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Saturday 17 March 2018

Anyone for a genteel taste of the old days?

A young mother is following in a grand tradition with her new venture, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan

THE old-fashioned afternoon tea is very popular in London and Dublin, and is now proving very popular in Killarney, thanks to the arrival of Miss Courtney's Tearooms in the Kerry town.

The custom of afternoon tea goes back to the early 19th century and is generally attributed to Anna, Seventh Duchess of Bedford. The duchess, who complained of "having that sinking feeling" during late afternoon, used to take tea and a snack in her boudoir to see her through to dinner. At that time, it was usual for the upper classes to take only two main meals a day, breakfast in the morning and dinner at 8pm. Ere long the duchess's practice of an afternoon snack in her boudoir was moved to the drawingroom with invitations for friends to come and join her before walking in the garden or taking a fashionable promenade in Hyde Park.

Traditional afternoon tea is still serious business in hotels and in some big department stores. In top notch places in London such as the Ritz Hotel, you are advised to book 12 weeks in advance, and it will set you back £38. The Dorchester charges £33.50 whilst afternoon tea for two in Harrods' Georgian Restaurant is £55 -- and you can take home a doggy bag of uneaten pastries.

In the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, afternoon tea costs €29.50. The Westbury Hotel also has afternoon tea for €26.50, or €31 for a chocolate indulgence afternoon tea, and in the Gresham afternoon tea will cost you €18.

In Miss Courtney's in Killarney, it is €16 for one, and €28 for two people.

A pretty precise affair, afternoon tea traditionally commences with delicate brown and white finger sandwiches, not a crust in sight, filled perhaps with egg, prawn, smoked salmon, chicken, and cucumber. Warm scones follow with jam and clotted cream, and finally a variety of luscious pastries and maybe fruit cake. You should also, of course, have a choice of loose leaf teas -- from Assam to Earl Grey to Lapsang Souchong.

Miss Courtney's Tearooms is the brainchild of mother of two, Sandra Dunlea, a 30-year-old occupational therapist by profession who worked in the Department of Psychiatry in St James' Hospital in Dublin for a number of years. When Sandra was expecting her first child, Anna, she headed home to Killarney two weeks before the birth to make sure her baby was born in the Kingdom. Sandra then didn't want to leave her native county.

When you come from a line of savvy business women, you are never going to be someone to just sit around.

Sandra's great-aunt, Miss Margaret Courtney, first opened the doors of her confectionery, tea and grocery shop at No 8 College Street in in Killarney in 1909. On her death, Sandra's grandmother, Peg Fleming, and subsequently her mother, Yvonne Quill, ran, a cafe and bakery in the premises until 1999. The business had always passed down through the female side of the family but even up to six months before she opened, Sandra was adamant she wasn't doing it.

However, what will be will be and, in 2008, the fourth female generation re-opened the doors of 8 College Street as Miss Courtney's Tearooms. In July, Sandra had the satisfaction of holding a fantastic old-fashioned tea dance with Thirties swing and lindy hop to celebrate 100 years of the family "tea" business.

Miss Courtney's Tearooms is pretty and interesting. The stripped floorboards are painted white, the tables are covered in the prettiest of vintage table cloths, and the place is awash with gorgeous china tea sets, teapots, and tiered afternoon tea stands, glistening under chandeliers. Sandra's grandfather was very big into photography so the family also had a huge collection of fabulous black and white glamorous photos of family and friends at parties and events. Heretofore, these treasures were packed away, safe but unseen, now they adorn the walls for everyone to enjoy.

Sandra says her grandmother was very precise and ladylike and always used china cups but nowadays so many china tea sets lie unused in cupboards, under stairs and in attics. Sandra likes using antique items generally and has quite a collection of old china tea pots, tea sets, hand-embroidered table cloths, tea strainers, cake plates and fabrics, some of which she bought in London. Indeed, she even drives a vintage 1968 Mk 11 Jaguar car, which she adores, and which also takes two baby seats now that she also has new baby Jake.

Since the opening of Miss Courtney's, many people have brought in their china tea sets and embroidered cloths, which all have a history, as they prefer to see them in use rather than gathering dust.

Sandra's first winter of Miss Courtney's Tearooms, coincided, of course, with the global financial collapse but she says she "kept it very tight -- it was not an existing business that had been used to lashing out money". The Tearooms proved popular with tourists last summer, but importantly, locals love it also, with some bringing in their families to show them where they used to go as children. Some older folk even remember Sandra's great-aunt, the original Miss Margaret Courtney. It has become a place to gather and Sandra is planning some projects including establishing a book club focusing on old literature, as she has a large collection of antiquarian books, as well as a story morning for pre-school children, and a knitting club.

It is not just 'afternoon tea' at Miss Courtney's but light breakfasts such as eggs and soldiers, waffles, and Eggs Benedict, sandwiches, salads and soup, at lunchtime, as well as Victoria sandwiches, frosted fairy cakes and the like. Sandra and her mother do most of the cooking from old family recipes and, failing that, use Gran's copy of Mrs Beeton's cookery book --what else!

No doubt the fifth generation, Anna, will learn it all at the knee of her mother and grandmother -- and no, she wasn't named after the Duchess of Bedford.

Sunday Independent

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