and key, literally. Jerry proudly showed off an antique tea block – a kilo of tea pressed into an 8-by-10-inch rectangle and embossed with Chinese characters. “It would take up too much room on the boat to ship loose tea, so they pressed it into blocks,” he explained. The back of the tea block was scored for carving off chunks prior to use. The remainder of the block would be hung in a special cupboard and carefully guarded. After the lady of the house used the tea, the servants were allowed to take the used tea leaves to make tea for themselves.

According to Gendreau, the advent of television in the 1950s was the beginning of the end of taking time for a properly brewed cup of tea.

“There wasn’t enough time during the commercials to brew a pot of tea or coffee,” she said. In response, beverage manufacturers marketed tea bags and instant coffee to meet the demands for consumers with limited time. “The Victorian woman would roll over in her grave at the thought of tea bags,” she added.

Although she wouldn’t give away the secret recipe to her scrumptious huckleberry scones, Gendreau was willing to share the following recipes.

Creamy Tomato Basil Soup

4 cups crushed Italian tomatoes (1 28-ounce can)

4 cups chicken broth

2 teaspoons dried basil leaves

1 cup heavy cream

1 stick of butter

1 teaspoon garlic salt

Salt and pepper to taste

Simmer tomatoes and chicken broth together over medium heat for 30 minutes. Puree in small batches in blender or food processor with basil leaves. Return to saucepan. Add cream, butter, and garlic salt. Heat through, being careful not to boil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Yield: 12 servings.

Apple Salad

3 celery ribs, finely chopped

4 medium apples, finely chopped

1 cup fat-free whipped topping

1/4 cup raisins

1/8 cup chopped pecans

1/8 cup reduced fat mayonnaise

10 maraschino cherries, chopped

Combine all ingredients except raisins and chill. Add raisins just before serving. Yield: 9 servings.

Lemon Curd

This lemony spread is delicious on warm scones or in miniature fruit tarts.

1 cup sugar

6 tablespoons butter

3 to 4 teaspoons lemon zest

6 tablespoons lemon juice

3 eggs, beaten

In the top of a double-boiler, combine sugar, butter, lemon zest and lemon juice. Over simmering water (not boiling), stir mixture until butter has melted and sugar is dissolved.

Stirring constantly, spoon a little of the hot butter mixture into beaten eggs. Pour egg mixture into hot butter mixture, stirring constantly to blend. Cook over simmering water until it has thickened, about 20 minutes. Remove lemon curd from heat. Cool and refrigerate. Keeps in refrigerator 1 to 2 weeks.

Yield: About 1 cup.

Mock Turtles

Pre-made phyllo cups make easy work of these delicious bite-sized treats.

24 pre-made phyllo cups

Melted butter

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

25 caramel candies

2 tablespoons half and half

24 pecan halves

Lightly brush the phyllo cups with melted butter, set aside. In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the caramels and half and half, stirring occasionally. When warmed through, whisk the mixture until smooth.

Working quickly, drizzle caramel mixture with a spoon into the phyllo cups until they are half full. You may need to re-warm the caramel during this process if it begins to harden. Sprinkle chocolate chips over the warm caramel mixture. Using the back of a clean spoon, smooth melted chocolate over caramel mixture. Place pecan half on top of chocolate.

Yield: 24 candies.

Kirsten Harrington can be reached at or visit her Web site

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