After ten years of teaching middle school students, Natasha Robson-Lovato never expected to open a tea house. But wanting to bring the flavor and culture of her native South Africa to Seattle, this self-taught baker continues to be an educator of sorts in introducing Cederberg Tea House customers to Koeksisters, Melkterts, Hertzogs, and other treats.
How did it happen? Robson-Lovato wanted afternoon tea in lieu of dinner for her wedding ceremony, but quickly realized there weren’t caterers doing proper afternoon tea in Seattle. Undaunted, she and her mother, Cecile Robson, prepared it. They purchased all the plateware, and realizing it was a big investment, started to do catering of their own. Tired of constantly wrapping, “schlepping” (the word works in Afrikaans), and unwrapping all the fragile pieces, Robson-Lovato and her mother decided to scout locations for a tea house, and settled for a spot at the top of Queen Anne Hill.
Asked why there are so few South African restaurants, Robson-Lovato says they are humble people who do a lot of homemade cooking and feel “we don’t have anything cool.” Cool or not, what Robson-Lovato sells is truly unique. The tea house is named after the region where rooibos tea was first harvested, and Cederberg is perhaps the only place in the United States that pulls rooibos tea through an espresso machine to make a variety of drinks. (In fact, rooibos is often called “red espresso.”) The tea, which is caffeine-free and full of antioxidants, serves as a nice balance to the South African sweets—and note that South African people are known for having quite the sweet tooth. The sweets are marked by a love of coconut (Indian trade influence), apricot jam (apricots are abundant in South Africa), and sugar.
Noting that South Africans enjoy formal tea service, Robson-Lovato had thoughts about setting up a “proper” tea house, but recognized a different dynamic in America. So she came up with a hybrid. Everyone orders at the counter. Customers can get beverages to go. But those who stay get to sit down and have their tea delivered on a tray. With each drink comes a cookie. “It’s a treat for staying,” Robson-Lovato explained, adding “I wanted to create an environment where people spoke to each other.” Sit, chat, and relax is the goal, reinforced by the quote from Bernard-Paul Heroux which appears at Cederberg’s Facebook page: “There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea.”
Continue reading for a look at some of the sweets and drinks at Cederberg Tea House.
The Tipsy Tart ($2.50) is a date tart soaked in brandy syrup that’s warmed up and topped with fresh whipped cream. It’s presented here with a Rooibos Fresh ($3.95), made with two shots of rooibos pulled through an espresso machine, plus apple juice. The rooibos adds an earthy, grassy quality to the cold juice.
Malva Pudding ($3.00) is like a sponge cake, albeit caramelized. It contains apricot jam, with additional sweetness from a pour of syrup made from butter, fresh cream, sugar, and vanilla. A fork pierce makes the syrup start to seep out, just as it’s starting to do in the photo. Malva pudding is usually made in a large pan or sheet tray and cut into slices, but like other desserts at Cederberg, it’s individually sized.
Hertzog ($2.50) is named for a 20th century leader of South Africa. These very sweet koekies (cookies), made in a muffin tin, start with a soft and airy shortbread crust, add apricot jam filling, and finish with a coconut meringue topping.
Melktert ($3.75) is “milk tart” in Afrikaans, and is made with a shortbread crust that is a little harder than the Hertzog crust. The creamy filling resembles egg custard, but has less egg and more milk. On top is a generous sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar. South Africans in Seattle are excited to see this available at the tea house.
Like the Rooibos Fresh, the Rooibos Latte ($3.95) is made with rooibos tea that’s ground (not too fine) and pulled through an espresso machine. It has layers of honey and cinnamon (the honey complements the natural sweetness of the rooibos), and, like all of the beverages served at Cederberg, comes with a shortbread cookie.
Natasha calls the Koeksister ($1.95) “a mission to make.” This braided doughnut is fried in oil, and while still hot, immediately dunked in cold, sweet syrup that sits in an ice bath. The syrup soaks through to the middle of the koeksister so that each bite oozes juiciness. Some like to eat it almost frozen.
The Romany Cream ($0.65) is the Oreo of South Africa. Children grow up with this ubiquitous, dunkable cookie, elevated from the boxed version. With coconut-chocolate cookies on the outside and milk chocolate wedged in between, it’s dry and gritty and begging for milk—or a rooibos latte.
It’s not all sweets at Cederberg. The Sausage Roll ($2.95) is puff pastry filled with beef and pork sausage, drawing not only South African fans, but Aussies and Brits who crave this treat from home. Other savories include a variety of quiches as well as tea sandwiches (such as curry chicken, cucumber cream cheese, and egg salad) with the ends cut off, naturally.
Here’s a peek inside Cederberg Tea House, named for the region in South Africa that’s the original source of rooibos.
(Originally published here at Serious Eats on July 10. Note that First Looks do not evaluate the quality of the food, but just give an initial glimpse.)