Dear Blog Readers,
This week, Rome’s most famous tea rooms, Babingtons, celebrated their 125th anniversary at Villa Wolkonsky, the British Ambassador’s residence.
For those who have never heard of Babingtons, it is a Tea Room that serves a proper English Tea with scones, cakes and biscuits just at the foot of Rome’s Spanish Steps. On the other side of the steps is the Keats-Shelley House, dedicated to the Romantic Poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Keats died in the house in 1821 at age 25. The Tea Rooms were opened in 1893 by two young women Anna Maria Babington and Isabell Cargill for the English population in Rome to take their tea and read their newspapers.
Apparently, at the time, tea was only available at chemists’ shops. Babington’s soon became a favorite spot for Brits living in the Eternal City or for those passing through on the Grand Tour. The Grand Tour, a leisurely voyage to nations in Europe, including Italy and Greece to study everything from Renaissance art to ancient Greek and Roman culture, was once a tradition among the upper-class English. Venice, Florence and Rome were favored spots.
The Tea Rooms managed to survive World War I, eeked through the Depression, became popular among both fascists and anti-fascists in the 1930s and stayed open during World War II. According to Babington’s official history, in 1941 Isabel’s daughter Dorothy took her mother and children and fled to northern Italy. In their absence, three of the Italian employees Crescenza, Giulia and Anita used their own food rations to make nut croquettes, potato-flour bread, chick-pea-flour scones, and dried-chestnut flour cakes and kept the Tea Rooms running throughout the war. The only day Babington’s closed was when the allies entered Rome on June 5, 1944 and even then it was only for a few hours.
Over the years they have had their fair share of famous guests for tea including Audrey Hepburn, Liz Taylor, Princess Margaret, Bernardo Bertolucci, Burt Reynolds and Monica Belluci.
The party was a lovely affair with young hostesses wandering around in dresses decorated with triangular tea bags (I wonder what happens when you put those dresses in the wash?)
The less glamorous guests were invited to have their photo taken incognito with sunglasses and hats.
Then there was a giant cake with the number 125 on top and fresh raspberries sprinkled around the sides.
Tea in silver urns was served along with champagne. The glamorous British Ambassador, Jill Morris, delivered a few succinct words – which I promptly forgot – too much champagne, I suppose.
I did visit the Tea Rooms to see what all the fuss was about and it is a lovely place to stop and have afternoon tea. Unlike the Italian coffee bar where one stands and throws back a quick espresso or caffe’ macchiato, the Tea Room is a place where you can escape the chaos of Rome, sit calmly and enjoy a quiet conversation.
The tea, served in silver pots, is excellent – although at 14 euros a pot it better be – and the dainty biscuits are tasty. I love the little silver cat sitting on the tea pot.
Post-Script: Since I did not see them at the reception, I sent off an email with a few questions for Isabel Cargill’s great-grandchildren Rory and Chiara, who are now running the Tea Room.
Here is their response:
“We are truly proud and grateful to have been given the opportunity to work and promote what these two incredible women started back in 1893. It’s very challenging and exciting, Rome is not an easy city but Babingtons is a land mark and it is our duty to make sure this is never forgotten.
The book written for the 125th anniversary of Babingtons is dedicated to the 5th generation, so family business it is and should remain. It is virtually unheard of for a business to remain in the same family for this long. To be able to celebrate this event gives us even more drive to make things even better. “