One cook's best dish

Tea and creativity in an ‘urban cottage’

Scones add to tranquil retreat’s Edwardian flavor

“I find that conversation never goes better than at tea; it provides a time and space to forget the passing of time,’’ says Deborah Simmerman, who serves scones at her tea parties. “I find that conversation never goes better than at tea; it provides a time and space to forget the passing of time,’’ says Deborah Simmerman, who serves scones at her tea parties. (Jon Chase for The Boston Globe)
By Jane Dornbusch
Globe Correspondent / December 29, 2010

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Between Pond Street and Grovenor Road on bustling Centre Street in Jamaica Plain you’ll find, among other things, a realtor, a hair salon, a dentist’s office, a dry cleaner, and a botanica. Step into Deborah Simmerman’s apartment, just around the corner, and you’ll find a cozy Edwardian retreat re-created down to the last detail. It’s a bit of a shock to enter this tranquil, gracious bower of chintz, white wicker, pink roses, and flowered china that Simmerman calls her “urban cottage.’’ When the shock wears off, Simmerman is there to offer visitors a cup of properly brewed tea and a homemade scone. The Edwardian era is her metier, and afternoon tea is her meal of choice.

“I do all my entertaining in the form of tea parties,’’ says the soft-spoken Simmerman, who works in the art-education office at Mass. College of Art. “I’ve introduced all my friends to afternoon tea. I find that conversation never goes better than at tea; it provides a time and space to forget the passing of time.’’

Simmerman’s teas have three focal points: the beverage itself, her scones and other tidbits, and her china collection, which she modestly describes as “vast.’’ Delicate, floral-patterned china is everywhere in her apartment: on the walls, in glass-fronted cabinets, filling to the brim a large butler’s pantry. Simmerman is like an artisan who works in porcelain the way a sculptor does in marble; the colors and patterns speak to her, and she always chooses the proper dishes for the season and occasion. Thanksgiving and Christmas bring out festive patterns in rich colors — Royal Chelsea Golden Rose for the harvest feast, Royal Doulton Old Country Roses this time of year. “When the apple blossoms come out in spring,’’ she explains, “I’ll use the Apple Blossom pattern. In June, I’ll choose roses; in fall, yellows.’’

Tea is also chosen to suit the moment. On a recent Saturday, Simmerman was brewing Upton Tea’s Temi Estate Sikkim FTGFOP1 Ch. (All those initials are tea talk for Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, grade 1 — descriptors that tell aficionados about the tea’s leaf size and grade). Her favorite is second-flush Darjeeling — “the second flush is more mellow and full-bodied.’’ In winter, she also likes a strong cup of Yorkshire Gold.

But at least as important as the tea itself is the way it’s brewed. “The thing that horrifies me is how tea is served in this country,’’ says Simmerman, who’s made several trips to England and always visits as many tearooms there as possible. “People in the United States need to learn to make tea! It’s not that hard.’’ She’s not unequivocally opposed to tea bags. What she does find objectionable is the custom of bringing a cup or small pot of hot water to the table, alongside a bag in an empty cup. By the time the water hits the bag, it’s no longer hot enough to do the job. “Tea needs to be brewed, not just dunked in a pot,’’ says Simmerman.

She’s also not a fan of the scones generally served in this country. She doesn’t like them tarted up with flavorings and add-ins (though she does occasionally make a version with dried apricots, cherries, apples, and raisins). “I really go for the plain scones,’’ she says, which function beautifully as a vehicle for traditional clotted cream and strawberry jam. “They’re delicious, but only right out of the oven.’’ That means that when scones have been sitting around in a bakery or cafe, she adds, they’re not likely to be very good.

Making your own requires a certain touch, one that Simmerman has perfected over many years. In her bright, charming kitchen, she tosses together the dry ingredients, stirring with a fork in lieu of sifting. She gradually pours in heavy cream — an organic brand because, she says, “I can taste the difference.’’ It’s important to handle the dough gently and minimally; she kneads it lightly, with her fingertips, and rolls and cuts the scones deftly, making them on the small side. “Foods served at tea should be dainty. It’s not meant to ruin dinner — though it does.’’

When the tea is brewed and the scones are baked, Simmerman sets everything out on low tables in the parlor. As the afternoon sun shining through the lace curtains slowly fades, it’s easy to see why Simmerman calls tea “the still center of my life.’’ Both the beverage and the ritual are a respite. “That’s the amazing thing about tea,’’ says Simmerman, who has never consumed so much as a single cup of coffee. “It’s both calming and restorative.’’

The tea is fragrant and the scones, topped with jam and clotted cream, are light, crumbly, delicate, and delightful. Ruining dinner seems a small price to pay.

Jane Dornbusch can be reached at