If the idea of finger sandwiches and a proper cup of tea, poured from an elegant teapot into a fine bone china cup makes you smile, then, quick, make a date for afternoon tea at Miss Courtney’s Tea Rooms in Killarney where Sandra Dunlea is serving tea in serious style.
Where did the inspiration to open Miss Courtney’s Tea Rooms come from? My great aunt, grandmother and mother had all run their businesses from this shop and during a career break from OT, when I took some care off to have my first child, I decided I’d like to reopen the business and run a little tea shop that would give me the flexibility to be with my daughter and do something I love. Ever since I was a teenager, working behind the counter with mum and my grandmother, I had the picture in my head of the kind of tearooms I would love to run. I’ve always loved nostalgia and vintage style, so I decided it was now or never. I went for it and had Miss Courtney’s Tea Rooms (names after my great aunt) open about 5 weeks later.
You have a great reputation for hosting interesting events? Any good ones lately? We’ve done some lovely events, jazz nights, and a tea dance for the family’s 100th birthday in business, a lindy hop night. We did a pop-up tearoom for a visiting Nobel Prize winner in Tralee IT. That was very prim and proper and I loved it! We also catered a small wedding which was extremely memorable. I arrived at Cleggan Pier to get the ferry to Inisboffin Island. I am quite petite and had 4 boxes of china, a wedding cake, 200 cupcakes, tablecloths etc etc and the lovely ferryman picked me up and came to my aid. He sorted out about 15 boxes and ushered me on board. I then had so much fun there I forgot to go home, and spent several memorable days and late nights there.
What’s your favourite thing on the menu? I love afternoon tea, it just looks pretty and it feels indulgent. I love the traditional three-tiered stand arriving to the table and I frequently do that with my girlfriends. My favourite cake is a flourless chocolate and brandy cake, my mum makes it and it’s close-your-eyes-in-delight good.
Where did your passion for afternoon tea come from? I’ve always loved it, I loved old movies as a child and I guess afternoon tea feels a little like make believe with all the pretty dresses and pretty food. Everything is small and delicate and slow and it just feels indulgent. I used to visit an old friend of my grandparents in Dublin as a child and she would take me to The Westbury or the Shelbourne for afternoon tea. I remember it cost £5 and I felt very refined being there. My mum and I did the same on trips to London and now I still love it with my own children. I grew up in a house where my grandmother was very particular – china and silverware were used daily, three courses were prepared for lunch every day and even though we had a professional bakery on site, she still baked and prepared everything for the family herself. Baking was a serious passion in our house, my mother was and is a talented baker and I adore it myself.
Have you always loved vintage? Is your home vintage too? Yes I was a complete nostalgia nerd as a child; my granddad always said I belonged in a different era. I am drawn to style and music from the 20s and 50s. My home is eclectic, lots of vintage styles and antiques mixed with some more modern items. I love old things and details; I would always choose old and reclaimed materials where possible, mainly because they just make me happy. My most treasured possession outside of my family is a collection of antiquarian books I inherited from my great grandfather and grandfather. Next in line is a vintage Mark 2 Jag that I love and adore. It makes me happy every time I drive it regardless of my mood.
Where do you buy all your lovely china and bits and pieces for the tea rooms? Initially I had a big collection myself of china just because I loved it; I also bought a lot of it in London where I lived prior to opening the tearooms. Now it’s a lot harder because tearooms have sprung up all over the country. I have a supplier in Dublin and I pick up things in auctions as I need them.
Yourself and your husband are both in the food business – how to do you balance work and life? I’m an occupational therapist by profession specialising in mental health; I wrote my thesis on lifestyle balance so in theory I’m an expert! In reality, it takes a lot of hard work to make everything work. I rely on my staff and I spend as much time as possible with my children. I avoid childcare where possible. Romance with hubby, that’s a work in progress. I would say I’m better at balance than him. We used to dance (lindy hop) three times a week when we lived in London. That’s on the wish list to start up again …
If you weren’t in the food business what would you be doing? I practice occasionally as an occupational therapist- I love it and I always want to maintain my skills. Outside of that, in another lifetime I would love to design clothes. I love to sew and make things, I’m creative by nature.
What places or experiences are on your foodie wish list? This is a bizarre one, but a few years ago I watched Mrs. Beeton’s Flying Picnic, a program where they flew to various locations and recreated her famous picnic for 40. I want to do that! I’ll bake, cook and prepare if someone wants to fly me. Of course it will end on an idyllic lawn with sunshine, parasols, handsome gents, china, crystal and the prettiest dresses to be found.
Any inspiring reads to recommend for people with a passion for afternoon tea? The book is The Vintage Tea Party by Angel Adorée, a girl I crossed paths with a bit on the dancing scene in London and when she wrote this I knew it would be cool. I wish I had written it.
Miss Courtney’s Tearooms, No. 8 College Street, Killarney, Co. Kerry. 087 610 9500; firstname.lastname@example.org; misscourtneys.com
By Lizzie Gore-Grimes.