A Proper American-English Tea at Te House of Tea

I was first turned on to Branston Pickle by my lovely ex-mother-in-law, who spread the stuff on nearly everything she ate. Although they were all British, her sons didn't share her affinity for Pickle; I, on the other hand, was keen on it as soon as I tried it. You don't find the stuff used very often over here, although you can buy it at places like British Isles in Rice Village and the H-E-Bs with larger "international" sections.

So I was excited to see a sandwich on the menu at Te House of Tea (1927 Fairview, 713-522-8868) that featured a very simple, very English concoction that was essentially cheese on toast with Pickle on top. It was an American version of "cheese and pickle" and -- along with a pot of hot tea -- it sounded like the perfect way to spend a cold afternoon with nothing else in particular to do.

Te runs a special during the day whereby you can get a small pot of its organic tea (which will yield two full cups), half a sandwich, a cup of soup and two cookies for $8.78. It's not a steep price when you consider the provenance of most of the ingredients (Te buys as much of its food from local farmers markets as possible) and the fact that everything is made to order by owner Connie in Te's small kitchen. It's also the perfect amount of food for a light, mid-day meal.

I chose the Newton's Surprise for my tea selection -- a standard Chinese green tea that's blended with apple and mango -- to go along with my cheese and pickle. Lentil soup was the soup of the day and freshly-made vegan peanut butter cookies caught my eye in the bakery case. Wait, when did I turn into a vegetarian?!

Nevermind that, because everything was wonderful. Be warned, however, that it takes a while to get your food at peak times because, as mentioned, Connie makes everything herself. I waited nearly 40 minutes for my food, by which time I'd drained my pot of tea, which had been fruity and refreshing and slightly sweet, yet refreshingly astringent. Luckily, there's a help-yourself water station nearby.

But when the food finally arrived, the cheese had melted lusciously into the Pickle on the crusty French bread; I couldn't have been happier. The taste of Pickle is best described as HP Brown mixed with pickled vegetables: hints of nearly caramelized vinegar mix with warm spices like clove and nutmeg, which mingle with headier spices like garlic and mustard seed. It's thick and dark and completely wonderful when mixed with soft, warm cheese.

I recommend you try it for yourself, although stick to making cheese and pickle yourself at home or only sampling Te's sandwich. It's the closest I've had in Houston to the real thing, and Branston Pickle served elsewhere with food (like at the Stag's Head) tends to be an overpriced disaster.

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Katharine Shilcutt