HUDSON: Angela Strach-Gotthardt serves up a freshly brewed cup of Darjeeling, cloaked in a little bit of mystery.
She created the Secret Tea Society as a way to engage women in lively conversation and to indulge her love of tea.
Perhaps it was putting the word “secret” in the group’s name that piqued the curiosities of so many, and fostered such a keen interest in the monthly gatherings held inside Strach-Gotthardt’s historical home just off Hudson’s town green.
She’s not quite sure what made her add the word, but acknowledges that by cultivating a little bit of intrigue, she hit upon the right formula to make her salons a success.
It’s not easy to get behind the curtain of this secret society, to lift the veil that covers the oolong and Earl Grey. This isn’t a club you can join. Membership is spread quietly from friend to neighbor to sister and always with the approval of Strach-Gotthardt.
Member Mary Lohman of Hudson said she often is asked about the society and has managed to get a few friends admitted to salons. “I have had many people ask me, ‘What do you talk about?’ and ‘Who was there?’ ” she said.
Men, at least for now, are forbidden, although she has been getting so many requests she may plan an event for men at some point.
Somewhere between 50 and 75 women have attended one of these salons, making them members of the Secret Tea Society. Some come every month, others every now and then. And Strach-Gotthardt doesn’t think there’s room for too many more, which is why she’s now opening up about her world of tea, letting the secret out, if you will, in hopes that others will consider starting similar societies of their own. She’s only too happy to show them how.
Strach-Gotthardt’s youngest son was a senior in high school when this married mom began mulling what she would do as an empty-nester. She had spent her entire life working in fashion — first in New York for Donna Karan and Escada, and after returning home to Ohio, teaching at Kent State University’s Fashion School.
All of her thoughts, though, seemed to keep returning to tea. She daydreamed about opening a tea house one day. Her fondest memories of childhood seemed to center on a pot of tea.
The 53-year-old grew up in Akron’s North Hill, a child of German immigrants. Tea was an integral part of their day, particularly on Sunday. The day’s big meal was served at noon, but every Sunday at 5 p.m., the family would partake in a traditional German supper of breads, cold cuts, pickles, radishes, and other cold fare, always accompanied by pots of steaming black tea.
When traveling to Germany to visit relatives, Strach-Gotthardt said, some of her favorite times were sitting in a cafe with her grandmother, having tea and dessert.
Then she happened upon a magazine article about a man who was taking a world tea tour, and her interest turned to research. She began studying tea, eventually attending seminars by the World Tea Association.
A few times each year, she travels to study with tea masters, learn blending techniques and visit the lands where tea is grown, including her most recent trip to Taiwan last fall. She is Ohio’s first tea specialist certified by the Specialty Tea Institute.
“I really wanted to be able to really, really understand it,” she said.
About 18 months ago, Strach-Gotthardt wanted to share her love of tea with others and invited a few friends over for a tea party.
“I called five or six women, and I just said ‘I want you to come over and have tea with me and I’ll tell you my idea, and see if it’s crazy or wonderful,’ ” she said.
That idea involves serving tea, a dessert, a presentation on tea or another topic that interests Strach-Gotthardt, and finally, a structured discussion based on a specific topic that she prepares for each salon.
“I just really wanted to make it special. It wasn’t meant to be a secret. It’s just I really feel that women have so much to offer and so much is expected of us and we’re always doing for others, and this is just a little secret time to sit down … to sneak away,” she said.
Before the conversation begins, the focus is always on the tea — fostering a love of the beverage and exploring its many varieties and complexities. Strach-Gotthardt brews three kinds for each meeting, and members spend time sniffing leaves, examining each brew and talking about its flavors and strengths. The teas are a variety of flavors of herbal, citrus, oolong, black, or Darjeeling (Strach-Gotthardt’s personal favorite).
Lohman said she began learning about tea while studying in England, and said the idea of combining good conversation with tea was something that really appealed to her.
“I really enjoy learning about different types of tea. It’s definitely like a little seminar on tea, because Angela is so knowledgeable. And I definitely have tried teas that I would never have tried before,” she said.
An ophthalmology consultant, Lohman typically attends the evening salons after work. She favors black tea, but won’t drink it at night because of the caffeine. “It has forced me to come out of my tea comfort zone and try decafs and herbal teas and I’ve really enjoyed them tremendously,” she said, noting a mango-orange fruit tea blend she recently tried. “I would not have tried that on my own.”
Member Anne Cutchin, also of Hudson, said Strach-Gotthardt’s presentations on tea are fascinating, and as a coffee drinker she is enjoying her transformation to tea enthusiast. “I don’t really even know if I am a tea drinker, but I’m discovering tea. I have tea every day now and I love the dessert,” she said.
Members pay $15 to attend a salon, and Strach-Gotthardt also sells pouches of the teas she acquires in her travels. The money mostly covers the cost of the tea, the dessert, and paying a server to pour throughout the conversation. She holds two or three salons each month, in the morning and evening, with about 20 women attending each.
Women gathering for tea and conversation is a centuries-old idea, but Strach-Gotthardt is clear that this isn’t a group for gossip. While the discussions are not necessarily political, they are thought-provoking and conversation-sparking. “It’s a modern-day version of the old salons of Paris at the turn of the century,” she said.
The first salon’s discussion topic was this: “Some time ago, the government of Bhutan mandated that its government should ‘create an environment where citizens have an opportunity for happiness.’ Gross national happiness — can you envision such a concept for our society? Is there a path we, as a country, can take to come to that end? What might it be? Is happiness an American phenomenon?”
The women break up into smaller groups, drink tea and with the help of a moderator in each group, tackle the given subject.
Cutchin said she was pleasantly surprised by the wonderful mix of women who attend. “I think I expected more of an old-fashioned tea. I might have expected it to be stodgier than it ended up being, with more the ritual of drinking tea and holding our pinkies out,” she said. “I’ve just met new and fascinating people every time I’ve gone.”
Lohman said the conversation is as interesting as the tea blends, “I love the conversation just as much [as the tea] and the camaraderie, the spirit and the energy that is generated by getting women together to discuss a topic.”
Strach-Gotthardt believes the group brings together smart, savvy women to enjoy tea and share thoughts and ideas that otherwise would never be mined.
The moderator makes sure that everyone participates and that all opinions get equal airing. No one has ever left in tears, but there have been emotional discussions that members are still talking about. “If you are still thinking about it, I see that as a good thing,” Strach-Gottthardt said.
Friends in New York and elsewhere have asked Strach-Gotthardt when she plans to start her society in other cities, but her goal is for others to be inspired to start their own. “What I really want people to do is to promote, to share their love of tea with their own friends and if they want to start their own secret tea societies, it will be very easy,” she said.
While the society is really more of a hobby, Strach-Gotthardt is moving toward a business to host public salons later this year and plans to sell tea, pots and accessories on her website.
The real secret, she said, is just how special having tea with a group of women can be.
“I sort of feel like everything I’ve done in my whole life has brought this idea together,” she said. “I like to get to know people. When I meet them, I ask a lot of questions and I find out really interesting things. Women get a bad name for being gossipy or catty, and if we let ourselves go there, we find out really amazing stuff. That’s sort of the idea.”
For those who are feeling inspired, Strach-Gotthardt is willing to share her ideas. Visit her website at www.secrettea society.com or check out her list of upcoming public events.
Here are recipes for a favorite dessert she serves at salons, wine-poached pears with German cinnamon flower cookies.
SECRET TEA SOCIETY ZIMT
BLUMEN (CINNAMON FLOWERS)
3 to 4 cups ground almonds
7 egg whites
2¾ cups powdered sugar
1 tbsp. cinnamon
Juice and zest of one lemon
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
Beat egg whites on high until stiff. With a spatula, fold in lemon zest and lemon juice, and then fold in sugar.
Set aside ⅓ of this mixture for garnishing tops of cookies before baking.
Fold in ground almonds. Add first 3 cups, and then add more if needed. Batter should be firm, dense and fairly dry.
Form into a ball and let rest for 15 minutes.
Roll out a small amount about ¼- to ⅜-inch thick.
Cut out with flower cookie cutter. Put dollop of the sweetened egg white meringue in center of cookie.
Bake in preheated oven for 20 to 30 minutes.
Once cooled, taste. Cookies should be chewy in the center. Adjust your baking time for subsequent batches. If first batch isn’t chewy in center, bake for a shorter time.
Makes about 5 dozen cookies.
— Adapted by Angela Strach-Gotthardt
SECRET TEA SOCIETY
1 magnum (1.5 liter) Cabernet Sauvignon or 2 (750 ml) bottles
½ gallon good-quality orange juice
2 cups sugar, or more or less to taste
Cinnamon, to taste
Allspice, to taste
Cloves, to taste
8 to 12 ripe pears, such as Bartlett, peeled and left whole with stems intact
Combine first six ingredients in large pot and set aside. Carefully drop pears into the poaching liquid.
Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to low and simmer.
The pears will bob about. With a wooden spoon, rotate the pears every 5 minutes or so, to ensure the pears are evenly poached and the poaching liquid covers them evenly.
Once the pears are easily pierced with a sharp knife, turn off heat. The pears will continue to poach while the liquid cools.
Allow the pears to rest for several hours for the color of the liquid to absorb.
Once cooled, cut the bottom off each pear so it will stand up on its flat end.
When ready to serve, remove from liquid, stand each pear upright on a dessert plate. Garnish with a dollop of whipped cream, which can be sweetened and flavored with a touch of rum or Grand Marnier if desired.
Serve pears with a Zimt Blume (cinnamon flower) cookie.
For best results, poach pears several hours before serving. If kept refrigerated, poached pears can be made up to 3 days ahead of time. The poaching liquid can be consumed as Glüwine, a spiced wine commonly served hot in Alpine skiing villages, but which also can be served cold over ice.
Makes 8 to 12 servings.
— Adapted by Angela Strach-Gotthardt
Lisa Abraham can be reached at 330-996-3737 or at email@example.com.