Wednesday, April 27, 2011

WillKat Royal Tea

I have a lot (tea-wise) to thank the British for:

The first thank you would be for a specific British person: the Duchess of Bedford, Anna Russell. In the early 1800's, there was a breakfast, and a dinner that usually happened past 7:00pm. A new meal called a luncheon was created, but many felt their stomachs grumble before dinner time came around. The luncheon was a light meal, and the Duchess Anna Russell often complained of hunger pains. Not wanting to disturb the servants who were busy preparing her a hearty dinner, she decided she would take tea at around 3:00pm. Originally she only had buttered bread with her tea, but it slowly grew into a more lavish and ritualized event with scones and tasty sandwiches. She enjoyed this tea time so much, she started inviting her friends (one of which was Her Majesty Queen Victoria) to join her. And whatever the Queen did, the upper class did. And whatever the upper class did, everyone else would follow suit. Thank you, dear Duchess, for creating the afternoon high tea.

Next would be a thank you for Her Majesty the Queen, who wakes every morning at 7:30am to have her tea which is brought to her by a chambermaid. It is usually Earl Grey, and is always made with Malvern Water. In fact, she always makes her tea with Malvern water, no matter where she is in the world -- she brings her own if she has to. For most, tea time is around 3:00pm, but I've read that the Queen takes her tea at 5:00pm --and she insists on pouring the tea herself. Most of this information is just hearsay, and unverified. But everyone loves a little mystery! In fact, it caused me to ponder a question: what brand or type of tea does Queen Elizabeth II drink? Well, it isn’t explicitly said, but there are some clues.

She, along with her husband His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh and their son His Royal Highness Prince Charles of Wales, have the ability to assign Royal Warrants.

Ever heard of these? I hadn't either.
Now a warrant, in one of its definitions is: Something that provides assurance or confirmation; a guarantee or proof.
So, if your trade business has a branch in England, sells high quality items, is all around excellent, and has supplied such goods to one of these three royals for a minimum of 5 years, they can bestow this warrant to you. Basically they are telling all others that your business is first class. Once you have this warrant, you can use their logo on your product/stationary/building, boast about it to your competitors, and join the Royal Warrant Holder's Association. The association's website actually has a list of the members, and you can check out what companies the royals are fond of.

I know only one of their preferred tea companies, Twining's! They are so popular with the royals, the Queen gave her warrant in 1955 and Prince Charles gave his own in 1993!

Two other teas were also listed of which I hadn't heard anything about. Forthum & Mason was given a warrant in 1996 by Prince Charles, and the other company, Darvilles of Windsor, was given their warrant in 1969 by the Queen. I haven't heard even a whisper about them, but because royalty likes them, it makes me inclined to want to try them.

Other than their tea, the royals favour certain “fishmongers,” “cheesemongers,” tobasco sauce companies, carriage builders, and Coca Cola.
Thank you, your Majesty, for doing your part to make Twinings popular, so they could make their way to my neck of the woods.

And speaking of Royals, I must say thank you to the WillKat (now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.)
For those of you who aren't aware, WillKat is the couple name of Prince William and Kate (Catherine) Middleton – much like TomKat is Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes'. Now because of the imminent royal wedding, there are more British activities happening all over the world. And of course, the one British activity I had to partake in was high tea.
Most of the Fairmont hotels I've noticed are doing special things for the month of April, and I got to have high tea at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver.

I've done the high tea at the Empress Hotel when I was younger, but never the Vancouver Hotel. It was an experience all in its own, though it was quite pricy. We chose the Versailles Lavender Earl Grey tea, which is just ridiculous really -- drinking tea with a French name at a high tea celebrating a British couple. Now I usually like lavender in tea, and expected to like this tea as well. Instead I actually found the lavender didn't mix entirely well with the citrus bergamot oil. I suppose it serves me right.

The sandwiches were dainty, but only two were worthwhile. The curry egg sandwiches were good, and I don't typically like curry. I could have eaten more than one, but alas, you only get one. The brie and ham croissant was good, but rich enough that I could only eat one. Good thing you only get one. The other sandwiches, a salmon and a cucumber, I had to make effort to eat. Who comes up with a cucumber and watercress sandwich! I am sure it must have been some practical joke that sadly caught on. At least the scones were light and fluffy, the way that scones should be. Oh yes, do not fool yourselves; anything that resembles a paper weight is not a scone. The other deserts were very, very sweet, and I am glad they put strawberry slices to cut through the sugar. Seriously.

What I loved most was the presentation of everything at and around the table. The seats were Queen Ann chairs (I actually knew that before writing this) and the tablecloth was white,fresh, and actually cloth. The tea was served in the same set that the Empress uses (the one the Queen once drank from and then Empress declared forever more that that was the only set they would serve on) which is a shame really. In the gift lobby the Fairmont has their own tea set commemorating the marriage of WillKat. It is gold patterned, and a lot more appropriate than the slightly garish purple and blue set.

I suppose the gold set might have been too delicate, but it really is a shame. Meanwhile the Versailles tea was served in a silver teapot, with a little handle cozy to keep the heat from burning your hand. The loose leaf tea was settled in a little metal basket at the top of the teapot, and once the first cup was poured, they were no longer in contact with the water – thus the steeping halted. Clever!

The sugar was the coarse raw sugar that doesn’t clump up when ignorant tea guests use their wet teaspoons to scoop it up -- you know who you are. I was worried about the lack of sugar utensils until I saw the sugar; very clever of Fairmont! Even if there were tea utensils, regular sugar would have been subjected to a wet teaspoon eventually. One odd thing was that the only visual clue of the upcoming wedding was a rather stalkeresque shrine. It composed of a pillow with their picture on it, fake pearls, plastic tiaras/crowns, and it all rested upon another Queen Ann chair. This sat next to a fake white tiered wedding cake. Right. Still, I had a memorable time that wouldn’t have been available if Prince William wasn’t getting married. The atmosphere was fantastic, and the service friendly-- even if I was in jeans. There might never be another opportunity to have tea in dedication of Prince William's wedding, so I am very glad I could partake in this wonderful experience.
So thank you WillKat, for getting hitched, and causing the world to partake in enjoyable British activities.

Finally, thank you to the rest of the British commoners (that includes you, Kate Middleton!) for loving black tea. First as a green tea, fresh from the Orient, then as the black tea as I know and love – theirs is a love affair of tea that continues on today. Now there is a plethora of black tea in the market, and many of the best (I think) are from Britain. In fact, I have just recently discovered a new black tea called PG Tips.

The company started in the dirty 1930's and claims to be England’s number one tea. And if that’s the case, this is probably the favourite tea of a certain soon-to-be princess. Or at least the probability is there. Made only of black tea, this is a smooth tea that no other non-flavoured black tea has so far matched – even Murchie’s Afternoon Blend. The PG Tips I have is made of very fine tea leaves in teabags – not the greatest quality. It steeps really quickly, so I have to watch it close to make sure it doesn’t go from smooth to tart. I have seen loose leaf PG Tips, so there are better qualities available. When I want something a little different from Twining’s, this is the tea I reach for. And these days I have been grabbing it more often than not.

Cheers to the happy couple!

Twinings can be bought at most grocers or online.
PG Tips can be found at some grocery stores and specialty imported UK goods stores. I found mine in Cost Cutters!
Fortnum & Mason can be bought online but for a pretty penny. This might be found elsewhere though. I have heard Williams-Sonoma carries it, and I am looking into it at the moment.
Darvilles of Windsor is also available online, and they are also pricy to buy direct from England.
Looks like I'll have to just wait untilI go to England to try these teas!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Reading into Tasseography

Nothing, for me, is better than a good book and a cup of tea. I am sure countless others feel the same way. Perhaps it all came from the 18th century, where afternoon tea was life, and most mainstream classics were conceived. Indeed, I've just read a book declaring Jane Austen was the most avid tea drinker.

As you might have guessed, I love tea. What you might have not known, is I also love books. So much so, I've made it my career. No, no, I don't write books. I don't have the strongest writing ability, and even weaker grammar and spelling skills. I work in the land of books, the most wondrous library! Academic mind you, which makes finding books on tea sandwiches a little tricky. And since I've been in the library, I've notice the link between books and tea even more obviously.

When I was in Nikaido, browsing the glorious shelves of tea, a black current caught my eye. Nikaido's Blackcurrant Librarian's blend went home with me that day, and the librarian in me greatly approves.

So I drink teas that reference libraries. I drink tea when reading books. Hmm, if only I could go one step further. What else that has to do with tea, and reading could I possibly do?
Oh I know, Tea Readings!

For those who don't have a crazy old great aunt/mother/elderly matron friend who offers tea readings (and those awful ribbon candy), tea reading is a very old fortune telling method that uses pictures to predict future events. And for the sticklers out there, the alphabet can appear in the leaves, so technically it is reading.
As I have read a total of 2 (two) books about tea reading, I'm going to call myself a mock expert on it all. Right.

The scientific name, even though it isn't based on science, is tasseography, and it seems to have originated in the UK. The believed origin is due to the first book of tasseography being written by a Highland Seer. There isn't a publishing date on the book, so who knows how old it is.

The actual tea reading can be very accurate, and very deep and ritualistic. Pah. I'm not into that. I wanted to do it on a lark, and keep it lighthearted and fun. For goodness sakes, we are looking at squiggly pictures in tea blobs. For all the die-hards out there, who read and scoff at my approach, go read entrails or something. I'm going to go play pictionary with my tea!

The first thing you need to do a tea reading, is to find a loose leaf tea. Cutting open a tea bag doesn't work. Most of what is in the teabags is powder, and that will float around in your cup. You would likely also ingest at least two thirds of it. You also can't have your typical tea blends. The leaves will be better quality and therefore will be bigger. If you do a reading on this, all you are going to see is pictures of leaves. Perhaps a tree. But mostly leaves -- tea leaves.
You need an in-between. Not too large, not too small. I thought I found the solution with Nikaido's Librarian blend, but even their leaves were a little too large. I shall keep my eyes open for something better. Meanwhile, it was the Blackcurrant blend that I used.

Next you have to pick the teapot. You want one that has NO STRAINER.
I laughed when I read that. I thought, well, duh.
Of course, only after I made my tea and was attempting to pour a cup did I notice a lack of tea leaves. My Alice teapot had a built in strainer. Oy.
I mean, what are the odds?
Instead of redoing everything in a new pot, I just scooped a teaspoon of leaves from the pot and dumped it into my cup. Problem solved.
I suppose if you do have a strainer, it isn't the end of the tea reading.
Next is the teacup. Go traditionally British here. You know, the wide mouth with the smaller bottom? Of course you know. It's the quintessential teacup. Do make sure the bottom isn't too petite, as it needs to have the surface area to show your destiny!

Okay, drink your tea the way you like it. Milk? Sugar? Go ahead! Makes no difference! Once you have about a teaspoon of tea left in the bottom. Stop drinking, and check a mirror for any tea leaves in your teeth.
Now, if you want to be ritualistic, turn the teacup counter-clockwise three times using only your left hand. Then turn the cup upside down onto your saucer and let the tea drain away for about 30 seconds. Then turn another three times. You should be thinking of a question as you do these actions.

If you don't want to be ritualistic, swish the tea a bit, and then turn it upside down on your saucer. Wait the same time, and poof, you're done. I didn't have a saucer with my set, so I just set it over the drain in the sink. Worked fine. I also forgot to think of a question.

And then, turning the handle towards myself, I looked inside.

Now inside the tea cup is a map. Positions mean things. The closer a picture is to the rim, the sooner it will happen. The closer a picture is to the bottom, the longer it will take. If the picture is near handle, it means it will be a personal thing. On the opposite end, the picture concerns someone you aren't really familiar with. In both cases, the middle of the two means the middle of the two descriptions. You can get even more technical, such as using the cup as a 12 month calendar or a clock, but a novice like me was fine enough for this simple guideline.

I turned over my cup, turned the handle towards myself, and saw a decent amount of tea leaves inside. There can be lots of leaves, or very little, neither of which means you drained your teacup incorrectly. It is just how the cookie crumbles. I looked into the cup, and then saw a symbol I instantly recognized. JUMPING JEHOSAPHET, IT WAS THE GRIM!

Ha ha, no. Not really. Any Harry Potter fans would recognize that scene from the Prisoner of Azkaban movie. My teacup was much tamer, though I stared at it in bewilderment for a little bit of time.

First I thought it I couldn't see any discerning pictures because the tea leaves were too big. All I could see was a blob. A blob with stilts and windows? Hmmmm. I kid you not, I flipped through the books for quite sometime looking for tiki hut meanings. Apparently the UK Seers didn't think the Tiki huts were common enough to include in their symbolism lists. And then, I thought perhaps I should turn it around. So I did, and peered at it some more. Perhaps it was my straining to turn a blob into something, anything, that a picture did finally appear: A Ship!

Can you see it? It is the front of the bow. Like a steamer ship? Okay, hold on, I'll outline it.
Okay, how about now?

See, it sort of looks like this type of ship:

And you know what? Ships mean a good trip somewhere, and that is surprisingly accurate. This May I am heading off to Disneyworld (good thing too, I was running low on a certain tea) and Disney is always a good trip. Unless you end up in 30Âșc weather and running a high fever, and you refuse to take it easy because you are on vacation. *cough* There is also a letter H in there, which is the first letter of the plane company were are starting our trip with. I thought that one next to the ship might be a flag, but the symbolism didn't make sense. It could be a weird pistol, but those aren't good signs, so I decided it wasn't. The other leaves looked like blobs, and that's okay. They just mean nothing major is going to happen otherwise

So, my thoughts? Well, maybe I mentally superimposed the symbol onto the tea blob, or maybe not. I didn't take it very seriously, but as a divination tool, I don't think it typically should be. I mean, you drink tea with your friends, and try to find symbols in each others cup. If things turn out to be true, then is it coincidence? Lucky guesses? Who knows, and that's what makes it fun to do. But most importantly, if you are going to do a reading, you might as well make the tea worth while.

My blackcurrant tea was delicious as ever, the fruitiness mingling with the earthy tea perfectly. Nothing like a good blackcurrant, and this definitely is one of the best I ever had. The fruit had a bit more of a starring role than the tea, and it also didn't curdle any milk or cream. It also had a refined taste afterward. I once had a blackcurrant that had an aftertaste similar to the taste you get from the air after taking a weed-wacker to an acre of meadow weeds. Ick. Anyone who is a fan of blackcurrant (most British people I find) will love this tea.

The Librarian's Blend Tea is available at Nikaido in Steveston B.C. which is technically in Richmond.

The books I read were:
Reading Tea Leaves /by a highland seer Or read it free online!
Tea cup reading : A quick and easy guide to tasseography /Sasha Fenton