Tea on the Tiber, or, What to Do When It’s Raining (or Snowing) in Ellicott City, Maryland

IMG_7869 Having so recently moved from Rome, I was intrigued when, in December, some friends suggested an afternoon outing at a place called Tea on the Tiber… in Ellicott City, Maryland. My curiosity was piqued, not only because of the name, but because the place was billed as a Victorian Tea Room, and I do enjoy a real high tea – when it’s done right. I set out to see what I’d find. The first thing I learned was that Maryland’s Tiber River was a little different from its namesake, as you can see.

Tiber River, Rome, Italy

The Tiber River, Rome, Italy

Tiber River, Ellicott City, Maryland

The Tiber River, Ellicott City, Maryland

Apples and oranges, really. Pointless comparisons aside, I found Ellicott City, Maryland to be a charming little town. It felt a bit like a time capsule, with giant rocks looming like cliffs over Main Street and its 1950s-style shop signs. Here are some views of the town, snapped as we walked from the riverside towards our destination. IMG_7864 IMG_7865 IMG_7867 It was a busy Sunday afternoon, one of the last before Christmas, and the streets were a little too crowded with parked cars and the sky a little too grey to be as picturesque as it could be. With all the odd boutiques and specialty shops lining the main street, I could see why people would come here for their holiday gift shopping,but it was a little bit too much like rush-hour for my taste. IMG_7868 IMG_7878 Then, at long last (it was cold enough to feel like we’d been walking for much longer than we had), our destination came into sight. The last time I’d had “high tea” had been at the famous Babington’s tea room at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome. Could this little American town – beautiful and historic, yes, but nestled among encroaching tentacles of suburbia – offer anything that would compare? IMG_7884 The entrance was certainly inviting enough… now to see about the inside.

A festive mantel decked for the holiday shoppers

A festive mantel decked for the holiday shoppers

Inside, attention had been paid to every detail. More than walking into café, it felt as though I were entering as a guest into someone’s home (and judging from the florals and pastels, the home of a well-to-do English woman or Austen fan) where every piece of furniture, every painting and decoration had been collected over a lifetime as opposed to chosen, each with a history – as such things are in a true home. The establishment took up an entire old house, and each room had been either furnished with two or three smaller tables or, in the case of the one we were given, one large table to accomodate large groups. Indeed, I believe that you can only attend Tea on the Tiber by reservation. So, the atmosphere was up to snuff. Now it was time to see about the menu. IMG_7886 We had come for afternoon tea. That meant we were each able to pick a type we wanted from an extensive list including various black, green and white teas, as well as a variety of herbal blends, coffee and chocolate. Anyone who knows me will know that I generally always go for the coffee. At tea (and I intend that as meal, not the beverage), however , that would be quite the heresy. I picked an almond-flavored black tea blend instead. The service it is served in is charming, and the contents are all I had hoped for. The menu was fixed, which saved me the pain of choosing (I always want to try everything when I’m someplace new). We had been promised a three-course meal divided into three parts. When it came, we realized that division was really quite literal. On the middle tier was the savory, consisting mostly of a variety of finger sandwiches, including the famous (and, in the American mind at least, quintessentially British) cucumber. On the bottom tier were what the menu listed as English Manor scones. These were served with two things I'd never tasted, although I'd read about them in books: clotted cream and lemon curd. All I can say is, despite their less-than-appetizing names, once you taste them, there's no going back. We had to ask the poor waitress to refill those dishes at least quite. The jam, though lovely, was forgotten. There were also sweet breads (not sweetbreads), fruit and cheese and, on the top tier, what me might call the crowning glory: the read sweets. I don't know what was more decadent, the rich chocolate cake or the shortbread (I'll go for the shortbread every time, if forced to choose, but that's just me. Any chocolate lover would consider me a madwoman for saying so). On the middle tier was the savory, consisting mostly of a variety of finger sandwiches, including the famous (and, in the American mind at least, quintessentially British) cucumber. On the bottom tier were what the menu listed as English Manor scones. These were served with two things I’d never tasted, although I’d read about them in books: clotted cream and lemon curd. All I can say is, despite their less-than-appetizing names, once you taste them, there’s no going back. We had to ask the poor waitress to refill those dishes at least twice. The jam, though lovely, was quite forgotten. There were also sweet breads (not sweetbreads, thank goodness), fruit and cheese and, on the top tier, what we might call the crowning glory: the desserts. I don’t know what was more decadent, the rich chocolate cake or the shortbread (I’ll go for the shortbread every time, if forced to choose, but that’s just me. Any chocolate lover would consider me a madwoman for saying so).

A nice cuppa

A nice cuppa

Well, I hope you all enjoyed that as much as I did. And, I don’t know about you, but I think I’m about ready for a cup of tea after all that, so I’m going to sign off here. Here’s wishing you all a lovely day. Toodle-oo and thanks ever so much for popping by! 😉 Cheers, Jennifer p.s. and if you should feel the need to try out those scones with clotted cream for yourself (and I highly recommend it), here’s all the info you need (of course, you could just clink on this link to Tea on the Tiber’s website if you missed the one at the top of the post, but I thought the business card was classier): IMG_7885

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The NYC Origins of My Love for Cafés & What to Do When It’s Raining (or Snowing) in Lexington, Virginia

Café Pick Me Up: My favorite 'office' in New York City, as it was back in the day (c. 2000). Since then it's suffered a fire and changed owners at least once, but it's still there. I check every time I visit. Its name is the  English translation of the Italian cake called tiramisu. A small wonder it appealed to a recently-returned-from-Italy girl such as myself.

Café Pick Me Up: My favorite ‘office’ in New York City, as it was back in the day (c. 2000). Since then it’s suffered a fire and changed owners at least once, but it’s still there. I check every time I visit. Its name is the
English translation of  tiramisu. This is where my café obsession truly began.

Perhaps it is the years I spent living in New York that taught me to treat coffee shops as though they were an extension of my home. Anyone who has lived in that city for any length of time, and especially in their young and poor years, knows that most living situations there are far from ideal. Apartments are usually small, often cramped and quite frequently dark and crowded with variety of animals (domestic and otherwise) and roommates (domestic and otherwise). That’s why New Yorkers love their cafés. Go to any coffee shop and you’ll see the locals parked at tables strewn with books, journals, computers and tablets, sandwich wrappers and coffee cups. I remember it well. The table (preferably with a nearby power outlet) becomes a desk, the café’s sitting room your office, your fellow patrons your colleagues. Since then, I have never lost my love for whiling away the hours in a coffee shop and, when I lived in Italy, it was one of the things I missed most (nota bene: the Italians may have the world’s best coffee culture, but they have no café culture to speak of, at least not in the way we envision it).

Yesterday, my personal mission to complete my mental map of the world’s coziest and most welcoming coffee shops took us to Fredericksburg, VA. Today, it takes us to Lexington, also in Virginia, which I visited last summer, not long after I’d come back to America. It is a university town, so I expected to find a café of the sort I love. I wasn’t disappointed.

When I first walked into the Lexington Coffee Shop, I couldn’t wait to choose a mug and go up to the bar to order my coffee.

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The Mug Wall at the Lexington Coffee Shop

IMG_6249 Then, however, I looked a little closer. What a marvelous idea! As an out-of-towner, I felt a little left out of the fun. However, if I were a local, I can think of nothing better than to know my mug was waiting for me at my favorite coffee shop. After my New York café experiences, I like nothing so much as to be able to think of my neighborhood coffee shop as a kind of detached annex to my home, and having my own mug there all the time would certainly do the trick. Perhaps, if I go back there, I’ll bring one along just for the heck of it. When you find a good place somewhere in the world, even if chances are slim that you’ll return, it’s always nice to know you’ll be welcome. A mug on a hook with my name on it, so to speak, would sure do the trick.

Until next time, stay cozy and stay caffeinated!

If you take a stroll around town once the weather clears, you'll find that the Lexington shop owners have a talent for interesting window-dressing.

I’ve heard of a jackalope but never of a basset-houndalope. Strange critters they’ve got down south…

Oh, and by the way, if you take a stroll around town once the weather clears, you’ll find that the Lexington shop owners have a talent for… unusual window-dressing.

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What to Do When It’s Raining (or Snowing) in Fredericksburg, Virginia

IMG_6791Anyone who knows me knows that two of life’s greatest pleasures for me are books and coffee – and I have a definite weak spot for any place that can combine both. Whether they be neighborhood coffee shops with shelves of second-hand books for customers or bookshops with couches and caffeine on demand, be they big or small, sophisticated or down-to-earth, it’ll be hard to drag me back out of the door once I find them. In any town I’ve ever visited or city I’ve ever lived in, I generally found them all within a matter of days or even hours. And what better and cozier thing is there to do on a snowy (or rainy) day?

Sidewalk temptation

Sidewalk temptation

As you can see, when I first discovered the Griffin Bookshop and Coffee Bar, we were at the tail end of summer. The trees were still cloaked in brilliant, living green and, if anything, I was looking for a place to escape the heat of the late-August sun. Still, on this snowy March day, I would love to be curled up in a corner of the Griffin with a steaming cup of coffee, surrounded by its seemingly endless shelves of books. The front room has tables devoted to subjects ranging from new fiction to local interest. In the back, behind the coffee-bar, a further two rooms are stuffed to the ceiling with shelves where books are arranged alphabetically and by subject-matter, as neatly as in any library.

Yours Truly enjoys two of her favorite things in the world: a cup of coffee and a nearly endless supply of reading material.

Yours Truly enjoys two of her favorite things in the world: a cup of coffee and a nearly endless supply of reading material.

The feeling, however, is more as if I’d wandered into the private reading rooms of some wealthy intellectual who has, inexplicably, given me the run of his home for the day.

The smallest reading room at the Griffin looks more like a private sitting room than the back room of a coffee shop,

The smallest reading room at the Griffin looks more like a private sitting room than the back room of a coffee shop

A garden for fair-weather reading, a most excellent pastime

A garden for fair-weather reading, a most excellent pastime

They also have a little, brightly colored and carpeted nook of a room off the main reading room where everything – from the decor to the size of the furniture to the choice of reading material – has been chosen for the very youngest of readers. Seeing it was enough to make we wish I’d had a chance to be a kid in Fredericksburg. And the Griffin’s not just a welcome refuge when the weather’s bad, either. Their tables out front and the marvelous back garden make this a perfect place to spend a leisurely afternoon in the springtime. A soon as this snow melts, I think I’m going to have to head back for a day. Call me strange, but I’ll drive an hour and a half for a good coffee shop any day…

Here’s wishing you all somewhere as cozy to wait out these last days of winter.

Until next time, stay warm and keep a good book close to hand!

– Jennifer

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Three Days until Spring and Too Early for April Fooling

Yes, we really got all this snow overnight and, at two in the afternoon on March 17th, it still hasn’t stopped.

I never would have thought, when I moved to Virginia (it is, technically, the south, after all) that I would have  more occasion to use cross-country skis than my bicycle. Go figure! I’ll just keep waiting for spring. Meanwhile, has anyone got some snowshoes I can borrow?

Will our crocuses hang in there? I’m crossing my fingers! In the meantime, with the fireplace lit and the prospect of a cup of hot chocolate, it’s beginning to feel a lot more like Christmas than St. Paddy’s Day.

Wishing you all good cheer and some Irish luck!

Until next time,

– Jennifer

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A Hint of Spring and a Memory of Winter

Yesterday, when I saw these flowers that had sprung up through the dry grass and coat of winter leaves lying strewn across a neighbor’s yard, I could hardly believe my eyes. After such a long winter, I had become so accustomed to seeing nothing but shades of brown that the bright yellow and lavender of these blossoms came as a shock. I had to stop and take a picture.The first spring colors after a long, long winter

The first spring colors after a long, long winter 

Looking at them, it’s hard to believe that I took this next picture just 6 days before the other!

Garden owl, snuggled into the snow next to what remains of last year's lavender, waiting for better weather

Garden owl, snuggled into the snow next to what remains of last year’s lavender, waiting for better weather

I am actually a great fan of the winter, the cold weather and the snow. This season, however, has been a little too long even for me. I am looking forward to spring. My bicycle is in the garage looking sad and bored and the woodland trails I love are a muddy morass. Bring on the spring, with its its bright greens of new growth and its warm, soft grass to lie down on. It will be coming soon. Until then, however, here is a little encore for the winter: some pictures from our last two big snowfalls, one a week ago and one two weeks before that.

Two in the bush: a male and female cardinal wait their turn at the bird feeder

Two in the bush (so to speak): a male and female cardinal wait their turn at the bird feeder

Waiting his turn

Waiting his turn

Vying for position

Vying for position

Under the bird feeder, the ground feeders clean up the fallen seeds

Under the bird feeder, the ground feeders clean up the fallen seeds

Following the hoof prints through the snow...

Following the hoof prints through the snow…

Can you see them all huddled together? I tried to count them, but there were more than a dozen of all sizes and ages.

Can you see them all huddled together? I tried to count them, but there were more than a dozen of all sizes and ages.

As I stood watching, a flash of red caught my eye. Never before had I been lucky enough to see the neighborhood fox, but there he was, in broad daylight, prowling right past the herd of deer. They watched him but gave no sign of alarm at the sight. He was bright red and bigger than I would have imagined – he came up higher than some of their knees. I could see the white tip of his tail as he made his way up the hill behind him, slinking sleekly through snow. I couldn’t catch him in a picture, but I won’t soon forget.

This straggler and a couple others were busy stripping the bark from trees. It's been a hard winter for our local deer.

This straggler and a couple others were busy stripping the bark from trees. It’s been a hard winter for our local deer.

The deer won’t the only local animals to have a tough time this winter. We’ve done our bit for the birds, as well as for the squirrels.

Squirrel prints on the snow. They've discovered the pile of peanuts we put out on the porch before going to bed last night.

Squirrel prints on the snow. They’ve discovered the pile of peanuts we put out on the porch before going to bed last night.

Here they come!

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Action shot! The squirrels don’t so much run as  leap in bounds across the surface of the snow, braving the hawks that circle about the yard and the nearby woods

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Well-earned snack

On that note, I’ll close, hoping that I’ll have no occasion to put up any more pictures of snow until next November!

Thanks for stopping by!

See you next time.

– Jennifer

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