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It's Tea Time, Dude

Annie Vergara has enjoyed afternoon tea the fancy way. During a trip to London, where high tea is a tradition, the formally dressed server asked whether Vergara would like the tea or milk poured first. A true English tea-drinker knows the difference between the two, she was told.

Indeed, tea can be wonderfully polite and posh: Glistening silver teapots. Ornate cups. Scones, pound cake, and watercress sandwiches served on fine china. Pinkies held out at a jaunty angle. Or not.

Vergara has come up with a concept that puts a South Florida spin on the old English tradition. She calls it Hip High Tea, and she'll demonstrate her style Saturday at the Bread of Life Whole Foods Market in Aventura, where she works as a cooking instructor and special-events organizer. In this case "hip" means casual elegance, an array of sunny colors, a Florida feel, and a focus on healthier finger-foods.

At Vergara's tea parties, sprouts are a garnish, and guests can choose from hot tea poured from a yellow, Deco-style pot or iced peach hibiscus tea ladled into neon-green glasses topped with fresh mint sprigs. It's high tea suitable for poolside.

Vergara believes her twist on tradition provides a fun alternative for special occasions. "I think it's a real easy sort of weekend entertainment," she says. "A real healthy alternative to traditional beer and barbecue."

To prepare for Saturday's tea, Vergara first had to verse her staff on the new concept. So last week she had them set up a small buffet and set out a hip spread. It combined the elegance of a tea party presentation -- fresh flowers, cloth napkins, and a three-tiered tray of finger snacks -- with lively colors and trendier, lower-fat nibbling options.

Pinwheel-type sandwiches, for instance, were sliced from spinach and chili tortilla wraps, rather than from crustless bread. One sandwich was comprised of cucumber and cream cheese along with spinach leaves and roasted red pepper. But vegetarian fare wasn't the only option. Other sandwiches featured salmon spread with low-fat mayonnaise, and roast beef and Swiss cheese with horseradish.

Vergara says fruit is seldom used at traditional high tea affairs, but she added a plate full of strawberries dipped in chocolate. And the cheese tray included a five-layer English cheddar as well as an array of goat cheeses. Tall, twisty cheese-straws fanned out from a little container.

Pretty cookies, which came from a package, were made from whole wheat products.

After seeing the setup, Jan Vandervort, the store's associate team leader, was inspired to throw a Hip High Tea birthday event, rather than a Sunday afternoon cocktail party. She plans to serve caviar, cookies, cheese straws, and iced tea with mint around her pool. And maybe she'll toss in some rum drinks.

Vergara says the formal high tea is a wonderful tradition. It's a time to sit down, enjoy an afternoon snack, relax, and socialize. And it's a tradition that's easily tweaked to individual tastes and lifestyles. "It's just a more health-oriented take and a modern take on a traditional tea," Vergara explains. "I want it to be very relaxing. I don't want it to be formal. Make it fun."

And you don't even have to hold out your pinkie.

-- Patti Roth

Hip High Tea will be presented at the Bread of Life Whole Foods Market, 3565 NE 207th St., Aventura, at 4 p.m., Saturday, August 22. Admission is free. Several tea and tea-accessory vendors will also be on hand to provide tastings and information. Call 305-933-1543.


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