Outings: Valley Brook Tea in Dupont Circle

Recently, Nazanin over at Tea Thoughts told me about a new tea house that had opened in the Dupont Circle neighborhood called Valley Brook Tea and I knew I had to check it out. I work nearby, so I’m around there frequently and when I looked and saw that they had coffee-shop-style hours, starting at 7 a.m., I realized that this was a place that I could stop before work, especially if I left early enough to allow some time to sit and enjoy my tea. So I stopped by before work last week to check it out and see if maybe it was somewhere I wanted to go for a special treat during my work day on my birthday.

Well, it definitely was. I had a lovely time spending a half an hour sipping tea and chatting with owner Yunhan about their teas, tea culture, and how he probably has Teavana to thank for even being able to open a business like this. It’s a converted Starbucks, which is apparent, but Yunhan says he has plenty of people come in who say that they don’t drink coffee, but love tea. I was particularly pleased to see them get a little write up in the Washington Post’s Weekend section in their article on places to get a good cup of tea (which also includes Ching Ching Cha, which I have visited before).

I returned a week later for my birthday in the middle of the day, armed with an hour to spend and another tea friend, Peter. Once again, it was raining, and I found myself reaching for the yancha. While I had tried their Jin Mudan the first time I visited, this time I wanted to try their Rou Gui, after having Yunhan talk it up to me while we were chatting the week before. Interestingly, it was less sweet than I usually think of Rou Gui tasting (I also find cinnamon to taste sweet), but it was still spicy and delicious, and the cup aroma was a deep, roasted sweetness. An hour of tea and talk, with Peter and Yunhan was delightful and the perfect interlude for my birthday.

The shop itself is an interesting space. I need to return on a sunny day to see how the round alcove in the front is in proper light because I have a hunch it will not only be gorgeous, but also a lovely place to take some photos. The store is a converted Starbucks, which is obvious from its setup. The counter with treats and a tea bar is right up front as you walk in, with a small seating area to one side, and a staircase to a larger upstairs room. The upstairs room has a large communal table, a few free-standing tables, and a few half-booth tables with outlets set into the benches. There is also a seat with comfy chairs. It’s a nice space to sip and chat, sip and think, or sip and work. Unlike Ching Ching Cha, it has a decidedly modern and unfussy feel. It seems like it would be decidedly un-daunting to a tea newbie, especially since Yunhan is always willing to help show you how to use a gaiwan.

The teas are served either pourover, into a sharing pitcher for drinking in the shop or in a to-go cup, or else for $2 extra, are served in a gaiwan with a 1-L carafe of water. The teas themselves are fantastic (caveat: I’ve only tried two and both were yancha), and it’s nice to be able to visit a tea shop and drink a cup of tea with the person who sources them and can tell you about the specific regions and villages they’re from. They also sell their tea, and it seems they have an online shop, so non-DC-area residents can try them. I’m certainly going to go back and try them all.

Now, I was being sociable and not trying to take too much time out to take photos, but the other striking thing about Valley Brook is their beautiful collection of teaware for sale. They have shelves of beautiful enameled and handmade teaware as you walk in, just opposite the counter where you order, and more small things right next to the register. they even have a collection of statuettes of people doing yoga that are like little yogi tea pets, in honor of the yoga studio that is kitty-corner to the shop across the intersection of P St. and 21st. I thought that was a clever little nod to the fact that they’re not just there to serve dedicated tea nerds like my friends and me, but also to bring quality tea to anyone who stops by, even if it’s just for a cup of tea after yoga class.

And if they get caught up in a conversation with Yunhan and start a new love of traditional Chinese tea culture? Well, that has to be even better than Teavana.

NB: I will disclose that Yunhan remembered my birthday and gifted Peter and I with bodhi leaf tea strainers as a small gift, but I was not paid for this post and all thoughts are my own.

Outings: A Tea Date at Ching Ching Cha

Be sure to check out my giveaway on Instagram, where I’m giving away one of Nazanin’s lovely pomegranate gaiwan pins!

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to finally find the time to meet up with my friend Nazanin from Tea Thoughts. We’d been meaning to meet for tea at a tea house in Washington, D.C. called Ching Ching Cha for a while, so when we both had time this weekend, we jumped at the opportunity. It’s such a unique space, both as a business and the space itself.

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Ching Ching Cha is on Wisconsin Ave. in Georgetown just next to one of the crossings of the C & O Canal. The storefront is shared with a salon upstairs and is rather unassuming. In fact, from the outside, it looks quite dark, and the only sign that there’s a delicious tea house inside is the small chalkboard of specials. When you walk in, there is a corridor with benches that leads into a row of teas and books for sale, and then you turn to see the tea room and the rest of the shop.

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The first thing you notice when you get into the tea house properly is how much natural light it gets. The building has a large skylight to provide entirely natural light in the main area. On one side of the shop is a platform with two low tables and cushions. You’re supposed to take your shoes off before stepping up onto the platforms, so it stays clean. There are also about eight additional tables with chairs. It is small and gets busy quickly, at least on a weekend, so I was glad we showed up right when they opened at 11 a.m.

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Each table has a traditional burner with a pot of water over it. The water stays very hot and is replenished by the wait staff so you can refill your own tea as much as you want. We looked at the menu and each decided on a tea. We both got oolong. Mine was a greener rolled Alishan oolong, while Nazanin got a roasted Phoenix oolong. They both came on a draining tea tray in a traditional clay pot. We were well-versed in the style of steeping, but we saw the staff showing others at the tea house how to steep the tea.

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We also got several plates of shareable foods: dumplings, tea egg, curry puff, and some sweets. All the food was delicious and went wonderfully with the tea, but the tea remained the star of the show.

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My Alishan was very delicate and creamy with a beautiful floral aroma and flavor. It had a silky mouthfeel and almost smelled like a milk oolong, but without the rich buttery notes. I lost count of how many times we steeped, but we sat there steeping and sipping and nibbling over the course of two hours. I had so much fun playing with the clay pot, since I’ve never used one before and I’ve wanted to buy one.

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After we finished and it became clear that the tea was finally exhausted, we paid and moved into the store to browse. All of the teas that they have on the menu were available pre-packaged, though they also have big cans of them stored toward the back of the shop. They also have an impressive array of teaware, ranging in price from just a few dollars to several hundred.

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They also have tea trays for sale that are the same as the ones they use for their service in the tea house, so I bought one, since I no longer have a wooden deck to use as a giant tea tray. I also got a strainer for my sharing pitcher and a cake of pressed dried roses that smells amazing. It was a thoroughly enjoyable outing and one that I highly recommend to anyone who loves tea or knows a tea lover. I know I will be back again, hopefully soon!

Adventures in Tea: Tetereria Tea House in Barcelona

I recently had the joy of visiting Barcelona for a week. My husband was attending a conference while I spent my days touring around, but I knew there was one place I wanted to go before I left: Tetereria Tea House. I found out about this tea house when I was looking up whether I could reasonably expect to find a decent cup of tea while I was there, or if I should consider bringing my own (it turned out that the coffee shop around the corner from our hotel had a lovely assortment of loose leaf teas, plus almost everywhere served tea in pyramid tea bags, so I needn’t have worried!). I discovered that Barcelona is home to a tea house where you can not only get a decent cup of tea, but you can get a tea session with traditional teaware and a surprising variety of teas. Sadly, Tetereria is only open from 5-9:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, so I had a limited window in which to visit (if I’d looked up the hours sooner, I might have tried to stop by the first night we were in town, jet lag be damned!). But I knew it was something I wanted to make sure to experience, so I convinced my husband that we could visit the tea house on a Wednesday afternoon before his conference’s gala dinner that evening.

Tetereria is located a short walk from the Lesseps subway stop, which is on Line 3 (the green line). This made it very convenient from our hotel near the Placa d’Espanya! I imagine it would also be relatively convenient from the Gothic Quarter as well. The walk brings you down some typically narrow European streets, around a corner, and through the narrow shop entrance into a veritable oasis of tea. It’s cozy and has a warm feeling to the decor, with an eclectic mix of styles. About halfway back, there is a small counter where you can order tea to go, mostly latte-style drinks like chai lattes and matcha lattes, and then there are several small tables around the tea house. My husband and I sat towards the back of the shop and were able to see the partitioned area at the back, which is set up like a traditional Japanese tatami room for the Japanese tea ceremony.

Upon sitting down, we were greeted by one of the owners, and given menus. There was a book of available teas, sorted by type (pu-erh, black, oolong, green, white, herbal, etc.), and listed with a flavor profile diagram that gave the relative qualities of different flavors in the tea such as floral, astringent, body, etc. I decided to try a hei cha, which I had never tried before, and my husband went for a traditionally-prepared bowl of Kyoto matcha. We also got some sweets to go with the tea: I had a thin slice of apple cake and he had a rather large matcha-flavored dorayaki.

Upon making our selections (and it took much longer than outlined above — I oscillated among an oolong, a shou pu-erh, or a hei cha for a while), we were faced with what was probably the biggest obstacle we faced: I understand the intricacies of the teas we wished to order, while my husband is the one who speaks Spanish. This was made particularly apparent when they turned out to be out of the matcha that my husband initially chose (i.e., that I chose for him), and he had to decide on the fly which matcha the lady suggested he would like to substitute. I believe he chose the Kyoto because he’d heard of Kyoto (similarly to how my father used to order Merlot because it was the only wine he could confidently pronounce). I was then able to order my hei cha mostly in Spanish (and Chinese, I suppose), along with my apple cake. Luckily, I’d spent the last three days learning the words for foods that I liked to eat!

After we ordered, the tea arrived fairly quickly. Each tea is brought out individually with a cart that holds all the necessary teaware. So first, she brought out mine, with a gongfu brewing set, the pot of hot water, and a small dish of the single serving of tea (I was able to watch her weigh it out off the larger brick of tea while she prepared the cart). She gave me the leaves to inspect, and I noted that they didn’t have either the strong earthy quality of dried shou pu-erh, nor the green nature that I associate with sheng, but instead were a unique experience. Which was exactly what I had been hoping! She then went through the rinse of the leaves and two steepings. One steeping she poured from the sharing pitcher into the single cup, and the other she left in the pitcher. The entire set was placed before me to consider while I enjoyed my tea.

She then re-prepared the cart to bring my husband his matcha, gathering a matcha bowl, whisk, scoop, and a dish of beautifully green matcha powder. I was particularly impressed with her whisking technique and the voluminous amount of froth she was able to generate in a short time. Unfortunately, my husband finished his matcha fairly quickly, so I got very few photos of it, but I did get a taste, and it was a lovely, balanced matcha with a mild umami flavor that melted almost instantly into sweetness, plus a vegetal floral nature that I found very pleasant. He liked it, too.

My tea started out with a lighter body and subtle earthiness, as compressed teas sometimes do, but after the second or third steeping, started opening up into something with a lovely sweetness and depth. There was almost a smokiness at one point. After my initial two steepings, the lady in the shop came around every so often with the pot of hot water so I could keep steeping, which was nice. At one point, she noticed that I was sharing with my husband and let me know I could turn down the water at any point, but I (stiltedly) explained that I thought he would like it, too. I was intrigued by the almost coffee-like qualities I noticed as the session went on, which is part of why I started sharing with him. We share tasting notes when he gets single-origin coffee at our favorite coffee house, so I thought this would be a nice way to reverse that, given that he’s not often present for my tea sessions.

Sometime in this whirl of amazing tea, our food came. The apple cake was delicious, not too sweet, and the perfect amount to serve as a late afternoon snack before a late dinner. My husband was hungrier, which was good because he received a jellied sweet along with his matcha, as well as the dorayaki he ordered.

All in all, it was a lovely visit, taking just over an hour. We probably could have spent longer, but we did need to make our way to the gala dinner for my husband’s conference. But I didn’t feel rushed or cheated. I did, however, leave with a desire to return not only to Barcelona, but also to Tetereria.

Outing: Handmade Wagashi at the Matsukawaya DC Pop-Up Shop

I posted a few teasers on Instagram this weekend, but I thought I’d share a full recap from my weekend outing to the pop-up shop of the wagashi artisans at Matsukawaya DC at Union Market. This was a relatively spur-of-the-moment outing, as I was about to head downtown to my Saturday morning barre class when I turned to Mr. Tweed and asked if he’d be willing to meet me downtown after my class so we could go to the market for lunch and to see the confectionery.

The stand itself was somewhat unassuming among the delightful chaos of Union Market, but the stunning artistry of the sweets still caught the eye. They had a display of shaped namagashi and displays of wrapped sweets, along with samples of mochi, monaka, and other sweets. They were even making fresh strawberry mochi, which was absolutely sublime. I’d never had mochi this fresh and it was amazing. It absolutely melted in the mouth. After gathering our lunch, I stopped back at the stand and spent a while agonizing over the selections. I settled on one namagashi and a gei monaka to take home for later with my tea. The lovely young lady working at the stall included a couple other sweets as service, and the nice man who was folding origami presented me with a pink crane. With my treasures in hand, we made our way home.

I think here is a good place to pause and talk a bit about wagashi. The word “wagashi” comes from the word for sweets — originally referring to fruits and nuts, but eventually including sugared sweets — with a prefix indicating they are a Japanese art. They are made with sugar, yes, but also such typically-Japanese ingredients as sweet rice flour, red bean paste, and kanten or agar. The variety called namagashi are served with the traditional Japanese tea ceremony as a complement to the bitterness of the tea. As I was told during my tea demonstration, the sweets are served and the ceremony is timed such that the sweetness is still on your tongue when you first sip the bowl of matcha. So wagashi are not only best eaten with a nice cup of green tea, but indeed they are inextricably culturally linked to tea. So it was no surprise that this pop-up shop was hosted by one of my favorite local tea houses, Teaism.

Upon returning home, I immediately started heating my kettle and gathering my matcha supplies. I decided to use my O-Cha organic ceremonial grade matcha for the occasion, whisked up in my new bowl purchased recently from a local artist. As the water heated, I opened my bag of sweets and pulled out the beautiful chrysanthemum namagashi in its little display box. As I opened it and separated it from the protective film underneath, I was struck by how delicate the sweet was. I placed it on a small saucer and made my tea. I took both to a quiet, sunny corner of our living room and sat to enjoy my little treat.

The sweet itself was quite soft, with a flavor that surprised me, given that I thought the most care would be taken with the appearance. But of course, wagashi are meant to appeal to all five senses. While the sound of this tender sweet was silence and its visual appeal apparent, I was delighted by the other three sense as well. It was a soft and smooth texture, yielding but not mushy. As someone who takes issue with a lot of textures, I found it amazing. As I bit into it, I smelled the rice and sweetness scent and tasted the complex flavors that married into this delicious sweet. It had a smooth sweet bean paste filling. And the small size meant that I enjoyed every bite, rather than becoming overloaded as I often do with a Western pastry. Despite being against tradition, I did pause and sip some matcha in between bites of sweet, but I found they blended so well together. And when the moment was over, I was able to bask in the peace and pleasure of it.

Later on, I broke into the gei monaka, a sweet made from red bean jelly sandwiched between two crisp rice crackers. I had had one of these before on my last visit to Teaism, and I knew I enjoyed it. I still haven’t tried the service sweets I was given, but I look forward to them as well. All in all, this was a lovely outing, and I encourage everyone in the DC area to take a trip out to Union Market before the 30th of September when the pop-up shop goes away.

A final note: Please remember my campaign for a matcha-infused, dual-targeted masking system at Volition Beauty. Go here to vote.

A Day Going Back In Time

As longtime readers of this blog may know, one of my interests is vintage lifestyle, especially vintage style from the U.K. Well, this weekend’s excursion goes back pretty far, even for my tastes. This weekend, I paid a visit to the Maryland Renaissance Festival, a living history festival that presents a themed fair revolving around the court of King Henry VIII. While there are all the typical food stalls, vendors, and shows, the main cast of the festival is the Royal Court and the villagers. The faire itself is held in its own, permanent structure, called the Tudor Village, which is used solely for the faire and its rehearsals. It’s a fantastic experience, and somehow even better when you come back over the years. I typically go one or two times per season, which runs from late August to mid-October. And I know enough people involved in the faire that I often can get discounted tickets!

This year, we decided to go on opening day to see the King approach, the village gates open, and the cannons sound. They’re not kidding when they say to cover your ears! Immediately inside the gates is the fountain and the Gatehouse Stage, where you can learn about the plot of the year when they present the Royal Welcome every morning. This year’s plot involves King Henry’s desire to divorce Queen Katharine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. They brought back an Anne Boleyn storyline last year for the first time in years, and it seems they’re sticking with it for a while. Of course, both the other courtiers and the common folk have their own dramas outside of the Royal family. The whole thing makes a complex tapestry of performance and history, which would be impossible to catch with even just one day’s visit to the faire.

That said, one of my favorite parts of faire was also one of my first stops of the morning: Scotch Eggs! I love this supremely unhealthy faire staple that takes a boiled egg, wraps it in sausage, and deep fries it to perfection. I managed to show up the first time just as they’d run out, but that meant that when I came back ten minute later, I got a fresh-out-of-the-fryer Scotch egg. Yum. I offset the Scotch egg with a fresh pressed beet-carrot-apple-ginger juice from the adorable juice vendors.

From there, it was time to wander. We met up with friends, saw a couple shows, and did some shopping. Oh, the shopping. Despite having attended faire since I was in high school, I’ve never actually had my own proper Renaissance Festival garb before. I always put something together that looked suitably “Renaissance” out of my closet, usually just involving a long skirt and some layered tops and jewelry. But I wanted to go legit, so one of our stops was to Moresca, where I got a cropped corest top, a flowy split blouse, and some harem pants to make the perfect warm-weather outfit for a day at the faire. And of course this means that I have to come back this season to get more use out of it! I also managed to find a new matcha bowl at a pottery vendor, which will definitely be getting some Instagram time this week.

After a day of shopping, walking, mingling, and eating, Mr. Tweed and I were pretty exhausted, so we decided to head home after about five hours at the faire. But the nice thing about faire is that whenever you leave, it’s always going to be a temporary parting!