Tea Together Tuesday: Origin Stories

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Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to talk about the tea that was your gateway into tea culture. Now, I’ve spoken in the past about how I got into tea. And I could claim that the tea that got me into learning about tea culture outside of English-style afternoon tea was the Dragonwell I got at Teavana or the Moroccan Mint tea I had served at Epcot or the Wuyi oolong that was served at my family’s favorite local Chinese restaurant.

But really, none of these teas would probably have captured my fancy the way that they did if I hadn’t already been introduced to tea as a practice, a ritual, and an art in the form of afternoon tea parties with my mother when I was in kindergarten.

Yes, I was five years old, and rather than serving any old snack, my mother decided to teach me dining etiquette and have more fun by serving snack as afternoon tea. We often had tiny sandwiches, or homemade scones, or little tarts or pastries. Even if we simply had a plate of cookies, they would be laid out attractively and served with tea.

My mother’s preferred brand of tea was Twinings, and her favorite kind was Prince of Wales, a blend that I’ve now discovered is their only fully-Chinese blend of black teas. I actually purchased a tin of it loose for my Jane Austen historical tea video because Indian tea wasn’t widely available until decades after Austen’s death, and we know from her letters that Austen was also a dedicated Twinings customer.

I remember when I was in high school, the way that one of my boyfriends tried to ingratiate himself with my mother was by bringing a tin of Prince of Wales tea. While I tend to associate my mother with Earl Grey now, she had a special place in her heart for Prince of Wales, perhaps because it was slightly more difficult to find, in that it was not always available at the grocery store.

Beyond the tea we drank, we often used special china tea sets, which my grandmother thought was unendingly foolish for having tea with a young child. But I remember going to antique stores with my mother, looking for the various pieces of the tea set that I still have today. It is perhaps a bit small for daily use, but I have continued to pull it out as an homage to my tea roots, and as a way to play with the ideas of eastern-style tea culture with western pieces. I was thrilled to find a full-sized Brambly Hedge tea cup just last year, so that I can have an adult-sized cuppa while remembering those child-sized parties.

So while it was not the most globally-conscious introduction to tea, these afternoons with my mother taught me that tea was something special, to be savored and treated with respect and care. She taught me the value of sitting down, enjoying your tea and treats, and enjoying the company with it. Every time I sit down to tea, whether it is a solo session or with friends, I think about those afternoon tea parties and how my mother introduced me to the idea of having tea.

NB: Nothing to disclose. If you’re interested in collaborating with me, please read my contact and collaboration information.

Cha Xi Challenge: Tea, with a Story

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The Cha Xi Challenge, hosted by Rie of Tea Curious, wraps up tomorrow, and I have already shared three cha xi arrangements that I’ve created, but I wanted to share a fourth because it rather exemplifies my approach to tea practice. Today’s cha xi is a very playful little setup, where I tried to create a somewhat classic gongfucha arrangement using a very English tea set. I used my Brambly Hedge miniature tea set, with a 4-oz. tea pot and three tiny tea cups to approximate the classic tea-pot-and-three-cups arrangement that forms the ideal gongfu session.

The tea pot is originally made for tiny hands, but holds almost exactly the same volume of liquid as my Yixing pot, making it perfect for gongfu-style brewing, and poured out into three tiny cups, it is very similar to the idea of a teapot the size of a citron and cups the size of walnuts that is discussed in Yuan Mei’s first description of the tea practice of the Wuyi mountains that later came to be known widely as gongfucha. I used my well-loved practice of using a cake plate as a teapot saucer, and found that the milk pitcher made a lovely vase for a single rosebud from my garden, while the sugar bowl made a fitting vessel in which to display the tea leaves. They nestled into a basket with a cotton napkin as a base that fits the rustic-yet-refined aesthetic that Brambly Hedge evokes. As a side note, I chose a bud as a nod to the Japanese ikebana practice of choosing flowers that have not yet opened for arrangements so that the recipient can enjoy the full life cycle of the bloom.

And what better tea to pair with such a delightful setup than a honey fragrance black tea from Taiwan? Taiwan has become a place, which, in my mind, has exemplified the blending of modern innovation and traditional tea practice. Plus, black tea is the perfect tea for such an English tea set, while the honey fragrance suggests the flavors of the countryside and the sweetener that would be most available to the woodland creatures of Brambly Hedge.

But this is not just a playful mix of East and West in my tea practice: Like so much of my tea collection, this set has a story. This pattern dates to the year I was born, and when I was five years old and started kindergarten, my mother introduced me to afternoon tea when she would have a low tea (the traditional “fancy tea party” that is often mistakenly called “high tea”) each afternoon when I returned from school as my afternoon snack. She would enjoy putting together a selection of tiny sandwiches and sweets, while I would enjoy learning about the etiquette of the tea table. Obviously, the practice stuck with me.

Most days, we used an inexpensive white stoneware tea set, but as time went on, my mother found this set, one piece at a time, in antique stores. I remember visiting antique stores in the town in which I now live, looking for specific seasons we were missing, or the tea pot that proved elusive. It was a shared experience of collection in a time when you could not just sign into Etsy or eBay and find a dozen examples of full sets available with free shipping. Scouring antique stores and learning about the pattern became something of a passion for both of us, and we both still enjoy searching for new teaware, albeit using all tools at our disposal now.

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So I suppose this cha xi is a perfect visual representation of the aesthetic of Tea Leaves and Tweed. It is both an attempt to remain true to the spirit of cha xi and gongfucha practice, while using a vintage English tea set, and one that retains a great deal of meaning and family connection. Plus, it is perfectly at home in the garden! And, of course, I spilled everywhere when I tried to pour the tea in the traditional way, circulating around all three cups to make an even pour in each.

NB: Nothing to disclose. If you’re interested in collaborating with me, please read my contact and collaboration information.

A Bridal Tea (and a recipe, at the end!)

This weekend, my mother and my dear friend hosted what I like to call a bridal tea in my honor. You see, Fiancé and I have decided to forgo any gifts for our wedding, but my lady friends still wanted to have a day to get together and celebrate my engagement. What better way, I thought, than to have an afternoon tea?

When I was a small girl, my mother used to have tea parties with me at least a few times a week. I would come home from kindergarten in the afternoon and instead of just making a snack, she would lay out little sandwiches, some sweets, and a pot of tea. She even had an adorable collection of miniature tea sets for the occasion, her crowning glory (and my inheritance) being the Brambly Hedge miniature tea set. I remember going to antique stores trying to find one of every season in the set.

So I knew my mother would host a wonderful tea. I also asked my friend to help her because she makes delicious homemade bread and what could be a better accompaniment to my mother’s amazing baked goods than tea sandwiches made on homemade bread? And the afternoon tea time slot was perfect for a celebration, as I still had one more evening show of Pygmalion to perform, and we would all be finished in time to get to the theatre.

The celebration was beautiful, and we had far too much food, which was all delicious. I did make a batch of my own famous cream scones, as well as a batch of mini Victoria sandwich cakes to add to the celebration, but by and large, the spread was done entirely by the two hostesses and I got to sit back, maybe fuss over a pot of tea. My mother even made miniature panna cotta with a raspberry topping in their own individual cups, as well as getting a box of macarons from a local French bakery and a box of assorted mini pastries from the bakery we’ve frequented since I was young.

Fiancé left for the afternoon so we ladies could flutter and coo to our hearts’ content. It was lovely to see this quite eclectic group of my friends and family (and soon-to-be family) come together and socialize. The director of Pygmalion even brought a silly hat with a veil that I could wear, as the bride. It rather felt like my entrée into the final stretch of my wedding planning, honestly. With Pygmalion at an end and the wedding looming next month, I have the last finishing touches to finish up before the big event. And what better way to get back into the swing of planning than with a cuppa tea?

With that, I suppose I shall leave you with my recipe for mini Victoria sponges, which are not so much my recipe as a recipe my castmate shared from her days in home economics in Wales.

Mini Victoria Sandwiches

Makes 12 cakes

Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Line a cupcake tin with non-stick paper cases. I like these the best.
  2. Weigh three large eggs in their shells. Measure out the same weight each of self-raising flour, granulated or caster sugar, and soft unsalted butter. Lay the eggs in a bowl of hot water to come to room temperature.
  3. Beat together the butter and sugar until combined and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well, and about a teaspoon of vanilla extract. Add the flour and beat until combined.
  4. Add milk a tablespoon at a time until the batter is a soft dropping consistency, about like frozen custard or soft-serve ice cream.
  5. Spoon into the cupcake tin, filling about 2/3 full.
  6. Bake for 13-15 minutes, or until golden around the edges.
  7. Let the cakes cool in the tin until the tin is cool enough to handle without a potholder, and then remove them to a cooling rack to cool completely. Victoria sponge is very delicate when warm, but quite sturdy once it cools, so handle warm sponges gently.
  8. When they are cool, split them in half with a sharp serrated knife. Fill with jam (I like raspberry) and lightly sweetened whipped cream. Dust with icing/powdered sugar to serve.