By Sasha Johns
Photos by Mary Tweedy
There’s breakfast. There’s lunch. There’s dinner. And then there’s afternoon tea. The two-hour luncheon event with friends in the historic Columbiana Inn—they suggest at least a party of four—will leave you feeling relaxed, well looked after and quite full.
But what exactly is afternoon tea? It was the brainchild of Anna, the Seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the early 1800s. Finding herself hungry by late afternoon because the custom of the time was to serve dinner between 8 and 9 p.m., the Duchess began ordering tea, fancy sandwiches and cakes to her room each day to help hold her over. Eventually, a guest or two was invited to join her, and naturally, the ladies of society took to it and afternoon tea parties became a “thing.”
By contrast, high tea, though its name leads most to believe it is the loftier event, was the common man’s tea. Served on high tables for the working class, it consisted of less pomp and more circumstance with eats and hot foods that would sustain those who had to go back to work were the items that made up high tea.
“It sounds like it would be just the opposite of what it is,” Hearts Desire Team Room and Columbiana Inn Owner Diane Moore says as she educated us, “but afternoon tea is the fancier, more luxurious meal.” And the meal that Diane provides for her guests almost can’t be contained by the word “fancy.”
Prompt arrival at Hearts Desire is paramount because once afternoon tea begins, it doesn’t slow down for two hours. Two decades into hosting a tea room, Diane plans her tea parties carefully. She reserves and serves only four tabletops at a time each day, so reservations must be made in advance. Those who are tardy might risk missing the tea course, which sets the whole event into motion.
Hearts Desire offers 18 loose leaf teas to each of its guests with flavors ranging from traditional Earl Grey to a jasmine variety called Buckingham Palace Garden Party. Fruity teas and seasonal teas can also be found on the list. Each attendee is brought their choice of a three-cup pot of tea. Once guests drink their first cup, they often share and swap tastings of each choice with the second cup.
As the tea begins to flow, the first course of food will begin arriving: Diane’s famous Panic Chicken Salad along with fruit and a small personal quiche. The first time she served tea, Diane was in a panic, having never made chicken salad before. The unusual curried delectable served in a crystal footed bowl, however, was a hit, and it ended up becoming one of the first signature items that Hearts Desire became known for.
As guests begin to finish the individual plates from the first course, Diane and her helpers deliver three-tiered stands full of the small sweets and savories that make up the second course. It would be an “absolute sin to have tea without a cucumber sandwich,” Diane will tell you. And that’s just what you’ll find as the centerpiece of the course, topped with its signature ribbon rose decoration, along two or three other colorful finger sandwiches. Around it, you’ll find sweets like cream cheese scones and fruit.
But don’t let yourself think that dessert is done then. The third course brings the signature Hearts Desire brownie, heart-shaped and topped with a chocolate-almond whip. Guests won’t regret it when “comfortably full” becomes “slightly uncomfortable,” and Diane will happily provide to-go boxes for the treats that just can’t possibly be managed before it’s time to go.
With each course, this leisurely and indulgent meal affords friends plenty of time to catch up and enjoy each other’s company without being rushed and feeling guilty for taking up space in a restaurant. While there may be other guests there, it’s easy to feel like your table is the only one in the house. Diane does her homework in advance, asking in advance about dietary needs and any special information she may need to know for each party too.
And we haven’t even gotten to the setting yet. The Columbiana Inn, which houses the tea room in its front parlor, is its own thing to behold. It was originally built by Clarence Dubose in 1889, who was at one time the editor of the Shelby County Sentinel, now known as the Shelby County Reporter. Though it now has six guest rooms, the fully restored Victorian was once a small one-room structure. In the early 1900s, the Pitts family purchased the home and built it up to a second floor. Over the better part of the next century, it took on many forms of home for many people. It even served as a boarding house for student teachers in the 1920s.
By the time Diane and her husband, Andrew, became the owners, the inn had fallen into disrepair. Five years of love and commitment to restoration later though, they’d brought the home back to its former glory even as they walked through experienced open heart surgery for Andrew and the loss of Diane’s mother. In the early years of the renovation, the tea room was located at their 1879 Victorian home in Wilsonville, The Densler House. “There were often hard days during those years,” Diane told us, “but as soon as my feet hit the first step on tea party days, everything felt a little lighter for a while.”
Guests often ask to peek at the rest of the home when tea is over, and Diane happily obliges when there aren’t bed and breakfast guests that might be disturbed. “It really is a charming house,” she says. “It’s just home to Andrew and me, but I can understand why they’d want to see more of it when they visit.”
Reservations at Hearts Desire Tea Room, 306 East College Street in Columbiana, are accepted Wednesday through Saturday and can be made by calling 205-669-1450. Guests are invited to dress in vintage hats, gloves and boas to enhance the experience. Learn more about the tea room and the inn at columbianainn.com.
Signature Delectables That You Didn’t Know Your Heart Desired
- Panic Chicken Salad
- Cream Cheese Scones
- Cucumber Sandwiches
- Hearts Desire Brownie
The Teas of Hearts Desire
- Earl Grey
- Earl Grey Roobios
- Buckingham Palace Garden Party
- Formosa Gunpowder
- Blue Mango
- English Breakfast
- Lovers Leap
- Moroccan Madness
- Monk’s Blend
- Peaches ‘n Cream
- Pumpkin Spice
- Strawberry Shortcake
- Berry Berry
- Peach Apricot
- Chocolate Mint
A Culinary Tour
The regional fame that Hearts Desire enjoys is now being celebrated on a larger scale with its writeup in Monica Tapper’s book, A Culinary Tour Through Alabama History, which was released on Oct. 4. Hearts Desire Tea Room will be hosting a book signing with the author on Nov. 14. Guests can come by for a peek of the tea room and a visit with the author that day from 2 to 4 pm.