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Reliving a bygone era in Flushing with a Victorian tea

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One of the loveliest of these places is the Voelker Orth Museum, Bird Sanctuary and Victorian Garden. It is a restored Victorian house bequeathed by its last owner, Elisabeth Orth, to an organization she founded in her will for the purpose of maintaining the property as a museum. It opened its doors to the public not quite two years ago, and welcomes visitors on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.The museum's glimpses back in time are not only of a theoretical nature. Visitors can relive a gracious bygone era by partaking of a Victorian afternoon tea. A tea at Voelker Orth begins with an initial sip of sherry in the parlour while viewing a PowerPoint presentation about the history of tea. The presentation is followed by house tour, a sumptuous tea with all the trimmings and a musical performance.In North America, tea was introduced to Manhattan around 1650, due to the Dutch influence of the Dutch West Indies Company. Peter Stuyvesant introduced tea to New Amsterdam, which became so popular that when the English took possession of the island of New York tea was already a part of life.Tea first reached England in 1663 when Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, our borough's controversial namesake. Part of her dowry was tea, and through her influence, tea became the fashionable drink at court. In 1706, Tom's Coffee House, established by Thomas Twining, began to concentrate primarily on tea, and unlike other the male dominated coffee houses and pubs these new Tea houses opened their doors to both genders, becoming an early precursor of women's liberation.The modern tea ritual's roots lie with a subject of Queen Victoria. Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford (1788-1861) was a lady in waiting to the queen. To counteract what Anna called a "sinking feeling" late in the afternoon she began asking her servants to bring tea with small cakes and pastries to her boudoir. Anna began sharing the small meal with her friends. She would send out invitations and receive the ladies in her dressing room. Victoria caught wind of the idea and quickly embraced it, and thus a tradition was born. By the late 1840s the Queen was having formal dress afternoon teas daily. This tradition led John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich to make his famous innovation of putting meats or other fillings between two pieces of bread. The tea sandwich was born!At Voelker Orth, the tea ritual is performed in its charming dining room. It begins with a choice of teas, accompanied by scones, clotted cream, marmalade and jams, all homemade from traditional recipes. The scones are followed by platters of sandwiches cut into the obligatory triangles with the crusts neatly trimmed. In keeping with tradition, there were fish salad sandwiches and cucumber sandwiches. Dessert inevitably follows, with chocolate truffles and pineapple upside down cake.After completing the tea ritual, Voelker Orth's guests are treated to a musical recital in the parlour. For the recent Feb. 26 tea, the performers were faculty and students of the Brooklyn-Queens Conservatory of Music. The cool jazz vocals with piano accompaniment were a touch anachronistic in that setting, but who cares? Like the Duke said, "if it sounds good, it is good." Instructor Norman Pors improvised on his instrument while Flossie Wilson and members of the "Jazz Works" vocal workshop interpreted jazz standards. The performances were powerful. The audience was transported from a Victorian parlour to a smoky jazz club. (Okay, maybe clubs aren't smoky anymore, but you get the idea.)Voelker Orth receives guests for tea monthly, by reservation. The cost is $30 per person. Teas are followed by a musical performance. Voelker Orth also will arrange private tea parties for six or more guests, and children's tea parties. Their other activities include Trivial Pursuit dinners, lectures on horticulture and neighborhood walking tours. Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger's restaurant critic, and author of "Eating Like Queens," a guide to the borough's gastronomic adventures published by Jones Books, available in June 2005. Email her at qnsfoodie@aol.com.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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