Albuquerque's New Mexico Tea Bar [NOW CLOSED] brews up tea and conversation during their weekend afternoon tea service. Owner David R. Edwards recommends selecting a flavorful loose-leaf tea to wow your guests at your own book-club circle. Seen here (clockwise) Ying Ming Tunnan, Blueberry Rooibos, and Sandía Spice Black Tea.

At your next book circle, relax with a New Mexico–style afternoon tea

Wealthy New Mexico arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan was known for hosting influential and informal gatherings of American and European artists, intellectuals, and writers at her charming home in Taos—a place described in the writings of salon attendee and novelist D. H. Lawrence. I can just imagine the thoughtful conversation circulating among such salon members as painter Georgia O’Keeffe, photographer Ansel Adams, poet Robinson Jeffers, and novelist Willa Cather. Now, I like to picture 21st-century ideas exchanged over tea and light fare in a welcoming New Mexican home.

In fact, I remember just such a time, when great friends of mine opened their house-gallery, in the lovely Victorian town of Silver City, for book-club gatherings and poetry readings. Listening to poems read aloud by Silver City poet and literary critic Sandy McKinney, author of Body Grief (The Bromley Bookstore, 2003), and Tom McCoy, author of Days Like These: A Gift for the Spirit (High Sierra Books, 2004), while delighting in tea and cookies, turned into quite the satisfying experience. It was a gift for the spirit; I cherish such days shared with inspiring local talent.

To create your own gathering with casual elegance, good food, and warm conversation, you must first decide if you want to serve afternoon tea or high tea. “A common misconception equates high tea with ‘fancy’ or ‘highbrow,’” says tea devotee David R. Edwards, owner of the New Mexico Tea Company and Tea Bar, in downtown Albuquerque. In the 18th century, explains Edwards, Anna Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, began the tradition of afternoon tea when she invited friends for what Americans think of as a late-afternoon snack. “Offerings included small sandwiches, sweets, tea, and lots of chatting,” Edwards explains. “High tea was actually what we in America call dinner, served at a dining-room table. Meats, cheeses, and other filling dishes accompanied ale and, perhaps, a cup of tea.”

In the relaxed ambiance of the New Mexico Tea Bar, enticing conversation and tea brew all weekend long, each Friday through Sunday. This modern afternoon tea includes scones baked from scratch and served with clotted cream and preserves; homemade blueberry muffins; and seasonal fruit sprinkled with nuts. “We also include madeleines and bite-size Italian-chocolate tea cakes with every tea-bar plate,” Edwards says. “The most popular item is our Tea for Two [including all of the above and a large pot of tea] for $10, served upstairs in our relaxing loft space, or [on our] cozy back patio on warmer New Mexico days.”

The small tearoom offers more than 150 varieties of tea from around the world—enough to satisfy any taste. Edwards also carries a selection of tisanes, or herbal teas, such as the naturally caffeine-free Godiva Rooibos (pronounced ROY-bos). At this tasteful stop, I find the perfect tea for my mother: several ounces of Rosie Earl Grey, a rich black tea with a hint of rose petals to invigorate the spirit and infuse her Southwestern home with floral notes. She’ll love it—and, knowing her, she’ll brew a pot for company.

I thoroughly enjoy my steaming cup of Assam Full Leaf, a splendid black tea. Best of all, tea’s healing antioxidants thrill my being to the bone. At home, I add agave nectar, a delicious natural sweetener.

A tea experience can impart casual elegance without all the fluff. “For an informal afternoon tea served at a book club, I recommend letting the guests serve themselves from a buffet table,” advises Edwards. Arrange your food items, book-themed decorations, and flowers on a large table with a tablecloth. To add an elegant touch, use a three-tiered serving tray for scones and sandwiches. Finally, the table(s) should be prearranged with utensils, cups and saucers, napkins, and condiments.

Flavorful loose-leaf tea brewed to perfection sets the tone of a tea party. “It’s hard to go wrong when using fresh loose-leaf tea,” emphasizes Edwards. “Your guests will be wowed by the flavor, whatever it is.” Tailor the tea to the experience you want to convey and get a feel for what your guests expect: Will they desire fruity teas, tea with milk and sugar, with lemon and honey, or plain tea? To heighten the experience, use good water. According to Edwards, “Filtered spring water is best. Never use distilled water, as it will give your tea a flat taste.”

Edwards, who has mastered the fine art of brewing and serving tea, offers a hassle-free serving strategy for your book-club gathering: Once your guests are seated, present each table with tea in a pot. If you have a small group, carefully pour each guest’s cupful. If there’s more than one table, allow the head of the table to serve the tea. “It’s important for the host’s style to come through,” Edwards hints, “and, therefore, many of the technicalities of how things are done should be a reflection of the host. The point of all this is the guests’ enjoyment . . . that is paramount!”

After turning in this article, Wendy Sue Gist retired to a cozy corner of her yurt with a hot cup of tea and a good book.

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” —C.S. Lewis