Downtown Redmond may not be Downton Abbey, but it has been getting a dose of British sophistication with AK’s Tea Room, where high tea is served six days a week.
You don’t have to be an earl or countess to enjoy English tea, scones and clotted cream.
British native Karen George, who’s been living in Prineville for the past five years, was really missing the tea rooms of her native England, so a year and a half ago, with the encouragement of a dozen local expats from Great Britain, she decided Central Oregon should be introduced to an authentic tea room.
“At first my husband said he didn’t think a tea room would go over here. He told me there were cowboys in these parts,” said George. “Well I told my husband, Tony, that those cowboys have cowgirls, and they’ll like having a place to go and have high tea.”
She was right.
Not only have the cowgirls come, but people are also traveling to AK’s Tea Room as a destination from other cities and towns.
“We serve savories, petite crustless sandwiches, and then there’s scones with preserves, and a sampling of our sweets and pastries with the high tea,” said George. “Everything is homemade daily, from this lemon curd to all the pastries. These are authentically British; I’ve taken some of my gran’s recipes and use them at the tea room.”
The day we caught up with George, she was in her Prineville home kitchen experimenting with some gluten-free recipes, as she says more and more of her customers are requesting gluten-free sweets.
“I still haven’t perfected a gluten-free scone, yet,” said George with an audible sigh.
“I’ve experimented a lot, but I remember the first batch smelled lovely and looked nice, but they were awful — hard as an ice hockey puck. My husband said, ‘Don’t drop it on the floor, or it will break the tile.’”
But George is not defeated. Every Monday, which is her day off, she’s experimenting in her home kitchen, always researching and making pastries by trial and error.
The first thing you’ll notice when walking into George’s kitchen is the sweet smell of something wonderful baking in the oven.
Her 1970s-era yellow-colored kitchen isn’t large or fancy by any means, but it does have long countertops, which provide ample space for George to roll out her doughs.
The ranch house design is fitting, as the acreage around the home is surrounded by grazing cattle. From her kitchen window above her sink, George can look out over the dirt road leading to her house and across to the neighboring pasture.
Though her appliances, including her oven, are decades old, George can still turn out tasty pastries. She does love the convection oven at the tea room, which she says bakes everything in half the time. Although she admits it took her a while to get the hang of the new oven.
On her day off, as she experiments with new recipes in her old, reliable oven, George seems to relish the gift of time in her home kitchen.
Taking a china teapot from her cupboard at home, George prepared tea — boiling the water and placing loose leaf tea in a long tea bag.
She decided to serve her best-selling tea, known as Lady London Tea.
“It’s a black tea that has a hint of lemon and strawberries,” said George, as she poured the hot water in the teapot. “All our teas come from either Britain or India, and we have several types of tea: Earl Grey, English tea, Irish tea, Scottish tea and we have herbal blends, too.”
According to George, the English tea is the milder tea, the Scottish tea has a smoky flavor and is the strongest, and the Irish tea is in between those two.
George laughed explaining that every now and then a customer will come in and ask for Lipton tea.
“They’ll come in and say, ‘I’m a Lipton man.’ Lipton’s all the dust leftover from all the decent tea,” said George, crinkling her nose. “I’ve also found in America, the water is never hot enough to make proper tea.”
As a rule of thumb, she says you should let your tea steep for about four minutes.
George had considered using tea strainers in her shop, but found they were messier, and harder on the customer.
China service is used for all the high teas. Relenting to customer requests, George does sell coffee, too, and she’s found many customers will take the coffee and teas to go in paper cups.
“I understand that people don’t always have time for high tea. It’s a go-go society in America; that’s why I think high tea is such a nice relaxing time for people,” said George. “People who take time for tea can sip it and eat elegant pastries and savories.”
The luxury of taking high tea is not lost on Central Oregonians who have visited the tearoom. George says she has regular customers now, and residents will often bring visitors to her tearoom.
“We also have many customers who have birthday parties or have thrown bridal and baby showers in the tea room, and we try to accommodate people’s special occasions and celebrations,” said George.
Though she spent 25 years with a finance career in London, George trained as a pastry chef and made wedding cakes on the side, which was her real passion.
Her husband, Tony, who was a widower, met George at his niece’s wedding in England, where she was the cake caterer. It was love that drew her out of England.
“When I moved here (from London) and married Tony, it was culture shock,” said George. “This rural country life kept me up at night because it was too quiet. I had to go to Bend for some noise.”
That was five years ago, and now George embraces the country. She loves being able to see all the wildlife and watching the sunrises and sunsets on the rim rock. Now that she has her tearoom, where the Union Jack is proudly displayed, George feels she has the best of both worlds.
What are the three ingredients you’ll always find in your home kitchen cupboard or refrigerator?
Vanilla, sour cream, eggs. (Nothing exotic, I’m quite a plain cook. My energies go into baking desserts and pastries.)
What is your favorite home meal that you like to prepare?
For breakfast, bacon, egg and toast, although since coming to the U.S., I’m getting into pancakes, but topped with sugar and lemon juice, which is more the English way to eat them.
The only day I’m at home to prepare lunch is Monday, and I’m usually so busy catching up on my week, that I don’t have time for any. For dinner I like roast lamb, roast potatoes, loads of vegetables and mint sauce.
What is your favorite home appliance in your kitchen?
What is your favorite hand tool, cooking utensil in your home kitchen?
Bain Marie; in America I think it’s called a double boiler. I use it to make lemon curd and melt chocolate.
Is there an appliance you disdain having in a kitchen?
Not really, although I could probably do without a microwave. It takes up my counter space and I really only use it to soften butter if I’m baking and have forgotten to get it out of the fridge in time.
Have you done any major kitchen remodeling? What did you change and why?
My last house in England, we took out the whole ground floor back wall and added a sunroom. This doubled the size of the kitchen and also gave me a lot more light. I had a home cake decorating business, so equipment storage had been a problem and countertop space had been limited. We also had to comply with local authority health specs.
What is your ideal kitchen? What would you improve, if you could?
My current home kitchen is fine, although I would like pull-outs in the cupboards. I have so many ingredient containers that I have to rearrange the cupboards and nearly have to stand on my head to find anything. My husband is currently on a mission to fix this and also build me a larder (pantry) cupboard. I’d love stainless steel countertops, but I don’t think that’ll happen any time soon.
What is your spice of choice?
This is not easy because I use so many in my baking, but if really pushed, I’d say cinnamon.
What chefs do you admire most?
I don’t really know a lot about the chefs here, although I have discovered Ace of Cakes and Buddy of Cake Boss. Being a baker and cake decorator, I really appreciate and respect their work. The chef I really admire is the one from my school who coached and mentored me and rearranged our school kitchen to accommodate a lefty. Thank you Mrs. Clarke.
What restaurants do you enjoy, other than your own?
For a Brit fix, we go to McBains for good old fish and chips. Pine Tavern in Bend is great, and La Magie has the most amazing almond croissants.
Favorite room you like to eat your meals in?
Breakfast in bed! In the summer we eat outside for as many meals as we can. In England my house was right under Heathrow Airport’s flight path, so now I can sit outside, eat my meals and enjoy the peace and quiet. My favorite lazy thing is tea and toast and a good book which I curl up with in bed.
Best meal you’ve ever eaten in your life?
I ate at the Retired Servicemen League (RSL) in Port McQuarry, Queensland, Australia, and I had the best lamb in a red wine, rosemary sauce that just melted in your mouth. It was a four-course meal, for three Australian dollars! I’ve had many good meals, including one at the Raffle Hotel in Singapore, but nothing has come close to this meal I had in the RSL, and they were so hospitable, too.
Guilty food pleasure?
Any type of chocolate cake!
Best food book/novel or best cook book?
I have lots of British books, but I really like “The Cake Book” by Tish Boyle. Also, the BBC Good Food Magazine. (Sometimes it’s hard to convert British recipes because we weigh our ingredients, and here you measure things by cups.)
What do you like to do outside of the kitchen?
Although I haven’t done any since I moved over here, I’m a qualified dance teacher. I started when I was 7 and competed in ballroom, Latin and classical sequence. When line dance first hit the U.K., I qualified in that also. I’ve been so focused on the tearoom that I haven’t taken the time to do anything; I really need to find a class to attend. I also enjoy needlework and crafts. I quilt when I can find the time.
If you couldn’t be a chef, or in the food industry, what profession would you have chosen?
Along with my catering and cake business, I spent 25 years in finance, which I enjoyed, but what I really wanted to do was to teach needlework and crafts.
Favorite food quote, or philosophy you often repeat to yourself?
I was always told to never trust a skinny cook.
Contact AK’s Tea Room: 525 S.W. Sixth St., Redmond; 541-526-5522; or www.facebook.com/akstearoom
— Reporter: firstname.lastname@example.org