I recently visited the West. It was springtime in the desert, with cactus blooming, coral streaked sunsets and tea.
The plane touched down to a blustery and hot ninety plus degrees in the late afternoon. It was going to be a hot visit to Phoenix. Land of cowboys, lizards, rattle snakes, scorpions, and saguaro cactus. I was checking in on extended family, and catching up on lost time that the last two years have claimed. The plan was to be out sightseeing in the morning, and staying indoors in the heat of the afternoon.
The city of Phoenix is the capital of the state of Arizona. It is at an elevation of over one thousand one hundred seventeen feet. Phoenix and the surrounding areas average approximately nine inches of rainfall annually. The region is prone to flash flooding due to poorly draining soil. The number of days with precipitation is an average of thirty three days. The total number of sunny days in the Phoenix area amounts to two hundred and ninety nine days. Arizona is divided into four distinct desert regions; the Sonoran desert, Painted desert, Mojave desert, and the Chihuahuan desert. Phoenix is considered a low desert area in the Sonoran Desert region, and considered one of the hottest deserts in the United States.
While tea plants can flourish in high altitudes with warm days and cool nights, it is the lack of rain water and moisture in the desert that prohibits them from successfully growing. The terrain is not conducive to growing tea plants. Camellia sinensis plants need a moist, and tropical environment in order to thrive. Tea plants need several feet of rain annually, and they need well drained soil. The desert is not the place to cultivate tea plants.
However, there is a different tea that can be found growing in the desert of Phoenix. The region is home to cactus tea. There are numerous cacti growing in the Sonoran desert. One of the cacti found in the desert is the Saguaro cactus. It can grow upwards of forty five feet, and can grow roughly two hundred years. It is the only place in the United States that this cactus grows wild. It is a protected plant and thus illegal to cut down the cactus. Local governmental agencies would need to be notified if property owners would like to move a Saguaro cactus. While Saguaro cacti are stately, unique and the centurion of the desert, it is another cactus that is the supplier of this specific desert tea.
The Prickly Pear cactus is just that, very prickly. When I was taking photographs of the cactus, I had to be extremely mindful of the thorns located throughout the cactus. The cactus is a member of the Cactaceae cactus family, and in the Opuntia genus. It grows in arid regions in the world. There are three parts to the cactus; the flowers, the fruit, and the paddle style stems called nopales. All three parts of the cactus are edible but it is the fruit that is used for the tea. The fruit can grow ranging in size from a small apricot to a large kiwi. Their color varies from a green-yellow to a dark magenta color. The fruit from this cactus is called a prickly pear or a tuna. Sweetness from this fruit depends on the time of ripening. A shorter ripened state will cause the fruit to be less sweet, and possibly more tart. The longer ripening time can produce a sweet, and more floral note to the flavor profile. The prickly pear, or tuna, fruit is used to make a simple syrup that is then used to make tea. The prickly pear tea that I tried was tangy, a wonderfully balanced blend of tart yet sweet, and had a floral aroma and flavor as well. I drank the tea hot (yes, even in one hundred degree weather). I think it would be refreshing as a cold, iced tea as well.
I saved up for a special treat and as a research project for this blog. I had reservations for afternoon tea at the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale. There are times I wish I lived near a fancy hotel, or upscale tea parlor. For I know I would have a formal afternoon tea every day, if I could. I would have to store my memories of this afternoon tea in my mind and on my phone. This was a special treat, a once in a while event.
I arrived at the resort, with a view of breathtaking grounds. The flowers, the manicured golf courses, and the lavish poolside areas were astounding. After walking around the grounds, waiting for my appointed tea time, it was time to go inside and cool down. The inside of the resort is a study in purposefulness, attention to detail, and superb execution of design plans. I gleefully found the afternoon tea area and let the hostess know I was there for tea. I was seated near a grand piano, and overlooking the Camelback mountains outside. It was a classic, opulent, but not overdone decor. The tans, golds, creams and browns of the interior seemed to meld with the exterior colors of the mountain vista outside. If this was any indication of food and tea to come; I was truly in for a pleasant afternoon.
The table was elaborately set with china and a vase of flowers. I liked the china pattern but did not want to appear gauche and turn over the china setting to find out the china pattern and maker. I also had to really step up my table manners regarding eating finger sandwiches and scones. Just a quick reminder on how to eat a scone correctly; break, lift or cut the scone into two pieces, top and bottom halves. From this point the scone can either be eaten one half at a time or a piece can be broken off one at a time for each bite of scone. It is incorrect to break the scone all at once into bite size pieces, leaving a pile of scone pieces on the plate. The order of jam, lemon curd, and clotted cream is specific. Jam and lemon curd are placed on the scone half or the scone piece, then the clotted cream is spread on top of the jam or lemon curd.
The tea that I selected was an Earl Grey black tea. I thought the spicy citrus in the tea would pair with the food. I received a big pot of steaming tea and enjoyed my first cup of tea while listening to the piano player and waiting for the first course of food. The plate of finger sandwiches was placed before me. Each sandwich was expertly crafted and appealing. I had a classic cucumber sandwich, a hickory smoked salmon sandwich, an egg salad sandwich, a lemon and thyme chicken salad sandwich, and an asparagus wrapped in a garlic mousse and Parma ham sandwich. I had a full hour and a half for the tea, and was planning to savor each and every bite while taking the entire time for tea.
I was lingering over the tea sandwiches, enjoying the view outside and listening to the piano. The tea was hot, the finger sandwiches were delicious, and the service was impeccable. As soon as I was done with the sandwiches, my used plate was whisked away and a plate of scones was brought out for me to enjoy. There was a classic plain scone and a cranberry scone on the plate. The scones were light, fluffy, and warm. I prefer lemon curd over jam, and the lemon curd was just how I like the curd to be. It was tangy, citrusy and thick; not sour, and thin or watery. I placed a dollop of Devonshire cream on top of the lemon curd and relished every bite of both scones. The lemon curd was so delicious, I would have loved to eat the remaining curd with a spoon but choose to restrain myself and practice my table manners.
Dessert followed the scones, and were brought out as soon as the scone plate was cleared from the table. I was in awe in the amount of time it must have taken to prepare each tiny, hand crafted dessert. On the plate were seven unique, miniature bite size pieces of decadence. On the plate was a macaroon, a shortbread, a fruit tartlet, a chocolate dipped strawberry, a mango mousse tartlet, a coffee opera cake, and a chocolate bavarois cake. The attention to detail was amazing. Each dessert was evenly spaced on the plate. In addition, the desserts were delicately secured on the plate with an edible paste, to ensure the desserts would not slide around on the plate in transit. The plate of dessert was almost too pretty to dismantle and eat. But, I forged ahead and leisurely consumed each and every morsel of delectable dessert.
The teapot was empty, the afternoon tea delicacies were consumed. I sat and listened to the piano player create a symphony of music with just a keyboard. I could get used to afternoon tea everyday, or at least every week. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and was reluctant to leave. Alas, all fabulous meals do come to an end. It was time for me to leave the confines of afternoon tea and all of its finery. My afternoon tea was over and it was back to heat, desert landscapes and the hustle and bustle of afternoon rush hour traffic. I am already looking forward to another day where I can experience another scrumptious afternoon tea.
May you experience a moment of blissfulness, and scrumptiousness with an afternoon tea that either you create or locate elsewhere,
About The Author
Leslie Sundberg is a World Tea Academy Certified Tea Specialist, a World Tea Academy Apprentice Tea Sommelier, a Specialty Tea Institute Level IV trained Tea Specialist, and a Tea and Business Etiquette Specialist. On any given day, Leslie can be found teaching, speaking or sharing in the joys of a cup of tea. No matter what Leslie is doing or where she is, one thing remains constant: 4:00 in the afternoon is tea time!