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The Tea House Challenge at Lake Louise

a.k.a. one of the best goddamned days of my life.

I’m so excited we’ve finally arrived here!

I wanted to share this with everyone for so long. Someday I am going to become a tea house hermit in the Canadian wilderness. It’s only a matter of time.


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The Tea House Challenge

The Tea House Challenge is a 14.6km round-trip hike that starts at the base of Lake Louise and takes you in to and behind the mountains around the lake, and back again.

It should be considered a sacred pilgrimage for any tea-lover who finds themselves in western Canada.

At least, that’s how I feel about it.

There are two tea houses: the Lake Agnes Tea House, and the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House. Each has it’s own trail, or you can combine them into a super trail for the longer Tea House Challenge Route, which is what we did.

You don’t need any maps. The trail is straightforward. When you reach Lake Louise, follow the path that leads towards the back of the lake and you’ll come to the trailhead naturally.

Everything can clearly marked, with lots of good signposts along the way. A lot of the signs were in miles. Canada only got their metric act together in the 70s, and a lot of the signs have been here much longer.

And hey, we made this awesome video to share with you.

It starts off on a rainy morning. We saw lightning strikes as we headed across the Lake Louise Parkway.

We weren’t allowed to film inside the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House. They have a no-media policy to preserve the atmosphere and let their guests tune in to nature instead. Totally fine by me. Their chocolate cake made everything okay.

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Okay, so I did sneak one photo. Of this mostly-eaten cake. I couldn’t stop myself; the cake was half-gone before I even picked my camera up.

Not in the video: When we arrived at the Lake Agnes Tea House (with only enough money for one chai!) the staff at the Lake Agnes Tea House gave us a note to take to the staff at the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House. In exchange (and out of the kindness of their hearts) they gave us a cookie.

The two sets of staff hang out together and walk the path between tea houses all the time. They also walk up and down the mountain nearly every day, with trash or to get supplies.

The note said, “See you for church night. Don’t stand us up again!”

I asked our server what church night is.

“Oh, it’s half off wings and beer down in town.”

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The Banff Tea Company provides the tea for the Plain of Six Glaciers tea house. I visited the tea company in Banff the day before (because of course I did) and there I learned that the woman who started the Banff Tea Company now owns the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House.

The Banff Tea Company even does a special Plain of Six Glaciers herbal blend. I got this and some of their Traveller’s Tea. They do a lot of specialty blends with rocky mountains and Albertan themes. Definitely visit them if you’re in Banff.

You can’t buy any loose tea at the tea house. Bringing up stock is difficult so they only keep on hand what they need to cook for guests. If you want to buy tea, best stock up in Banff before or after.

The Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House is pretty old. It was built in 1927 by two Swiss guides for the Canadian Pacific Railway. There is also a dog named Arlo-Barlo.

The Lake Agnes Tea House is the oldest tea house in Canada. It was built in 1901 by the Canadian Pacific Railway and started serving tea in 1905. They have been serving tea for 110 years.

Honestly, walking up to the Lake Agnes Tea House was like walking into Rivendell. We were so tired and it was such a paradise. There’s even a waterfall with stairs going up the side you have to climb to get there.

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For Canada, that’s mighty old.

That’s a lot of cups of tea.

It was so chilly outside the tea house and warm inside with the ovens going that thick condensation hugged the windows. It was so cozy. I could have spent the whole day here.

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I don’t know if you can tell, but I am VERY happy here.

Also, we had some ridiculously good photo weather. I mean, and this is half brag and half incredulity, but just look at these!

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I kept feeling like I was in Jurassic Park, or a new Mac OS screensaver. Either way, goddamn lucky. It was rainy and overcast when we left (as you can see in the video). Never thought we’d get clouds or sun like this.

The photo above is a piece of the mountain known as the Big Beehive.

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If you do this route, don’t forget to bring cash.

The Lake Agnes Tea house is cash only, and Plain of Six Glaciers did take our VISA, but bring cash, that way you’re good no matter what.

Ask me any questions you want about the trail! Is there anything I forgot to add?

And (of course) a rainbow at the end of the day to tie it all together.

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This was a day when I felt really lucky to be alive and be human and get to climb mountains and drink tea and see rainbows.

The world is a really extraordinary place. I’m very privileged and lucky, but you know what? A lot of people who can afford to, don’t even make time for little pleasures, like looking at rainbows, and drinking tea. They say they can’t, or just don’t think of it.

Make time for those things, okay guys? They’re really important.

And you know what? Rainbows are free. Tea is nearly free.

What’s that phrase, “the best things in life…”

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Day 16 Costs:

  • Family Diner, Lupper for 2: $34.29
  • Lake Agnes Tea House, Chai Latté: $4.00
  • Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House (chocolate cake, 2 sandwiches, soup with corn chips, chai latte, 2 bottles of water, lemonade): $53.80

Total: $92.09

Tea Reviews

The Chai Palace

The Chai Palace is a Canadian tea company based in Mississauga, Ontario. All their tea is blended and packaged in Canada. According to their website, many of their teas are sourced through the Ethical Tea Partnership, which aims to improve the lives of tea farmers in source countries and maintain a sustainable industry.

Owner Reema Farooqui grew up in Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan, where tea culture is abundant and blending your own chai is the norm. After being disappointed with the artificial tastes and flavours she found in stores here, she decided to start blending her own chai using recipes handed down in her family, and The Chai Palace was born.

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Tea Places

Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon

I was walking down a desolate street in the middle of a hot afternoon and. Closed signs and shuttered doors of bars and theatres stared back blankly at me as if to say, “Don’t you know what time it is? Come back later.”

Then I reached the intersection I was looking for at northwest Everett street in central Portland, Oregon. Kitty corner across from me there was a big pair of stone gates with Chinese characters. Beyond them, an oasis and a tea house.

Lán Sū Chinese Gardens in Portland, Oregon is the result of a collaboration between Portland and their sister city, Suzhou, in Jiangsu province in China. Suzhou is known for its beautiful Ming Dynasty gardens. Although I’m no expert, Lan Su staff say the Lan Su garden in Portland is one of the most authentic Chinese gardens outside of China. A wealthy 16th century family home is recreated inside the garden.

Lan Su Chinese Gardens in the sun.

Lan Su Chinese Gardens in the sun. It really was a crazy hot day. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

The tea house inside at the back of the garden is run by The Tao of Tea and set inside a building known as The Tower of Cosmic Reflection. It’s the coolest place name I’ve ever heard.

I recommend doing the garden and house tour first and then stopping for tea and snacks at the end.

This was my first time having someone present “gong fu cha” to me and the Lán Sū Chinese Gardens were the perfect backdrop.

Sitting by the open window of the second floor of the tea house, I felt more like I was in Suzhou than Portland.

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My server was extremely knowledgeable and quick to recommend the Frozen Summit Oolong when I asked him to suggest a favourite. Healso had a great flare for showmanship, pouring my tea with grace and flourishing the wet leaves under my nose to sniff. As he performed the gong fu ceremony he explained every step.

This was the start of my west coast oolong kick.

Frozen Summit is a single origin tea from Lugu in Central Taiwan. I should mention that The Tao of Tea is a local Portland company. They provide all the tea in the Lán Sū Tea house and are a 100% pure leaf tea company, meaning they use no artificial flavours, colours, or preservatives.

Gongu fu cha

Gong fu cha is what you call the traditional Chinese tea ceremony and it literally means, “making tea with effort/skill“.

While not as rigorous or formal as Japanese tea ceremony, gong fu still has specific rituals surrounding it. The idea is for you to be conscious/present when you pour the tea. Basically, put some effort into it.

Gong Fu paraphernalia includes an unglazed clay tea pot, a serving pitcher, several small clay tea cups, a set of bamboo tongs for moving tea leaves, a ceramic bowl for holding the tea leaves, and a slotted tray to capture overflowing water.

All the gongu fu cha paraphernalia.

All the gongu fu cha paraphernalia. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

I asked my host to treat me like an absolute novice when it comes to Chinese tea.

We begin the ceremony by having me smell the dry tea leaves in the white porcelain bowl.

THen he takes the tea from the bowl using his bamboo tongs and drops them into the clay  tea pot. He adds hot water (around 85˚C), and swirls it around in the teapot, before dumping it into the serving vessel (as seen in the photo above).

This first infusion is just to ‘awaken’ the leaves. It gets poured out and the hot water is added again for the first drinking infusion.

A trademark of gong fu cha is the multiple steeps. The first steep is quite short – about 15 seconds for this oolong.

Subsequent steeps become longer and longer – adding about 10 seconds each time.

Once the tea is sufficiently steeped, it’s poured into the serving pitcher (the thing that looks like a gravy boat). This is so that all the tea you drink from this steep has a consistent flavour. My host tells me this oolong will be good for about seven steeps, and has me smell the wet, steeped tea leaves to appreciate their aroma.

From there, it’s poured into the tall “aroma” cup. Then, the shorter drinking cup gets placed over it and flipped upside down to empty the aroma cup contents into the drinking cup.

I’m then given the aroma cup to smell – once again, appreciating the tea. After that, I continue to sip from the small drinking cup.

You repeat the process over and over for each steep until the serving pitcher is empty.

My host said I didn’t have to flip the aroma cup over every time – that I could just pour the tea straight into the drinking cup from the serving pitcher if I liked, but it was too much fun flipping over the cup. Did you hear the ‘bloop’ noise in the video above?

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Lan Su Chinese Gardens also had amazing snacks. Dumplings, veggies, and larger meals were available too. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

Marbled tea egg at Lan Su Chinese Gardens. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

Marbled tea egg at Lan Su Chinese Gardens. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

There are a few different types of light snack on offer. I tried steamed dumplings, bao-zi (steamed buns), and a marbled tea egg.

All were good, although I wish there had been meat-filled steamed buns available. I recommend the marbled tea egg for the more adventurous. It has a unique taste; a combination of soy sauce, star anise, and pine-smoked tea. The smokey flavour really comes through. You’re served the egg at room temperature or slightly warm.

There is a lot on offer for tea drinkers here. If I were a Portlander, you would probably find me sleeping under the tables.

In terms of atmosphere, clay pots line every spare inch of the shelving. Chatty patrons are sitting in bamboo chairs and at wood tables. The smell of dumplings snakes through the air from the kitchen entrance. Students from the local Wisdom Arts Academy play soft, traditional Chinese music on their liuyeqin and yangqin instruments.

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Altogether a wonderful experience. Even if you’re not a hardcore tea drinker, I think anyone would enjoy this combination of delicious snacks, tea and heritage under one roof.

Entering the the Lán Sū Gardens costs $9.50 for adults, $7 for students.

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Tea Events

Everything You Missed at Halifax’s First Tea Festival

Warning: Long Post!

AN EARLY WEEKEND in April saw Halifax’s inaugural tea festival. During April 11th and 12th, tea enthusiasts and friends of tea enthusiasts flocked to the gymnasium in the basement of the United Church on Brunswick street for a weekend full of tea learning and exhibitors.

Frank Harris of Just Us! pours a cup of properly brewed tea for a participant in his Frank Harris of Just Us! pours a cup of properly brewed tea for a participant in his “Brewing the Perfect Cup” workshop on Sunday afternoon.

Both days saw a well-attended event, with guests skirting around kettles of hot water being walked around the room to fuel the tea samples offered at each booth. There was live local music between workshops, and even a Russian bellydance performance.

The Vendors & Workshops

Tea Geek’ery owner Lacey Bain kicked off the workshops on Saturday with Grow Your Own Tea 101  . ‘Grow Your Own Tisanes’ might have been more accurate, as she doesn’t actually grow tea plants, but does grow a number of organic herbs and produce which she then blends to create delicious herbal infusions, such as the Apple Bliss they were offering samples of.

Laceland, her family’s farm in the valley uses no pesticides, and no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives make their way into her teas. She started blending and drinking tea in response to skin and stomach problems, and developed the business once she discovered her love for putting things in hot water. She also recalls being a child and creating a dandelion-infusion for her Dad to drink, which he did, despite its questionable taste.

Extremely popular at Tea Geekery’s booth was the ‘mix your own tea’ station, featuring a number of jars containing organic steepables. “We brought 28 jars of product thinking it would last both days, but we blew through that in one day,” said Lacey. For the tea they can’t grow, they source organically from all over the world, “black and white tea from China, Rooibos from South Africa, Chamomile from Germany.” I ask her what their most popular blends are. “In the valley they like vanilla crisp and dulcie chai, the familiar flavours.”

Not only was there lots of tea at the festival, but tea accessories as well. Estylle, based in Fall River, does made-to-order tea cosies, mug cosies, and pretty much anything else you can find on Pinterest. Apparently, beanie beards and Minions hats were big this Christmas, “I must have made fifty,” says founder Serena Gauthier.

The festival wasn’t all small, local vendors; King Cole also had a booth and were offering  strawberry pineapple tea – hot or cold. While I was skeptical of how much ‘tea’ was actually in this summer concoction, it was nice to learn that all King Cole products are blended locally in Sussex, New Brunswick, and that the company that runs it all (Barbours) is almost 150 years old. They also employ one of the two North American Tea Masters, Des McCarthy. It’s still not clear to me what exactly being a “tea master” entails, or how you receive that designation, but I’ll admit, it’s very cool sounding.

I was really exited to see a table from Novel Tea in Truro at the festival! I’ve been meaning to visit this place. They offer really good good, lots of tea paraphernaelia, and second hand books. What’s not to like? They’re also expanding their shop this year, and I hear the mango lemon iced tea is really good.

Satya Tea (above) is one of the larger local vendors I didn’t even know existed before the festival. They currently offer 244 types of tea – all blended and packaged here in Halifax. For so many teas, the company has only two employees, co-owners Laura Evans and David Moore.

One of the more unique vendors, Sense & SensibiliTea markets their old-school English tea and chocolates with steampunk flare and a lot of history.

Owner Wanda Aulenback (seen above with the amazing tea holdster) was originally a costume studies student at Dal, but ended up studying history. A perfect combo for her venture, and her ‘Tea for Time Travellers’ workshop was full of great historical facts.

Did you know? In the 17th and 18th century, the English would steep their tea over and over again, until all the flavour was gone?  Bergamot was first adde to tea to mask the stale or old tea smell. Once people realized they enjoyed the scent so much, it was added to fresher tea as well and Earl Grey was born.

Did you know? Most tea cups didn’t have handles when the drink first landed in Britain. The cup was held with two fingers – one on top and one on bottom, until women complained and requested handles be put on.

Did you know? John Hancock, inciter of the Boston Tea Party riots was actually a tea smuggler. He wanted people to buy his cheaper, smuggled tea instead of the government-sanctioned tea sold by the East India Company. He started the rumour of a ‘tea tax’ to rile people up, but really he just wanted to sell his contraband tea since the East India Company had a monopoly at the time.

Next, I had Penny Lighthall read my tea leaves.

This was my most esoteric experience at the tea festival. In my tea Ieaves Penny found the following symbols: a wanderer, a dryad (“It’s like a hobbit hut not a hobbit; Bigger than a pixie, not a leprechaun.”), a sleeping dragon, a thunderbird, a freshwater tap, a mermaid, several small bats, and a few baby dragons.

If you’re into Rorshach ink blots and the mystical, you’ll love this. The funnest part was actually seeing the shapes she’d point out, and thinking, “Yeah, that does look like a baby dragon!” Penny was very nice to talk to, and she’s also a bird whisperer.

Steeped Tea was also present – you may know them as the brand owned by the couple (Tonia and Hatem Jahshan) from Hamilton, Ontario who struck it big with this idea on Dragon’s Den a few years ago. They had a smokey ranch dip infused with lapsang souchon there – I can attest it was very tasty.

Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-Op was also there. Although their forefront foray has always been coffee, they’re making their way more into the tea game as well. They were selling tea-infused truffles made at their Grand Pré location. I tried dark, smokey chocolate with lapsang souchon and sea salt. Too many weaknesses combined.

According to Spring Garden location manager Justin, they also do a unique lapsang latté with honey – sounds awesome.

Just Us!’s internal sales rep, Frank Harris (above) also gave a workshop about brewing tea correctly, “the grower can make it perfectly, it was be packaged perfectly, but if brewed the wrong way can be ruined.” He also joked during his presentation about how his parents used to brew tea – the typical English way – steeped too long and strong. “What they were trying to do was turn it into coffee”‘ he jokes.

Laurel Schut’s Kombucha DIY workshop taught me what a SCOBY is (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast, and a “slimy pancake”) and how to make this effervescent drink at home.

Humani-T Café co-owner Nehmat Sobhani gave an inspiring talk about tea, From Plantation To Your Cup where he spoke extremely knowledgeably about the production of all types of white – from white to black and everything in between, including rooibos, and yerba maté (which he is holding in the photo below).  Of all the vendors, I ended up speaking with him the most.

Nehmat is originally from Iran and moved to Nova Scotia in 1983. He studied electrical engineering at Dalhousie University (then TUNS), but after he graduated it seemed the only jobs available were all weapons-related. Not wanting his legacy to be missile-tracking systems, he instead went into business.

As a teenager he attended school in Kandi, Sri Lanka. Conveniently, many of his classmates grew up to be tea plantation owners who he does business with today. He has even climbed Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, a famous 2,250 metre high tea-growing mountain, the tea from which is extremely rare and expensive. The roots of the tea plant on high peaks like this sometimes go 100 feet deep into the side of the mountains, to get at the fresh spring water underneath.

You can see the passion that runs the business, when he tells us, “Tea enhances community building, enhances conversation,” or poetically describes unoxidized leaves drying on long swathes of white fabric as, “a green lake, with the tea leaves shimmering.”

In the photo above, left to right you’ll see: Nehmat, his nephew Kiyan Sobhani and brother Shahrooz Sobhani, who all co-own and run Humani-T’s two locations.

Truly a family business, many of the cafés treats are based on family recipes, “that is one my father used to make” he says as he points at their Raw Energy Squares. Nehmat also describes his father buying teas, “a but of ceylon, a bit of assam, a bit of darjeeling” and blending them until he found the “right” flavour.

Their Prince of Persia blend, for example is from four plantations in Sri Lanka. It is blended to hit both parts of your tongue, “the taste that hits the back of the tongue is the one that has you running for your next cup of tea.” Nehmat grins. I try it cold. It is very good.

Their Rooibos Chai is also available for testing. Nehmat describes how when they first decided to have a chai, they thought they would buy the blend from India, “who better to make it?” However, when they had their first import, the chai they opened smelled strongly of chemicals, and other additives, something against the Humani-T philosophy. “We sent it back.” Indians known how to make chai beautifully at home, but corporate India had sent them something very different.

Taking matters into their own hands, they bought a german stone mill to crush their own chai spices: cardamom, fennel, cloves, cinnamon, peppercorn, ginger… “A lot of the stuff in here will treat Schedule A diseases: cancer, arthritis, etc. Of course, I’m not allowed to tell you that.” he winks.

He explains how chai is very thermogenic (creates warmth) and how rooibos can help with digestion and is also caffeine-free. “There’s also very little tannic acid – you can boil and boil without damaging it, and also reuse it. It’s very forgiving to make.”

When they decided to sell matcha, they ran into a similar problem as they did with the chai. They ordered a matcha mix from California, but it had an ingredient-list a mile long, and included several processed sugars. Again, they sent it back and decided to come up with a better solution.

Matcha lattés are ‘blasphemous’ I’m told, but when you order one at Humani-T, at least you get real matcha powder (with one ingredient: matcha), blended with milk and a bit of honey. No chemicals or additional processing here.

I’m sold. I buy both the Prince of Persia and the Rooibos Chai. I’ve been drinking the rooibos chai every night since. It’s one of the best chai blends I’ve ever had.

Humani-Tea opened as a café in 2010, so be sure to stop by sometime as they celebrate their 5th anniversary this year.

Margot Bureaux was Nova Scotia’s first certified tea sommelier. She laid out a fantastic presentation in her Tea Cupping and Overview of World Teas workshop, which included a full rainbow of tea-tasting. Everything from light peach-fuzz whites to the dark brick of puerh, including her favourite (Golden Hand-rolled Himalayan Tips Black Tea from Nepal).

May attendees from her packed session came up afterwards to grab a silver spoon and try the many variations.

Misc. Fun Facts From The Vendors:

  • Puerh tea used to be used as currency during the Ming and Qing dynasties in China.
  • All tea is camelia sinensis, but assamica species do better in humid temperatures, thus why it’s grown more in India.
  • Powdering green tea in Japan began so that more volume could fit on the donkeys carrying it up the mountain to the monasteries.
  • You should keep a tea pot for every different kind of tea, so each can develop a patina for its flavour.
  • Tea cosies aren’t dumb (as I had previous thought) – they actually do keep your tea warmer much longer.
  • The tea that makes it into tea bags is often the lowest of the low quality.
  • ‘Masala Chai’ means ‘spicy tea’. Masala = spicy; chai = tea. So ‘Masala Chai’ is technically what we call ‘chai’ in English. Chai just means any tea to the rest of the world.
  • Crew of ships in 1700s that carried tea would not get scurvy. Drinking tea seemed to offset the effects.
  • Matcha must be ground slowly in order to prevent the heat from friction, which would cause oxidation.
  • Licorice is an aphrodisiac.

A couple changes I would love to see next year:

  • Better location. The window-less basement gymnasium had intensely fluorescent, yellow-green lighting that made you feel like you were in a Cold War bunker. It was hard on the eyes, and going outside afterwards made you feel like a mole-person emerging from the ground after many years.
  • Separate area for workshops. The workshops took place in the middle of the market floor. Because of the building’s acoustics, even with the mic-system they had rigged up it was often difficult to hear speakers, and awkward as people were shopping five feet away, and trying to move through the crowd that had stopped to listen.

You can visit the Halifax Tea Festival website for more information. The whole festival was pulled together almost single-handedly by Ashton Rodenheiser, along with a faithful assortment of volunteers. Pretty impressive for such a small group.

If you’re a tea drinker or tea vendor, I would definitely email Ashton about signing up for next year — I can see this one becoming a successful Halifax annual.

All the best, and happy tea drinking. Now signing off from this mammoth post and going to reward myself with a certain hot beverage.

Mel

Tea Places

The Russian tea room in Massachusetts

The phrase, “You like Russia? You should visit Clinton, in Massachusetts.” is high on a list of things I never thought I’d hear at the Women in Travel Summit in Boston, but it happened, so I went.

Included in the price of purchasing my conference ticket was the chance to visit the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton. It was definitely the curveball stop in our otherwise conventional list of “Johnny Appleseed Country” type visits on our regional tour, but it ended up being my favourite place because of its interesting history and complete randomness.

The front door to the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

The front door to the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

An interesting history

So how did this Museum of Russian icons end up in small town Massachusetts? The answer — an eccentric millionaire: Gordon B. Lankton.

Lankton built his fortune as CEO of Nypro, Inc., a plastics company. Before Nypro he was a plastics engineer and a soldier. He was an avid traveller, and even wrote a memoir about the motorcycle trip he took around the world in 1956 and 1957 after being stationed in Germany. He wanted to visit Russia for a long time but because of his soldier status he was unable to enter Russia during the Cold War.

Once the war ended he went to Russia. With the help of a Russian-speaking tour guide he toured local markets and bazaars and acquired his first icon at a flea market in the Izmaylovo District in Russia

This was where his obsession with Russian icons began.

Now Lankton travels to Russia and buys up all the icons he can find. He’s been doing it for the past thirty years. He built the museum to house his collection and it currently has over 700 Russian icons and related artifacts. As a result, he has the largest collection of Russian icons in North America.

Their oldest icon is from 1450 and they have an old cross from the 5th century.

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The whole museum was lit with these really subtle, pulsing LEDs that according to the guide are meant to mimic the light coming in through a stained glass window. There’s also traditional Christian Orthodox monk chanting music playing softly in the background. The museum itself has also been blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church, so it’s actually possible for Christian Orthodox couples to be married here. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

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Russian icons

An icon is a religious painting done by the Russian Orthodox Christians. The tradition can be traced back to AD988 in Russia (called Kievan Rus at the time). Icons depict saints, so Russian Orthodox Christians kept them in their homes and churches for luck and prayed to them. Smaller icons were carried by soldiers into battle or by travellers as a good luck charm. They’re often made of wood painted with egg tempura.

Early Orthodox Christians in Russia thought of icons as portals to the divine. I’ve been told that if hordes were invading a village, the resident holy man would run towards the invading horde with an icon raised for protection.

There is also a specific way to portray each Saint and there are over 450 ways to paint the Virgin Mary.

That sounds like a song lyric, doesn’t it?

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One of the most beautiful and unique aspects of Russian Icons I learned about were minyeia. Pictured above, these are calendars with each day featuring one or more saints. The details were so miniscule. Our museum guide told us that some brushes might only have one hair on them, and that the painters would have to paint, “between heartbeats”. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

Russian tea room

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Although it was awe-inspiring to be in the presence of ancient icons, I was equally excited when we made our way to the tea room in the basement. This cozy space featured lots of Kusmi Teas (also available in the gift shop) and various Russian snacks.

Although they keep a Keurig which provides the hot water for day-to-day guests like myself, they had a whole back wall full of beautiful samovars.

Samovars

Samovars are the traditional water heating tools for tea in Russia, Turkey and parts of the Middle East. They’re an old tradition, but not as old as the icons upstairs — the first known samovar was manufactured in 1717. “One is electric,” our tour guide grins, “but we take the plug out when it’s on display.”

If you visit on an average day you’ll likely get your water from the Keurig in the room, but the museum does host a Russian tea ceremony once a month.

I had Kusmi’s Prince Wladimir, an earl grey base blended with vanilla and spices.  It was pretty good for a bagged tea and appropriately Russian, but I wish we’d gotten to use the samovars.

Still, for a tea junkie like me it was nice just to see their collection of samovars had a place among the ancient icons in this strangely old yet futuristic building.

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If you go, entrance is $10 for adults and $5 for students. See if you can catch the Russian tea ceremony. If tea and icons aren’t you’re fancy, the building’s energy-efficient design and LED lighting scheme are impressive nonetheless.

Tea Education

How to Make Great Matcha

 

What is this mystical, green beverage?

Matcha (抹茶): It’s fun to prepare, has a cool history, tastes awesome and is also pretty healthy.

First off, what’s it made of?  Matcha is made from finely ground, high-quality green tea leaves.  The same stuff used to make gyokuro green tea.  A few weeks before harvesting the leaves,  the bushes are covered to prevent direct sunlight. This causes an increase in chlorophyll levels and amino acids (where the green tea gets its taste from).

The finest buds are selected to become matcha, and are painstakingly ground up (a very slow process) until they’re a fine powder which resembles green flour.

Fun fact: even after grinding, matcha remains incredibly photosensitive as well as vulnerable to oxidation. It should be stored in a dark, airtight container.

The technique for making matcha was originally brought over to Japan from Chinese monks in the late 12th Century, but over time its use in China has diminished, while its importance and popular use for Japanese Tea Ceremony (sado/chado – 茶道 lit. ‘the way of the tea’) has made it flourish in Japan.

Luckily for photographers (and pop culture), Its beautiful green hue makes it a ridiculously photogenic beverage.

 

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Here is a small confession: I actually made this matcha ‘wrong’ in these two photos above, with too much water so that I could photograph the pretty transparent gradient colour that it makes.  Actually, this way, it almost resembles koicha (thick) matcha.

Next history lesson: there are two kinds of matcha.

The first is usucha (薄茶 lit. ‘thin tea’). This matcha is made from younger tea bushes. It’s what you see at most tea ceremonies, and is probably what you’ve had if you’ve ever tried matcha. It is by far the more popular and more consumed kind.  It forms a nice, light green froth at the top when you whisk it.  This is the kind of matcha I’ll be talking about making today.

The second, koicha (濃茶 lit. ‘thick tea’), is made form older tea bushes, and thus has a milder flavour. You mix it with much less water, and it kind of resembles a green face mask goo sludge (Google ‘koicha matcha’; you’ll see what I mean).  Pretty much the only place you will find this is at longer, traditional Japanese tea ceremonies.

Now, to make up for my incorrectly made (but fun to photograph) matcha above, here is a picture of properly made matcha (drink it when it looks like this!) in the same cup:

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See the nice light green froth with tiny bubbles on the top? Mmmm.

Why Would You Drink This?

Other than being freaking delicious (the Japanese have EVERYTHING matcha flavoured), matcha is also just really good for you. Similar to regular green tea, it boosts your metabolism, contains antioxidants (I’ve been told), and it just makes you feel good. It contains all the same organic compounds as regular green tea, just a bit more intense. As with regular green tea, the concentration of the amino acid theanine counterbalances the caffeine, so you don’t get the same jittery feeling as with coffee.  It’s also widely known and used as a mood-booster.

If you Google ‘green tea health benefits’, you get all kinds of crazy buzzword-filled diet and healthy lifestyle website. I’d take it all with a grain of salt. I’m not a biochemist, but I do love the way tea makes me feel, which is pretty happy on the inside.

Partaking in tea ceremonies in Japan (as well as China and Korea) is also an important social event, and a community-builder. You share a bond with the people you share tea with.

Do you remember Plato’s Symposium, circa  370 B.C.?A bunch of dudes sitting around drinking wine and philosophizing? Japan was all over that same thing, just a bit later. Tea houses were originally places where men would go to talk of war, or philosophize on nature, life, and the like.  Sen no Rikyū is the most famous tea guy in Japanese history.  He was a huge political and cultural influencer in the late 16th century, and his tea houses were like war chambers- secret retreats for the elite to plot their next moves.  He’s also really cool, and I recommend you read up on him a bit, if you’re into that sort of thing.

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A little bit of water with the matcha powder in the mug so you can see the colour difference between the wet and dry powder.

Matcha tools! (What You Need to Make Matcha)

  • No. 1:  Matcha powder 
  • No. 2:  A Chawan (茶碗)
    • traditional Japanese tea drinking bowl. If you’re fresh out of chawans, a latte mug will do.
  • No. 3:  A Bamboo whisk (茶筅 – chasen)
    • This is actually pretty important. Regular whisks don’t do a very good job of blending up the superfine matcha powder. These bamboo ones cost $10-$20, and are well worth the investment. You can find them at David’s Tea, on Amazon, or just around. I’ve seen these at Winners.
  • No. 4:  A Measuring Utensil (optional)
    • I like my matcha pretty specific, but there’s no logical reason you can’t eyeball it. Traditionally, bamboo scoops are used in Japan.
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How To Make Matcha Tea (A Step-by-Step Guide):

  • No. 1:  Boil your water.
    • We don’t want to use super-hot water here.  We’re aiming more for like 70˚- 80˚C. The reason being is that the amino acids in green tea dissolve at 60˚C, and tannins dissolve at 80˚C. The tannins are the compounds that make tea taste bitter. Good tasting green tea should always taste slightly sweet, green, and  be made using water between 50˚– 80˚C (depending on which kind of green tea you’re making). Without going on too much of a scientific tangent, basically we aim for water in this range so that we don’t have too many tannins sneaking out and ruining the taste of our tea. It is also one of the many reasons why green tea made from instant-cup-type machines always tastes horrible.
  • No. 2:  Once your water boils, pour some of it into your  mug.
    • Fill it half way. We’re preheating our mug for the tea the same way you do when you’re making proper espresso.  I also sit my bamboo whisk in the warm water so it’s the same temperature as well.
  • No. 3:  Wait for your water cool down a bit. Listen to a song.
    • If you’re really fancy, you can stick a thermometer in your water to make sure you get the temperature exactly right.  I usually wait about 4-5 minutes after my water boils, and that seems to be just right.
    • If you’re looking for song recommendations, Spotify has this Indie Brunch playlist that I’m pretty into right now.
  • No. 4:  Dump the heating water out of your mug – dry it – SIFT in .5 TBSP of matcha.
    • Similar to icing sugar, matcha clumps together due to static electricity.  Sift that powder to break it up and deliver a smoother cup of matcha. Also, you get to feel like a wizard while you’re sifting green powder and little green poofs of smoke are drifting up over your mug.  I measure my matcha and dump it into the sieve, then jiggle it back and forth until all the matcha falls through.
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  • No. 5:  Add the hot water.
    • I’ve found that about 1/2 a cup of water per half tablespoon is the right ratio for me, but fool around until you find something that works for you.
  • No. 6:  Whisk!
    • Whisk in a “W” shape, up and down from left to right, quickly and lightly, using your wrist and not your whole arm.  You’ll know you’re done when a light green froth with tiny bubbles forms.
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  • No. 7:  Drink and enjoy <3
    • You did it! Drink up. Traditional Japanese wagashi (sweets) make a great compliment, but so do kit kat bars, gingerbread cookies, or bananas and peanut butter.

Matcha Troubleshooting Guide:

  • No froth formed? Or not enough?
    • Try adding less water. Or if you’re already invested, try adding more matcha.
  • Too bitter?
    • The water might have been too hot;
    • You might have used too much powder (if it’s kind of chalky tasting);
    • The matcha powder might be past its best before date, or lost its prime due to environmental factors.  You can tell when matcha has gone ‘bad’ because it’ll have a dull greenish/brown colour. Good, fresh matcha is bright, bright green.
  • Chunks of powder in your drink?
    • Try sifting it more beforehand, and making sure you whisk it thoroughly for an even blend.

So there you have it! I hope you found this useful and I hope you make lots of matcha! I spent some time gathering everything I thought was useful, but if you have something extra to share, or more questions, please do so in the comments!

If you have trouble finding any of the tools or matcha powder itself, shoot me a line in the comments and I’ll try to help you out.  I want this to be the best matcha guide ever, so if I think of things to add I’ll update them into post.