Monday, July 25, 2011

A Russian TEA*Vent Moment

In the life of a working Mommy, it is a rare treat to be transported on a "school night" to something completely unrelated to work or kids. In this particular case, I got to indulge in an "evening out" that included a trip to Beverly Hills and a Russian Tea Pairing TEA*Vent hosted by American Tea Room. Could the timing have been more perfect? I submit that it could not! I am knee-deep in Russian research/obsession revolving particularly around their tea and food. It was fate!

Admit it, David. You scheduled this Russian TEA*Vent just for me!
 My good friend (and L.A. local), M, joined me in the experience. The evening consisted of a brief introduction to the tea and food offerings, and then the guests (it was a full house!) were able to taste as they desired.

We started with blinis and caviar, a Russian must-have. The secret is the dollop of sour cream to balance the salty richness of the caviar. This was paired with a tea-infused White Russian cocktail.

Next, a shot glass of borscht. A bright crimson-pink puree, this was an eye-catcher. While I've had (and made) many types of borscht, this one, in my opinion, leaned toward the Moscovite borscht, with more of a pickled beet flavor and no competing ingredients. Pure beet.  A Siberian borscht is more of a beef and beet stew, hearty, chunky and completely unrefined.  To complement this sophisticated borscht, however, was the Samovar blend, a serious, smoky blend that tips its hat to a traditional Russian Caravan. It smells of camp fires and feels like you can sink your teeth into. Listening to the comments around me, this was either their least favorite or their absolute favorite. No in-betweens!

Next, a blini topped with smoked salmon, complemented by a Lapsang Souchong. While Samovar smells like camp fire, this tea tastes like campfire and leaves your throat coated in embers. While too smoky for my developing palate, there were again many enthusiasts who love-love-loved the blend.

With the savories behind us, we jumped into the sweets with scones and blood orange Romanoff jam paired with the Romanoff blend. This strong black tea blend has hints of blood orange, so the combination  was divine. I will admit that I went back for Romanoff refills more than once.

And in the tradition of saving the best for last, the most divine presentation of handmade chocolates paired with the delicately floral black tea blend, Anastasia. There was a great deal of debate in the surrounding tables on which of the last two teas was the best. But, of course, it all comes down to individual preferences. There are those who lean more toward floral undertones, and those who prefer fruit or citrus undertones. Personally, I could bounce back and forth between these two blends all day long.

The TEA*Vent is a marvelous creation: a way to introduce a variety of teas, pairings, and general knowledge to anaudience who is eager to learn and try new things. The entire presentation is sophisticated without being the least bit intimidating. Team members interacted comfortably with guests, answering questions, making suggestions, asking about favorites. It had the intimacy and interaction of a gallery opening.

But best of all, it was an Evening Out. One of my favorite environments accompanied by one of my favorite people. And, of course, we did not leave empty-handed.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Moment of Sheer Joy

There are days when I, too, would like to dress up like Tinkerbell and have a cup of tea...

...and then just laugh until my face hurt.

That's a good day, right there.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

An Energetic Calm Moment

Over the holiday weekend, we journeyed to our hometown for a family reunion and also a nephew's wedding. There was a lot of eating, kids playing, visiting, laughing, and all those things you expect at large (and small) family gatherings. I drank copious amounts of iced tea to combat the excessive heat, and had a fun, though ridiculously busy, long weekend. Among one of the many little surprises was running into my jr. high algebra teacher, Mrs. Shue. I don't think I've seen her since I left the halls of Fairmont Jr. High, but there was no mistaking her long, flowing hair (though it contained a few more silvery streaks), the long, flowing skirts, and the Birks.

Mrs. Shue is something of a marvel to me. As an "A" student, math of any kind was the bane of my existence. It didn't come easily. And even once I learned a concept, it slipped out of my memory banks within weeks, if not days. Algebra I was the worst of all maths. And here was this teacher who patiently worked with me before school, during breaks, and after school, thinking of any number of ways to explain a basic concept. She didn't give up. And her ever-patient smile was always waiting. I managed a B+ that year, for which I was extremely grateful. And when I showed up at her door the following year for Algebra II, she greeted me with that same patient smile (though I think we both inwardly groaned with the thought of, "Here we go again."). We survived another hard fought year together, and I think the thing that struck me the most was not that she was so patient and persistent with me. It's that she was that patient and persistent with EVERYONE. I was one of many. She had what I think of as an 'energetic calm.' She was the Energizer Bunny of teachers, and yet had that totally feel-good calmness that washed over you as soon as you entered her classroom. It was good to see her and let her know the impact she had. It's going to take some doing, however, to call her "Dorothy," as she requested.

It was her image that was brought to mind today when I sipped Traditional Guayusa (pronounced gwhy-you-sa) for the first time today. Runa Amazon Guayusa was kind enough to send some samples to me of this infusion. A caffeinated holly leaf native to Ecuador, guayusa is purported to contain an exceptional balance of caffeine, antioxidants, vitamins, and amino acids. In my mind - an energetic calm. As I steeped the leaves, I noticed a slightly sweet, almost banana scent, which I found very interesting. My husband said it smelled like a green tea, and I could sense the tiniest grassy element. Then, the first sip. I was surprised at how it hit my palate very similarly to a mild black tea blend. The brew seemed to coat my tongue just slightly more than your average black tea, but it finished with a subtle, natural sweetness. A cup of guayusa has nearly double the caffeine of a cup of black tea, though about 30% less than a cup of coffee. A bonus is that it contains 50% more antioxidants than green tea. For those tea lovers who are looking for the benefit of additional antioxidants and caffeine, this is a very good alternative.  I'm looking forward to trying their flavored blends, such as Peppermint, Ginger Citrus, and Guayusa Spice.

It's always fun to discover how different cultures have their own version of the 'tea' tradition. I wonder if Mrs. Shue, um, Dorothy would enjoy it?

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Secret Ingredient Moment

With my current obsession mix of tea, mysteries, writing, and food, what better way to bring them all together than a visit from the author of The Teashop Girls, Laura Schaefer, who is getting ready for the release of her sequel, The Secret Ingredient! Here's a preview of what you'll find in her book:
It’s nearing the end of summer before ninth grade and Annie has been busy working as a barista at her grandmother's teashop, The Steeping Leaf.  In between serving up chai lattes and matcha frappes, Annie has gotten involved in a scone bakeoff with one of Louisa's tea suppliers. The winner gets an all-expenses paid trip to London for a tea vacation! Annie The competition is tough and sabatoge is in the air when suddenly Annie's food blog begins attracting mean comments. Then there's the whole matter of a stolen kiss with Zach Anderson in the Steeping Leaf stockroom. Could Annie's former sworn enemy become her current love interest? With the help of her two best friends, Genna and Zoe, can Annie come up with an awesome contest entry and sort out her love life before the end of the summer?

So, of course, my question for Laura was, "What is the Tea Shop Girl's ideal tea moment with friends?"

My ideal tea moment has several important ingredients. First, the tea has to be delicious...high quality loose leaf in a pretty pot, preferably steeped for 3-4 minutes. Some people who are new to tea under-steep. A lot of my favorite teas are the ones that have been blended with interesting flavors such as apricot, ginger, or even pink grapefruit. When you try herbal blends, the interesting varieties are almost endless. Next, I love having tea with cucumber sandwiches or scones. When I was writing The Secret Ingredient, I made scones many times. They're easier than you think to whip up, and they can be a perfect way to express your creativity as a baker. I started with a basic recipe and then let my mind wander...what would be good in a scone? In the book, you'll find combinations such as a sun-dried tomato, aged cheddar, bacon scone and a green apple toffee scone. I think having both sweet and savory varieties is ideal for a great tea moment.

The most important ingredient for tea is a good friend. Annie, my main character, makes it a point to meet with her two best friends Genna and Zoe every week for tea. As we get older, it gets more difficult to keep standing plans like this, but it makes life so rich. We have to make the effort. I'm in my thirties, and it's cool to notice how all my longtime friends are really making an effort to stay connected, even the ones who live in different states. Having a ritual like tea helps friends make the most out of their time together. I've also noticed that many of my friends (myself included) are really trying to live healthfully. Tea can be a part of that effort.

It occurs to me that warm weather is another great ingredient for a perfect tea moment. The Steeping Leaf, the fictional tea shop in my books, has a patio and on a summer day like today, it would be packed. Tea can been a great comfort when you have a chill, but it's also an ideal summertime beverage. I pretty much always have a pitcher of iced tea in my fridge. Summer sun, welcome to tea time!

To find out more about The Secret Ingredient, released this week, please visit

My thanks to Laura for sharing her characters' ideal tea moment with me! Congratulations on the release of your sequel to The Teashop Girls! Readers can order a copy of The Secret Ingredient right here!

Laura Schaefer