Monday, August 31, 2015

A Glimpse of Afternoon Tea in London- Pt. 1: Claridge's

My husband and I had a quick 3-day trip to London a couple of weeks ago, and I crammed in as much tea-sightseeing as possible. I had a super long list of places to visit and didn't get to hit that many. But the places I did go to were quite memorable. I had two afternoon teas, and visited two tea shops. I was going to post about my entire experience here, but it may be a bit too much reading and an overabundance of photos. Today's post is about our first afternoon tea adventure.

I've had many afternoon tea experiences in NYC (I am trying to write a large post on all of those, it's taking some time!), so I wanted to do two different types while in London- one very traditional, and one more unique. After asking every London tea blogger I know, I decided to visit Claridge's (very traditional) and Sketch (unique is a bit of an understatement for this place!).

I hadn't been to London in years, and forgot how every street has something interesting to look at. History swirls in the air, and you can't walk more than a few steps without seeing something fascinating. Some may say this about NYC, but London beats it by lightyears. We stayed in the Mayfair neighborhood which itself is quite lavish, but we still felt very posh walking up to Claridge's hotel. It's a historic building with perfectly manicured flowers. Inside the decor is dripping with art deco flourishes, and tea is taken in a dining room fit for Ladies and Lords.

Live music greets your ears while your eyes soak up the grand decor. All of the tableware is designed with their iconic stripes. It may sound dull but it's deco at it's simplest and most beautiful, especially within the extravagant room. I was expecting stoic, stuffy service, but I was pleasantly surprised. Our server was of course formal, but cheerful and even a little bit friendly. It was just the right combination for the surroundings and the tourist-heavy crowd.

Selecting the tea was the hardest part of the day. Claridge's has an extensive tea menu, and I couldn't decide what to choose. Some of you may know I lean towards black teas for afternoon tea because the straightforward brisk flavors pair well with both sweet and savory. I finally settled on a blend that was made just for them. The Claridge's blend is, "a bespoke blend created exclusively for Afternoon Tea at Claridge's. The blend has a unique depth of flavour that combines the power of an English Breakfast Tea with a satisfying complexity. The flavour is rich and aromatic with a deep, malty finish. Perfect served without milk, partnered by a fresh warm scone." This menu description is quite accurate. I was happy to see they didn't recommend milk for this blend, as I usually don't add any to most of the black teas I drink.

We began with the tea, and I was amazed by the very small teapots. Shouldn't such an opulent place present enormous pots of tea? I was also surprised to watch the server prepare the tea. He added the hot water from a larger pot, waited about 30-60 seconds, and then poured. When I asked about this method he replied that it is the process they use at Claridges so the tea does not sit in the pot and get bitter or cold. You are given a fresh cup of tea as soon as your last has been finished. This led to very attentive service, and remarkably delicious tea. The tea was perfectly steeped, which surprised me given how quickly it was prepared. It reminded me of a gongfu preparation where a larger amount of leaf is used for a smaller yield. I had quite a few cups steeped with the same leaves, and it held flavor and strength throughout.

Once the first few sips of tea were enjoyed, our savories were whisked over to the table. The choices were very traditional, but with an extra dose of luxury. The smoked salmon was fresh flaky fish, not the preserved stuff you often see. I'm not usually a huge fan of fresh salmon, but I finished every flake-it was flavorful and delicate. The ham sandwich was one of the most savory examples I've had. The egg salad consisted of duck eggs carefully and gently prepared. Everything was full of flavor and freshness. The scones came next, and were flaky and light. I couldn't get enough of their house-made jam, or the clotted cream. Delicious.

Needless to say we were absolutely stuffed by the time the sweets arrived. The few bites I had were very nice, but nothing unique or particularly outstanding. Still good though. We had to box up most of them, and enjoyed them a bit the next day.

Sweets (in the pink stripes) and our leftovers in posh boxes

As in many fine dining establishments, we were given a package of sweets to take home with us. I find this is always a nice way to end a meal and remember it for days to come.  Afternoon tea here is not a cheap affair. But it is an afternoon steeped in historic luxury. It feels like a special occasion, and I'm thrilled to have experienced it. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

Tasting: Imara Organic Black Tea from Majani Tea

A photo posted by sara shacket (@tea_happiness) on

Today's review is for Imara, a Kenyan black tea from Majani. Founded in 2012 by the son of a Kenyan tea farmer, the company sells organic, substantially grown teas. When I first opened the box, I was greeted with cheerful brightly colored birds on the packaging. They are a fun combination of beautiful and adorable. It turns out that each tea gets its own bird. You can learn more about the birds here.

The dry leaves are raisin-y sweet and toasty. The brewed tea has quite a bit of briskness and strength which makes it nice for a morning tea. I was recently in London and it reminds me of the hearty breakfast teas found just about everywhere. This tea has a nice round toasty flavor with hints of sweet caramel. It has a little bit of astringency as well, which is something I don't mind.

I like my teas bold and strong, so I'm glad to have this one in my cabinet. It is perfect with milk and sweetener, or you can take it straight up if you like a strong tea. This would be a good every-day drinking tea in the morning or early afternoon. It would hold up very nicely to ice as well. I'm curious to try cold-brewing it to see what other flavors can be drawn out.

Thank you Majani for the tea! I have two more varieties to try. Have a good weekend everyone!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Steep Thoughts: Happiness of Tea

Lately I've been thinking about how much there is to learn about tea. Tea education is a beautifully infinite thing. No one can truly know everything about it. There are those that can dazzle with their tea knowledge, and while I strive to be well educated, right now I'm happy with my quiet feelings for tea. There are those that can taste every little nuanced flavor and liken it to the most esoteric ingredient. I know what I like, and I like trying everything. I know what I don't like, but I still want to try it all. I drink and feel, and love, and express. Words flow onto the page when I think about the flavors and sensations.

Tea gives me an opportunity to focus on myself, focus on how it feels to prepare it, to drink it. To meet others that find solace in the same diverse beverage is a a unique kindred experience. Tea people immediately share a special bond. There has been some frustration in my world recently, and having the opportunity to escape by sipping and talking tea has been a huge comfort. A spiritual diversion. After a cup of tea, things look brighter, more vivid, more hopeful.

I often over-steep or under-steep tea in my gaiwan, but it's a learning process. I can't froth my matcha that well, but I'll keep trying. In the meantime, I'll slurp it up with a smile on my face. I enjoy sharing my love for tea with others, even if I have to check my notes before we discuss. I may not remember all the processing steps in a particular tea, but I'm happy to share a cup with you, and we can learn about it together. My young daughter has taken an interest in tea. She can identify the basic types, and loves tasting it. I'm proud of her, but happier that it brings us together. We taste tea, and then end up discussing something completely unrelated and more important. The natural flow of togetherness. A few co-workers and I have been gathering to taste teas, learn, and converse. The curiosity, and camaraderie helps strengthen us. It's a time to relax and enjoy the group dynamic.

Of course, knowledge is key to producing, processing, selling and sipping tea. Educating yourself is important, and so is respecting how others feel. The journey of tea education should be one of happy discovery, not shame or frustration. There are many loving people involved in the tea community, and they people help bring joy to the world. However you come to tea, whatever you like about it, it's right. As long as it is touching your life and you are enjoying yourself, it's right.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Tea & Camping

I love drinking tea outdoors, especially while camping. Listening to the conversation of birds, smelling all things earthy and green, the meditative experience is magnified in the fresh air. Early camping mornings are magical instead of hectic and blurry. The sun feel stronger and brighter, the colors of the world more vivid. But still, it's early. Without a clock the kids get up even earlier than usual. I Need tea for the caffeine just as much as for the reflective experience.

Camping of course poses a few difficulties in preparing tea. How to heat the water? What to heat it in? What to steep the tea in? I'm sure avid campers are able to basically boil water with just a few sticks and some sort of vessel. But for me, I had to have just the right gear! Only a sturdy enamelware kettle would do, with a few vintage cups for good measure. After looking for just the right kettle, I settled on a white version of this one from Falcon. Now that I had the perfect kettle and the right cups, I needed the right tea.

One of my favorite aspects of camping is the campfire. The fire infuses everything around it with that iconic smoky aroma. I ended up bringing two teas with me on the trip, one is the delightfully smoky Wijnhuis Melange from de Pelikaan. This is a super strong black tea blend reminiscent of the campfire. It was perfect with with the bacony heavy breakfast we had to fuel a long day outside.

The other tea I chose to bring is the Bellocq Breakfast blend from Bellocq. I chose another black tea for the robust flavor and caffiene jolt. As much as I love a roasted oolong or subtle green tea outdoors, I wanted something comforting (black tea is very nostalgic for me), and uplifting. A tea that also has sturdy leaves I wasn't afraid of accidentally crushing during our journey. I also wanted a tea some of the coffee drinkers would try. This tea was exactly what I needed in the early morning with its bold, sweet flavor. It was perfect to warm up with a few cups in the chilly early hours while the kids ran around searching for sticks and acorns.

The tea kettle was super helpful, and the enamel retained its heat for a nice long time. We boiled water in the kettle, and then I added a sachet filled with the tea leaves for steeping. If you are set on having the leaves completely loose, you may wish to bring some sort of strainer along. Since space is at a premium while camping, I chose the simple paper sachets instead of another gadget. Besides, I wanted to keep that extra room for the kettle!

Perhaps it was 'glamping' with my enamelware kettle and mugs, but I'm just fine with that. I must have my priorities! Do you bring tea on your camping trips? How do you prepare it?

Monday, August 10, 2015

Interview: Emilio Delpozo of The Jade Leaf

Photo Courtesy of Emilio Delpozo

If you've ever daydreamed of moving to Taiwan to immerse yourself in tea and culture, this week's interview is for you. Emilio Delpozo moved to Taiwan several years ago with the intention of studying Chinese medicine and found himself enraptured with tea, tea culture, and the local pottery techniques. He has built up a deep relationship with tea through working at a tea house, and learning traditional pottery techniques. He has started The Jade Leaf to sell unique Taiwanese teas and his own stunning teaware. He's been seeking out tea through word of mouth, even taking a scooter around tea farming areas to discover the best he can find.
Now that so many people are interested in tea it made sense that I share all the great tea I'm drinking with people outside of Taiwan. There's so much good tea in Taiwan ands there's much more variety than you would think. It seems that some people like to think they know everything about tea and have everything neatly categorized in their mind, but there's so many random tea variations to be found in Taiwan. I'm always finding new teas that I've never even heard of.
Learn more about Emilio's fascinating story, his love for tea, and his dedication to pottery below...

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Tasting: Two New Teas from Honest Tea

A photo posted by sara shacket (@tea_happiness) on

I'm going to start by saying I only drink bottled tea when I have no other option. Usually when I'm stuck in crazy summer weather with the sun melting my eyebrows off. When I do seek out bottled tea, I usually do an unsweetened one. I recently had the opportunity to try two new herbal teas from Honest Tea. I admit, I was beyond skeptical. I don't usually drink bottled, and never do I have herbals!

Well, these two teas have opened my mind a bit.

The Ginger Oasis was very refreshing on a day that was thick with humidity. I enjoyed the zingy ginger and tang of lemongrass. The ingredients listed are organic rooibos, organic and natural flavors (this is always a vague description that I find confusing), organic ginger root, organic lemon grass. My only quibble is that I could taste the rooibos more than I'd like to. I've never been a huge fan of rooibos. But still, I was surprised at how balanced and flavorful it was.

I pulled out the Cinnamon Sunrise herbal tea during a sweltering, hectic day. I took a few moments to relax, and sipped from the bottle. I love cinnamon, and I really enjoyed this tea. It is strong and flavorful, bursting with cinnamon. The strength of the cinnamon and subtle spice of ginger does a nice job of masking the rooibos, which is just fine with me. This is a tea I will definitely seek out. The ingredients in this are organic rooibos, organic cinnamon, organic and natural flavors (again, this is vague), organic ginger root. This is a good tea to choose if you're looking for something bold, but without the caffeine jitters.

The fact that these are caffeine free makes it easier to reach for them later in the day. Thank you to Honest Tea for the samples.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Interview: Gay Hughes of Gay Grace Teas

Photo Courtesy of Gay Grace Teas

While on vacation with my family, we visited a crafts fair and I happily stumbled upon a tea booth. This booth stood out with a romantic, afternoon tea vibe. I loved the setup, and also the use of 'sniff bottles' to smell the tea leaves. Clever! I had a brief conversation with the owner, Gay Hughes. The Littest Tea Critic was curious to see more of the fair, and pulled me away. But I was left hoping to learn more about the woman behind the lovely tea booth. Turns out that she's had some very interesting tea experiences that started from childhood, and even owned a tea truck! Learn more about Gay Geiger Hughes and her company Gay Grace Teas below...