In 1912, the people of Japan gave 3,020 cherry trees to the people of America – by way of Washington, DC – in a show of international friendship. U.S. First Lady Helen Taft and the wife of the Japanese Ambassador planted the first two trees on the banks of the Tidal Basin. The promenade steadily grew in popularity, and the first official “Cherry Blossom Festival” was held in 1935. A small three-day affair at the outset, today the Festival has grown into a world-famous celebration spanning three weeks and attracting over one million visitors each year. The 2014 festivities got underway March 22 with a sold-out show at Warner Theatre and will culminate April 12 with a parade down Constitution Avenue.
To get into the spirit, Ferreting out the Fun style, we partook of a cherry blossom-themed afternoon tea at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel. Opened in 1847 and located one block from the White House, the Willard is as luxurious as it is historic. The hotel hosted the first-ever Japanese delegation to the United States in 1860 and has been visited by nearly every U.S. president since the 1850s. Ulysses S. Grant apparently used to hold court in the lobby, hence the term “lobbying,” or so the legend goes.
Afternoon tea is served in Peacock Alley, with the seasonal cherry blossom version available March 20 through April 13. A gentle backdrop of traditional music accompanied our tea, with a kimono-clad member of the Washington Toho Koto Society gracefully plucking a koto, a Japanese string instrument from the zither family.
We were presented with a tea menu soon after being seated, with the usual suspects ranging from Earl Grey and Darjeeling to Mint and Chamomile. To embrace the cherry blossom theme, I selected one of the two special blends available: the Japan Kirsch, a delicate green tea with hints of cherry and blackberry flavor. In an interesting innovation, a timer was placed on the table so I knew when my pot of tea was perfectly brewed.
Our tea treats were classically served on a three-tier tray, on china custom-made for the Willard. Cherries or Japanese flavors were playfully incorporated into each bite. Having learned from past mistakes, I started with the sweets on the top tray figuring I would like them least. While technically this turned out to be true, this tray was still a tasty arrangement. My favorite of the bunch was the red bean eclair, surprising since I don’t normally like that flavor. Here it was very subtle, letting the chocolate and flaky pastry shine through. I also enjoyed the crispy green tea shortbread and cherry cake seasoned with brandy. I only wish the latter had been bigger! The least popular flower in the bouquet was the cherry and cream parfait, which seemed to stand in for the Japanese moon cake listed on the menu but was missing in action.
From there I moved onto the scones, one made with dried cherries and the other with ginger. Both were buttery, crumbly and supremely soft. We were given an assortment of spreads to go with them, including a delightful cherry jam of which I mopped up every last drop.
Of the savory treats, I was most enamored of the smoked salmon with dill cream cheese on pumpernickel, with the dense piece of salmon providing an excellent mouth feel. The creamy tarragon chicken salad with dried cherries was packed with flavor and a close second. I also thoroughly enjoyed the robustness of the goat cheese roulade, complemented by tart cherries and peppery arugula. The egg salad tasted good, but I found it a bit starchy. I had to check the menu to see if it was actually egg or potato. While a few of these flowers didn’t fully open for me, this cherry-themed tea made for a blooming afternoon!
The Willard Intercontinental Address: 1401 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC Hours: Tea is served Friday - Sunday, 1pm to 4pm Price: Cherry Blossom Tea is US$48 per person; regular tea is US$45 or US$59 for tea with champagne *Reservations are recommended
Would you like to indulge in the fruity bouquet of this afternoon tea? Have you celebrated the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, DC?