Mr. Tea

Biltmore Afternoon Tea, Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, 24th Street and Missouri, 955-6600. Afternoon Tea: 2:30 to 4:30 p.m., seven days a week.

How come Americans drink coffee instead of tea?
You can trace the answer back to 1773, when 60 men, dressed as Indians, dumped 340 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. Textbooks sketchily explain that they were protesting Britain's Townshend Act, which levied a tax on the colonies' favorite hot drink. In the old days, when schools believed imparting information was more important than building self-esteem and supervising random drug tests, we learned that our principled forefathers refused to recognize the Mother Country's right to tax them, since no colonists served in Parliament. Only their own elected colonial legislators, they argued, had that right. Their stirring cry still resonates today: "No taxation without representation."

The real story behind the Boston Tea Party, however, is a lot more complex, and a lot more fascinating. In 1772, Britain's East India Trading Company, the world's largest commercial firm, hit hard times. Business was bad, and the company found itself sitting on a huge surplus of tea. But its economic distress gave the government an unexpected political opportunity. King George III and his ministers hatched a brilliant scheme, one that, if successful, would ease the company's financial problems and break colonial opposition to Parliamentary authority in one stroke.

They decided to send the excess tea to the colonies--and sell it at a bargain price. Though the Townshend duty would remain, the wily British believed that tea-loving colonists wouldn't care: Cheap tea would be an irresistible temptation. Economic benefit, the government gleefully reasoned, would trump political principle. Thirsty, weak-willed colonists would drop their objections to the tax, and Parliament's right to tax would no longer be questioned.

Boston's small band of revolutionary agitators immediately recognized the plan's sinister genius. Like the British, they too believed that New England tea drinkers wouldn't be able to resist the markdown. So they made sure their fellow citizens wouldn't get the chance. On December 16, 1773, a band of patriots (including Sam Adams and Paul Revere) sneaked aboard the tea ships anchored in the harbor and threw all the tea overboard. This bold, desperate act helped set the War of Independence in motion.

Driven by revolutionary fervor, Americans shunned tea. Over the next two centuries, we acquired a coffee habit instead. Had iced tea not inexplicably taken hold (and every other country on earth considers it undrinkable swill), we might not have consumed any tea at all.

About a decade ago, however, our attitude toward hot tea began to change. Posh hotels and tea shops started offering English-style "Afternoon Tea"--a light p.m. refreshment of sandwiches and cakes, washed down with a pot of tea. (Don't confuse this "Afternoon Tea," originally devised by the English leisured class as a pre-dinner snack, with the aristocratic-sounding "High Tea." The latter is actually a working-class supper, a substantial meal.)

The Arizona Biltmore is the latest of the Valley's high-end resorts to feature an Afternoon Tea. Management has clearly studied how it's done elsewhere in town. The formula: Install comfy chairs, plush couches and linen-draped tables in a nook just off the lobby; set out expensive, lovely chinaware (the Biltmore uses Luxembourg's Villeroy & Boch, whose stamp proudly proclaims "anno 1748"); and decorate the area with potted greenery and flowers. Also, hire deferential European servers with attractive foreign accents--Americans find that classy.

The Biltmore departs from the formula by not offering live musical accompaniment. No tuxedoed pianist tickles the ivories at tea time. The only music you'll hear is the sound of two birds, cooing from their nearby cage.

Other parts of the design formula need some tweaking. The chairs and couches are comfortable enough, but the fraying beige fabric requires a thorough and immediate cleaning. The tea area sits across from the front desk, so you can't escape the hum of noise and activity. And instead of overlooking a garden or other peaceful area, the window gives you a good view of limousines and luxury vehicles pulling up to the valet parking station.

The Afternoon Tea itself is pleasant enough, but not yet in the same class as the competition's. The Biltmore offers teas provided by Harney and Sons, a well-known Connecticut outfit that supplies teas to America's swankiest hotels. The variety of tea pickings here, though, is slim: chamomile, black currant, English breakfast, Earl Grey (misspelled "Gray" on the menu) and Ceylon. Where's Darjeeling? Where's Assam? Where are the fancy blends?

Even worse, no one has taught the staff how to brew them. It's essential that the water be boiling hot. But the tepid H2O in the Sterno-fired samovar wouldn't raise a blister on a newborn.

The Afternoon Tea's first round begins with a choice of five kinds of tea sandwiches, dainty little morsels. Don't fret about looking piggy--it's perfectly acceptable to sample them all. But if I were to return, I'd stick to the scrumptious model filled with white and green asparagus, quail egg, smoked salmon and chive. Curried chicken salad with smoked grapes and Brie, as well as cucumber with watercress, black olives and dill cream cheese are two other sandwiches worth considering. But neither the ham and havarti cheese, nor the roast turkey with cranberry mayonnaise holds much excitement.

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