Tea Tales – London

Twinings, 216 Strand, London

Twinings, 216 Strand, London

With warmer weather finally upon us, I can’t help but reminisce a bit about what I was up to last year at this time. On May 19, 2018, I arrived in London for a wonderful English vacation, and hit the ground running. My first day there I saw houses belonging to Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens, and George MacDonald, and then planned to do something I’d wanted to do for a looong time…visit the Twinings flagship store on The Strand. I had missed this on my first trip to London in 2001, and was eager to see it and experience whatever I could. That turned out to be the “Afternoon Tea Experience,” which I had booked well in advance of my trip.

Inside the Twinings store

Inside the Twinings store

I arrived a bit early and perused the store. It looked like a tea paradise inside. Before long, the customers began to leave and the store closed, leaving me with 3 other people for an exclusive tea tasting experience. We were escorted to the back of the store and seated at a tasting bar where Martha, our Italian hostess, was getting all the food and tea prepared.

Tea hostess: Martha

Tea hostess: Martha

Over the next 2.5 hours, Martha told us about the history of tea, tea production, the history of Twinings, and lots of tea facts, statistics, ettiquette, etc. It was so much fun!

Tea place setting

My spot at the tasting.

We began with a tea cocktail (?!) and various finger foods. Rather than try and recall it all, I’ll simply insert a picture of the menu:

Twinings Menu

I was glad that I had planned on this event counting as “supper” since the food was as plentiful as the tea. We had lovely savory items to accompany our cocktail.

Savory items

The scones, clotted cream, and jam selections were perfect. Served in England, after all. 😉

What I really enjoyed was the instruction on how to note the pairings of food and tea, and the changes in flavor these pairings produced. The most notable example was a very rich and sweet salted caramel and chocolate “pot” dessert with a bitter-tasting Assam tea. The bitterness in the tea muted the sweetness of the dessert, and the sweetness of the dessert brightened the taste of the tea. It was a great combination!

Salted caramel chocolate pot and Assam tea: a perfect combo.

And like all good tea tastings, Martha showed us the beautiful tea leaves for each tea we tried.

The final tea selection was accompanied by additional sweets and fruits.

Sweets tier

And because May 19 was the date of the royal wedding with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the last tea was a wedding tea.

Other fun facts from the experience:

  1. During Eurovision, England uses so much electricity due to everyone making tea at the same time to watch the show, Norway has to lend the UK some extra power!
  2. The ghost of Mary Twining supposedly still inhabits the store, where she ran the business on her own from 1762-1783. Martha always greets her when she comes to work. 🙂
  3. Proper tea tasting involves slurping the tea with an audible noise in order to engage your full palate and olfactory senses.
  4. Different tea harvests during the year are called “flushes.”

At the end, I agonized over which tea to purchase, but finally settled on the Orangery of Lady Grey.
It was very tasty. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Twinings, and recommend this experience to anyone who loves tea, and is willing to pay a little extra for the pleasure of the experience.

Until next time…tea you later!

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Tolkien Movie Review

TOLKIEN Directed by Dome Karukoski
Starring Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins

The “Tolkien biopic” had been rumored for awhile, but without any substantive news until just before its release. When I learned that I could catch an early May 7 viewing in 400 theaters with a live simulcast Q&A following the film, I bought a ticket right away at a local theater. The official US release date is May 10. I will be seeing the film twice (May 9 will be the second time), so I may tweak this review a bit following that second viewing.

GENERAL THOUGHTS – NO SPOILERS

Although Tolkien fans may be a bit divided on how they feel about this film, like always, I hope we can all agree that anything which gets people to read Tolkien’s works, and discover works of scholarship on him, is overall something to celebrate. For my own part, heading into the theater I was excited to see, for the first time in cinematic history, dramatizations of the important people in Tolkien’s early life: the T.C.B.S. alive and well in the glory of their youth, Tolkien’s intelligent and devoted mother, his brother, guardian Father Francis, and love Edith Bratt. For those who know nothing about Tolkien’s life or early years, I am glad that they now know these names and people, and have an understanding of what Tolkien experienced before becoming an established author and scholar.

After viewing the film, and seeing interviews with the director and cast, I warn that viewers should also be aware that this is a dramatization. While many facts about the individuals and circumstances in this film were accurate (beyond hope…more than I’d expected), there are also quite a few instances where creative license was taken. Timelines are changed, some personalities are shifted, most scenes have little or no actual historic occurrence, and some resonances (particularly Tolkien’s faith) are muted or diminished. A fellow Tolkien friend told me that the filmmakers had first presented the film with great historic accuracy, and it was found to be too dull. They scrapped it. What Dome Karukoski did on the next attempt was create a film filled with “dreams and emotions” (his words) or impressions. I think this is an apt description. You get some emotive qualities and a great deal of overall perceptions, but with a blurred factual premise.

When asked by Stephen Colbert, the simulcast facilitator, why Tolkien’s faith was not more present in the film, Karukoski answered that the scenes they had with it earlier (Tolkien in confession with Father Francis, etc.) had just not worked. Internal spiritual realities are, Karukoski said, “difficult to portray on the screen.” The result is that you see some trimmings of faith without any of its depth or importance in Tolkien’s life. Karukoski does say that Tolkien recites some religious poetry, and some cut religious scenes will be available on the DVD. I also saw a crucifix in one of the battle scenes which will require a closer look during my next viewing.

The film is also a beautiful piece of art. I enjoyed the scenery, costuming, props, and film making artistry. It made me miss England. I thought Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins also provided excellent performances, and Derek Jacobi is always a delight to see. He plays Tolkien’s philology professor at Oxford, which hey, bonus points for even PUTTING Joseph Wright in this film! I mean really.

While it’s not entirely clear how much research was done behind the scenes for the film, or which sources were used, we know that some Tolkien scholars were consulted, Tolkien’s letters were read by both director and cast, Tolkien’s recordings were played, and Tolkien’s artwork was examined. Bonus points to Nicholas Hoult for practicing drawing, while on the set of X-Men in his Beast costume, to try to get more in Tolkien’s creative mindset. Both Hoult and Karukoski grew up reading Tolkien’s works, and Karukoski said he related to Tolkien’s own struggles since he also grew up in a life of poverty. He calls Tolkien his “hero,” and made this film out of love and respect. With that, I raise a glass to him.

And if you’re wondering what the Tolkien Estate / Tolkien family is saying about the film, to the best of my knowledge they haven’t seen it, and have provided this statement.

SPECIFIC THOUGHTS – SPOILERS GALORE

These thoughts will be a bit more sporadic and rambling. My first comment is on the framing device of WWI scenes interspersed with flashbacks throughout the film. Karukoski stated that these war scenes only compose a small amount of the film (maybe 15 minutes worth) and could be taken as “fevered dreams” Tolkien was having in hospital rather than literal happenings. That relieves me a bit since the thought of Tolkien going (or being allowed to go) on a desperate search for G.B. Smith in the midst of open battle seemed fairly absurd. It was a thoughtful touch to give Tolkien a “Sam-like” batman, since there is evidence Sam is based upon the common English soldiers that Tolkien knew. It’s a nice resonance, not a fact or actual historic person.

The book of G.B. Smith’s poetry published after his death by his friends J.R.R. Tolkien and Christopher Wiseman. This 1918 volume is owned by the Marion E. Wade Center.

I was glad to see that the T.C.B.S. members were there with distinct characters. However, Rob Gilson’s characterization really threw me off-guard. Gilson seems to me to be much closer to how they portrayed G.B. Smith’s character: sensitive, personable, likable, and someone who deeply appreciates beautiful things. In the film, Gilson is the clown and trouble instigator of the group, and also has a strained relationship with his (overly-strict) headmaster father that I don’t remember seeing any evidence for in what I’ve read about him. Of course, all the T.C.B.S. members were young men with a proclivity to get into mischief from time to time, but Gilson’s portrayal seemed very uncharacteristic. Smith got all the sensitive and intimate moments that should have rightfully been shared by both of them. To learn more about Rob Gilson and his WWI experience, I highly recommend the Vimeo film about his life by Eliander Pictures. It’s 30 minutes you will appreciate, particularly after seeing the Tolkien film. The same folks did an excellent short film on Tolkien and WWI as well.

And the closing credit factoid about Smith dying during the Somme bothered me. He was wounded by a rogue German shell in late 1916 doing routine road maintenance and not in active combat. He dies in the hospital a few days later from wound infections (gas gangrene). WWI buffs help me out: can that still be considered “killed during the Somme”?? Gilson was killed in action in the Somme in July 1916.

And Tolkien and Wiseman jointly, along with G.B. Smith’s mother, published Smith’s poems in A Spring Harvest…in 1918. I was disappointed that Tolkien’s editorial efforts were reduced to “providing a foreword” in the movie, and many years after Smith’s death rather than soon afterward (before Tolkien himself had a published volume to his own name).

As for Edith’s characterization, Lily Collins said, rightly so, that research materials on her are scarce. The film makers felt the need, also rightly so, to flesh out her character a bit and give her some liveliness. She did play the piano, although I don’t recall her having a particular passion for Wagner as I believe that was something Tolkien shared and enjoyed with C.S. Lewis. I’m also not remembering her ever meeting the other T.C.B.S. members…in fact my impression from reading over the years is that Tolkien kept his personal life quite separate from his school and social life. Edith’s feelings of isolation, however, and remonstration for Tolkien having an intellectual and social outlet which she did not have, seems to agree with scholarly evidence. Tolkien had his career, colleagues, friends, and scholarship. Edith found it hard to make friends and was home raising 4 children. It is believable that there was tension there, although she may not have been as wholly desirous of intellectual community as the movie suggests. She did help Tolkien in his early writing as her own handwriting appears transcribing his manuscripts.

Edith was also engaged to be married, but convinced to break the engagement when Tolkien wrote to her at midnight on his 21st birthday, and later met with her in person, to say he still loved her. They were married in March 1916, 3 months before he went to war in June. And yes, she was Tolkien’s Lúthien, and danced for him in a woodland glade. 😉

I do feel like Father Francis got short-changed. He was not outwardly antagonized by the film makers, but he was also not seen as warm and nurturing, either. And since the role of the Church and Tolkien’s faith are downplayed in the film, it’s difficult to see the importance Father Francis had in Tolkien’s family and personal life.

And while some scenes of this film were really well-paced, fun, and engaging, others seemed to drag and slow everything down. The zoom out shot down the opera house hallway with Edith and Ronald kissing took FOREVER. Surely there was a better way to say “this is romantic!” without making me want to check my watch?

The Q&A following the film was with Hoult, Collins, Karukoski, and Colbert. Stephen Colbert is a huge Tolkien fan, and I was glad he asked some poignant questions, like why Karukoski did not include more about Tolkien’s faith. He also brought up the facts that Tolkien did not like direct allegory applied to his works, nor biographical studies of the author to try and psycho-analyze his writings. Karukoski responded that the small tie-ins to Tolkien’s writings (with knights, evil figures, and dragons appearing in some of the battle scenes) were dreams rather than allegorical representations. “We all have subconscious influences in our creative works,” Karukoski said. He also stated that Tolkien might have thought his life was too “uninteresting” (I think that was the word he used) to examine or dramatize. He hoped that should he and Tolkien meet up and smoke a pipe on a cloud one day, Tolkien would think that Karukoski’s film made his life more engaging and worthwhile for a broader audience to consider.

Personally I think Tolkien’s life, with all its normal facts, is incredibly interesting, dramatic, and inspiring for all readers to learn more about and enjoy. I’m very pleased that someone finally saw fit to share some of this fascinating life with a broader audience through cinema. If we’re honest enough to admit it, film is one of the best vehicles in our current society to promote interest and deeper learning into lesser-known subject matter. I hope more creators give Tolkien’s life a try. Do you think we could convince Ken Burns to do a documentary?? 😉

So my overall verdict on the Tolkien film, for those who prefer sound bites, is as follows:

It was charming, but not life-changing. I liked it, but didn’t love it. It inspired an emotive response, but didn’t fully capture my sensibilities as a viewer.

And since I’m an archivist…gotta recommend some quality additional Tolkien resources, my friends! For those who wish to learn more about Tolkien’s life here are some suggestions:

  • Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. Houghton Mifflin, 1977.
  • Edwards, Raymond. Tolkien. London: Robert Hale, 2014. (biography)
  • Garth, John. Tolkien and the Great War. Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
  • Hammond, Wayne and Christina Scull. J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator. Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
  • McIlwaine, Catherine. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2018.
  • Tales Before Tolkien. Ed. Douglas Anderson. Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 2003.
  • Tolkien, John and Priscilla. The Tolkien Family Album. HarperCollins, 1992.
  • Video: Tolkien’s Beginnings – Friendship, Love, War, and Writing

Elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo!

UPDATE

I enjoyed the film more the second time I saw it, for 2 reasons:

  1. I didn’t have to analyze every moment this time around, so I just got to enjoy it and notice a few things here and there I had missed previously.
  2. I went with the Wheaton College Tolkien Society, and viewing this film with a sympathetic and engaged fellowship was marvelous! 🙂

Another tidbit: “cellar door” is discussed as a beautiful-sounding phrase in Tolkien’s essay “English and Welsh,” so bonus points to the film makers for that reference to a lesser-known Tolkien essay.

Second movie viewing with the WCTS, May 9, 2019.

Tea Tales – My Favorite Tea Shop

Every tea drinker has to determine not only their favorite teas to drink, but also their favorite supplier of said teas. I’ve tried stores in-person and online, and for many years I was lucky enough to have my favorite tea store locally. While the storefront is now gone, you can still purchase their wonderful teas online. What is this magical establishment, you ask? It’s Serene Teaz, dear reader. This mecca of tea magic has already been mentioned in several Tea Tales. Simply put: Serene Teaz introduced me to the scope of tea (and loose leaf teas in general), provided my first tea class, and allowed me to try quality tea for the first time. For these gifts and more it will always have a special place in my heart.

When you entered the store, you were greeted by an open, clean, cozy atmosphere with lots of tea merchandise, ample chairs and tables, cheerful staff behind the counter, and a long WALL of tea grouped by type (black, green, white, etc.).

Wall of TEA!

Each tea had a nice descriptive name, helpful facts written about it, and a small glass jar with some loose leaves to examine and smell. It was a great way, as a novice customer, to get to know a wide variety of tea quickly and determine which you might like to taste or buy. And there were always brewed samples to try too.

My tasting card.

And speaking of samples, the friendly, knowledgeable staff was always ready to brew a small sample of any tea for you to try. I cannot tell you how much joy this brought me. They provided you with a tasting card (I still have mine), which you could either take with you or keep on file at the store. The card listed all of their teas and you could check off (or rate) which teas you had tried.

My friend and tea-buddy, Abbi, rated her teas on a sophisticated 10-point scale. I kept mine at 5 points, or simply put stars by the ones that really stood out as favorites.

Me enjoying tea samples in February 2012. Paradise.

Some of my favorite memories from Serene Teaz include my first introductory tea class with friends, the staff finding a sweet, candy-like tea for a friend who “didn’t like tea…” but liked this one, heading there during my work day to grab some tea as a treat while I ate my lunch, and sitting with friends enjoying the homey atmosphere with china pot and teacups at hand with a baked good or two.

A typical spread at Serene Teaz for a cozy afternoon.

One of my favorite memories comes from a “Spontaneous Saturday,” and requires some explanation. As a very “scheduled person,” I would sometimes get together with a friend for a break from my endless “to do lists” and have what I called a “spontaneous Saturday.” Such a day was completely unplanned, and would proceed as the mood took us moment by moment with where we went and what we did. Some people may call this “normal living,” but hey, it was a big step for me. On one such Saturday we wandered into Serene Teaz and were surprised to see the staff dressed in Revolutionary War-era dresses and mop caps. “It’s the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party!” they told us as we came in. “Free cookies today and NO TAX on any tea!” That was a highlight of the whole day. I mean, who doesn’t love free cookies and an observed history event turned into a party?!

Abbi at our table the last time I went to Serene Teaz on January 28, 2017.

In late 2016, Serene Teaz announced it would be closing its doors in February 2017, but would continue to sell tea online. After severe shock and a mourning period, I made plans with Abbi to return for one last afternoon together at Serene Teaz. We sampled, we sipped, we nibbled, we purchased, we reminisced. It was truly one of the most bittersweet days of my life.

While I am still a loyal Serene Teaz online customer, the physical store atmosphere truly can never be replaced. A huge amount of thanks to its owners, Bob & Sarine Crotteau for giving me and so many others years of joy with that store. I owe them a large debt.

Bob and Sarine Crotteau

And for now, I sigh as I walk past the still-vacant store front in downtown Wheaton. Glancing in the darkened window at the dusty floors and empty shelves, I remember the smell of scones, and the feel of a warm cup in my hands, anticipating that first sip of bliss.

Until next time…tea you later.

Serene Teaz, January 18, 2014.

Tea Tales – My Favorite Tea

Minolta DSCAs I’ve mentioned before, I don’t have a clear memory of when I started to love tea. My family would often have Bigelow Plantation Mint following large holiday meals to aid digestion, and Constant Comment was on rotation along with hot chocolate during cold winter months, but I do have a clear recollection of how I discovered my favorite tea: Earl Grey.

One of my best friends in high school traveled to England one summer and brought back 2 kinds of tea for me as a gift in lovely little tins similar to the one pictured here. I *think* it was indeed Ahmad tea, and the teas were loose leaf English Breakfast and…Earl Grey. I don’t think I’d ever tried Earl Grey before.

Snow

Not my street, but the scene looked something like this.

Flash forward a few months to the middle of winter my senior year of high school. Snow was lightly falling outside, and living in Grand Rapids, MI (the western part of the state with lake effect snow) guaranteed there was always plenty of snow out the window during the winter. The afternoons found me seated at the dining room table laboring over my least favorite homework in my entire academic career: AP Calculus, and AP Physics. I looked for something, anything, to get me through the long hours of misery each day working on these subjects. One discovery (more on that here) was the beautiful, calming music of Loreena McKennitt, and her very appropriately-titled song “Snow.” It’s lovely. You should listen to it. The other discovery was that a soothing cup of tea can make a world of difference. I turned to the tea my friend had given me from London, and reveled in the taste of Earl Grey,  which soon became my favorite tea to drink.

TwiningsThe distinguishing characteristic of all Earl Grey teas is the inclusion of “bergamot,” which adds a hint of orange / citrus taste. There are, however, 1,001 varieties of Earl Grey tea, and every kind, and each brand, has its own distinctive flavor. You can have higher or lower amounts of bergamot, mix in in jasmine, lavender, vanilla, and other flavorings, combine it with other forms of tea…the list goes on. I did some trial and error exploring other brands of Earl Grey, and landed on Twinings  regular Earl Grey as my favorite blend. I think this was decided by college. It was a brand also easily accessible in the United States, so that was a decided bonus. I’ve tried the other forms of Earl Grey by Twinings, but always return to the original blend. Twinings remains one of my favorite brands in general, and I’ve even done an Afternoon Tea Tasting at their flagship store in London, but that’s a Tea Tale for a later time…

EG-bagJump forward to my late college years, when I discovered a new store in downtown Wheaton called Serene Teaz (alas, now closed, but their teas are still available online). This quickly became my favorite store in Wheaton, and my stop anytime I wanted to taste tea, experiment, or buy any loose leaf teas. They offer several varieties of Earl Grey tea, and I dutifully started trying them. And then it happened. I tried their Earl Grey de la Creme tea. My life was changed, and my experience with any other form of Earl Grey diminished for the rest of time. The website description: “The classic taste of Earl Grey with mallow blossoms which tone down the bergamot and make for a slightly sweet, smooth character.” The ingredients: “Black Tea, bergamot, creamy vanilla flavor, blue mallow blossoms.”

I’m a sucker for any tea with cinnamon or vanilla in it, and the vanilla in this blend is positively delicious. But it’s the inspired addition of mallow blossoms which push this tea beyond the reach of all others for me. They make the tea have a rich, creamy taste that is truly unique, and also reduce the bitterness. They also introduced me to the revelation that tea leaves can be beautiful. The blossoms have a bluish / purple color that is very striking. The eyes are pleased, the nose is pleased with the enticing scent, and the taste buds are blown away.

leaves1

Come on, look at how pretty Earl Grey de la Creme is!!

And so, despite the fact I’m always up to try a new variety of Earl Grey, and enjoy a cup of Twinings as a staple in my tea diet, I keep coming back to Earl Grey de la Creme as my all-time favorite, and always need to have it in my stock as my go-to tea for any and all occasions. It’s a regular treat on Saturday mornings along with Midnight Vanilla (another of Serene Teaz’s fine selections).

So how about you? What’s your favorite kind of tea? Feel free to comment below!

Until next time…tea you later!

Tea Tales – Nuovo Tea, and How I Spent St. Patrick’s Day

Nuovo Tea store, Glen Ellyn, IL. Note tempting samples on right.

THE DISCOVERY

In late February (the 20th, to be exact) I found myself hunting down a fast dinner and stopped in at Trader Joe’s on Roosevelt Road in Glen Ellyn. Trader Joe’s just happens to be next to a tea shop I’d heard about, but had never stopped in to investigate: Nuovo Tea. I eyed it warily, wondering if I had enough time to give it a proper investigation. Then I noticed they had free tea samples outside, three of them.

Sneaking over, I tried all three. Then glancing inside the store I saw they had…more tea samples. Four more, to be precise. Like an animal being lured in with bait, I furtively slid through the door and said to myself: just one more sample. After trying two, the staff member working there popped out from a back room to see if I needed any assistance. I was guiltily holding a sample cup, so I greeted her warmly, and started talking about tea. I also asked if it would be OK to try the other two samples, and she said “Of course!” So, seven samples in, and after conversation comparing their tastes with store lady (I learned her name is Kathleen), I was suddenly seated at the counter and removing my winter coat.

Kathleen in her natural habitat. She’s actually a nurse who blends her own health herbal teas. That’s skillz!

“I’m really getting into matcha,” I told her.

“Oh! You’ve got to try ours. We have several flavors of fruit matcha, and ceremonial grade matcha. Do you have 5 minutes? I could make you a cup.”

“Ah! I wouldn’t want to trouble you! Are you sure you have the time?”

“Of course! Here, smell the different kinds and let me know which one you want me to brew for you.”

I smelled them all, discussed the differences between Japanese and Chinese matcha, and decided to go for the Japanese ceremonial grade regular flavor matcha. She showed me how to make the tea, and it was served in a gorgeous Japanese pottery vessel. I drank it with pleasure.

“We do tea classes here,” said my new friend, Kathleen. “You can schedule them any time you like and bring others with you. We cover all the tea basics, including matcha.”

The Pu-erh and Earl Grey tea Kathleen blended for me.

“Oh DO you now?” I said, with interest. Many tea places have such classes, and I’ve attended a few, but there aren’t many that will let you schedule them at your whim, nor many that include matcha. Intrigued, I vowed to make one of these classes a goal for the near future, and to bring others with me.

“We also blend teas to order,” Kathleen continued. Remembering the unique blend of Pu-erh, orange peel, and vanilla that I had tried in Le Claire, IA before Christmas, I said asked her if she could blend something similar and read her the “Sunrise Mojo” description from the Royal Tea website.

My tea blend labels.

“We can certainly try!” she said.

And reader, she did. She blended me a pu-ehr and vanilla Earl Grey combination. It tastes nice; not exactly like I remember from Royal Tea, but hey, that’s great customer service! I left extremely content and felt that I’d found a new hidden tea kingdom.

ST. PATRICK’S DAY: THE TEA CLASS

Jump forward to March 17, when the aforementioned tea class was scheduled for me and 8 other friends who came along. Tea is such an Irish thing to do, it seemed the perfect activity to celebrate the day. And hey, the store walls are actually green!

Our tea group holding matcha lattes. Nuovo Tea also provided a variety of fruit, cheese, crackers, and cookies to go along with the tea. Major bonus points!!

We were seated along the counter, and the lovely staff brought out FOUR trays filled with fruit, cheese, cracker, and cookie selections! This was a winning deal from the start.

We tried several varieties of black, oolong, green, matcha, white, rooibos, and herbal teas…all explained to us and brewed to perfection.

Malik serves the Earl Grey Bravo. He’s also a Tolkien fan. We bonded with him.

BLACK TEAS

They served us Earl Grey Bravo, Assam, and Pu-erh teas, allowing us to see and smell the tea leaves, and watch the brewing process. My favorites were the Earl Grey and Pu-erh.

Pu-erh – steep one.

Pu-erh – steep two. Totally different color, and delicious taste!

 

 

 

 

OOLONG TEA

We were treated to a really lovely, rich flavored Jade Oolong tea, and a Peach Oolong tea. I was surprised to like the Jade Oolong more, even though I’m a huge peach tea fan. The peach tea included raw sugar, which was a bit too sweet for me.

Peach (left) and Jade (right) Oolong teas. (Pu-erh in back – I was savoring it.)

GREEN TEAS

Matcha whisk and bowl

The green teas we tried were Chinese Dragonwell and Mango Green. They were both very good green teas. But of course, my FAVORITE green tea of the day was the Matcha tea.

We all agreed to try the regular ceremonial grade matcha tea, and then also a matcha latte. Most of our group preferred the latte so that the milk cut the bitterness a bit. Fair enough!

Regular matcha – side view

Regular matcha – top view

 

 

 

 

They demonstrated the difference in color and quality between ceremonial grade Japanese matcha (left) and regular matcha (right).

Whisking the matcha!

WHITE TEA

The white tea we tried was Jasmine Silver Needle, and as I love Jasmine, I LOVED this tea! A sweet, floral-infused very flavorful brew. Often called the “champagne of tea.”

The white tea poured from the infuser.

ROOIBOS TEAS

We tried a Green Rooibos and a Red Rooibos Vanilla Chai. The green was nice, the red was full of spice and flavor! A bit too spicy for me, personally.

Green Rooibos

Red Rooibos Vanilla Chai

 

 

 

 

 

HERBAL TEAS

Tumeric Bliss Herbal Tea

Our friend Kathleen shared 3 herbal teas with us:

Tumeric Bliss herbal tea: tumeric, black pepper, ginger root, cranberry, mango, apple, orange peel. It’s anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, aids digestion, promotes gut health, boosts immunity, antioxidants, and is good for cholesterol and blood pressure. At this rate it probably does your taxes for you too!

Active Life herbal tea

Active Life herbal tea: ashwagandha, dandelion root, Siberian ginseng (eleuthero), peppermint, skullcap, nettle leaf, gotu kola, and licorice root. Helps physical stamina and recovery for nervous and muscular systems. 

Nuovo Tea Blend

Nuovo Blend herbal tea: chamomile, lemon grass, ginger, spearmint, peppermint. Calms the nervous and digestive systems.

A huge “thank you” and shout out to the staff at Nuovo Tea. They really gave us a fantastic class ($15 per person for all this included is really very reasonable), and were so kind, knowledgeable, and responsive to all our questions. I highly recommend trying Nuovo Tea yourself, or a similar tea class near you!

Until next time…tea you later!

Tea Tales – Matcha Madness: Celebrating Green Tea

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we’re celebrating a GREEN tea that I happen to adore: MATCHA. Matcha is tea that comes in a powdered form, and can be enjoyed not only as a beverage, but is used as flavoring in a variety of foods as well. To my North American friends, matcha is prepared differently than the types of green tea you may be used to tasting. You actually get to drink the tea leaves in a powdered form after they’re mixed and dissolved in steamed water. In this Tea Tale, I’ll share my introduction to matcha and various experiences with it to date.

The scene of the crime: Chinatown, Chicago – April 23, 2016.

The first time I ever tasted the flavor of matcha was April 23, 2016 in Chicago’s Chinatown. I was at a dessert restaurant called Honey (now closed, oh the sadness), and saw they had ice cream mochi on the menu. I’d never had mochi, so we got 3 flavors: red bean, mango, and green tea (matcha).

Green tea (matcha) ice cream mochi.

The mochi itself started another journey of bliss for me…but that’s not the focus of this post. The mango mochi was good, the red bean mochi was delicious, but the green tea mochi…that stuff changed my life. It tasted like tea, but not a flavor I had ever experienced before, and I LOVED it. Combined with the sweetness of the ice cream, and the soft and sticky outer layer of the mochi, it was a sublime experience. I had to take some with me, pictured here.

Thus began a hunt for matcha in any form, anywhere I could get it. I quickly discovered that matcha has a very different taste in its sweetened vs. UNsweetened forms. Although I’ve learned to appreciate both, the unsweetened taste took some getting used to. I still dislike unsweetened matcha ice cream (it’s vile, although some will disagree with me here), and as my mother endearingly described some matcha candy I gave her: “it tastes like grass.” Well, everyone has their own interpretation…

Matcha iced tea – May 2017

One of my next matcha experiences came at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant out in the western suburbs in May 2017. I got a matcha iced tea, which was unsweetened but tasted very refreshing, and you can’t beat that amazing color, right? I also plucked an adorable leaf-wrapped mochi off the conveyor belt. I wasn’t sure what it was when I grabbed it, but quickly discovered it had a matcha mochi layer underneath its cute leaf wrapper (more sticky than what I’d tried before) and was filled with a sweet red bean paste. Delicious!

 

On another day in Chinatown Chicago, April 2018 to be exact, I went all out and found matcha crepe cake, rolled ice cream, and Kit Kats. Japan is known for its multi-flavored Kit Kat variety, and I can confirm that the matcha ones are fabulous.

Matcha crepe cake, rolled ice cream, and Kit Kats.

One of the best things about my matcha adventures, however, has been the memory making with friends. A year ago, the Wheaton College Tolkien Society was approached to come up with a themed drink for Tolkien Reading Day at the college’s coffee and ice cream establishment, Sam’s. At the time, no matcha drinks were on the menu. We settled on trying for a green drink since the color green is often associated with Tolkien’s works due to his love for nature (and it’s a favorite color of hobbits too). We developed a matcha frappuccino with the staff at Sam’s, and named it the Green Dragon in honor of Tolkien. He once wrote about a green dragon as a little boy, not to mention it’s the name of a Shire inn. The name matched Tolkien, as well as Asian culture — also known for its dragons, so a win-win either way!

Tolkien Society with our Green Dragon drinks, March 2018.

We had the inaugural drink ceremony on March 24, 2018, and the drink has done so well it retained a permanent place on the Sam’s menu.

Trying out the matcha cafe with some iced tea, August 2018.

This past August, I discovered a matcha CAFE in downtown Chicago that serves only exclusively matcha drinks, all unsweetened and steeped for at least 4 hours before serving. I stopped in on a warm, beautiful summer day on the way to see Hamilton with a friend, and now this memory is forever etched into the fabric of that excursion.

For presents at Christmas or birthdays, my family has gotten me matcha pocky, matcha mints, and matcha Blendy Sticks (which is one of the easiest ways to make it at home, by the way, and highly recommended).

And in recent months (since the fall), I’ve discovered one of my new favorite places of all time to go: Mitsuwa Marketplace in Arlington Heights. Dear readers, this establishment has a full Japanese grocery store, book store, bakery, DVD store, and food court. And that food court has a matcha cafe, a crepe restaurant, and bubble tea stand…all of which have matcha-flavored items (not to mention all the places matcha appears in various food items in the grocery store).

I’ve had to exercise a great deal of self-restraint every time I go, and try new flavors besides matcha while I’m there, but I have so far tried matcha ice cream, matcha latte, and a matcha crepe. The crepe (devoured in January 2019) had thick whipped cream, red bean paste, and a generous helping of matcha ice cream with matcha pocky sticks for an aesthetic flourish. This was not dessert, my friends, this was an art form, as evidenced by the photos below.

Have you tried any matcha flavored tea or food items? What did YOU think of them?

To end off this Irish / Japanese cross-cultural blog post:
“Sláinte” and “Itadakimasu”!

Until next time…tea you later! 😉

Tea Tales – Mix it Up

Although I’ve been drinking loose leaf teas for a while, I’ve only recently had the revelation and gathered the bravery to try combining them. My first experiment: taking Midnight Vanilla and Vanilla Chai from Serene Teaz (my all-time favorite tea vendor) and mixing them together for a nice cuppa. I mean, they both have “vanilla” in the name, so why not?? It was pretty good.

The takeaway: DO try this at home, and let me know if you have any awesome discoveries!

Until next time…tea you later!

Next in Tea Tales: a special St. Patrick’s Day tea blog, but not about Irish tea. Tune in next time!!