These are a few of my favourite things!!!

An alternate title for this post would be ‘best practices on how to overdeliver on an event’.

I’ve just returned from The Vancouver International Writers Festival at (or on?) Granville Island.

As if the opportunity to see over 100 writers were not enough, they slipped food into the mix.

So not only were participants able to deke over to the Public Market for mini perogies, Indian grub, and the best caramel macchiatos I have enjoyed in a while… food was featured at some of the actual sessions, included in the ticket price.

The first surprise came at 11am today, at the sold-out event called The Sunday Brunch. Among the writers reading from their works were Graeme Gibson, Linden Macintyre, and Susan Musgrave. The blurb mentioned only croissants and champage. We were instead presented with the delight below. Along with the croissants and sweet bread at the bottom tier, we were treated to pate, smoked salmon spread, mimosas, clotted cream and jam, fruit, and chocolates.


A few hours later, we were hit with the second feed, called The Afternoon Tea. This session featured six more authors, among them Lorna Crozier and Bill Gaston. The blurb suggested that we would only be drinking tea as we listened. Instead, we were presented with this:

Here we have currant scones, shortbread, mini cupcakes, etc.

Who would like to join me next year?

The Vancouver Tea Party

As some of you know – because you have had to put up with me droning on about tea for the past month and a half – I’ve registered for the excellent Tea Sommelier*** program at Vancouver Community College.

The place is located in the Heart of Darkness (West Pender at Cambie), and feels like the inner city school from Welcome Back Kotter… but it is also a stone’s throw from the most delightful chocolate quinoa cake with cardamom cream, and a do-able walk from my favourite hipster cafe. And if I get to The Big City by mid-afternoon, I even get to take in a movie at the Dead Mall formerly known as Tinseltown.

It’s easy to mock the idea of going to school for three years to learn about tea. That is, until you’re in the classroom with 14 fellow tea nerds (plus our instructor Brendan, whom I refer to as – using my inside voice – The Tea Sensei).

The girl to guy ratio is 2:1. There are three hobbyists; some who want to start tea shops and/or tea rooms; while some have formal culinary training. One woman’s mother invented bubble tea, and her family operates a large Taiwanese tea empire.

We learned that the real demand tea-wise in Canada is not so much for retail (225 David’s Tea locations will open this year in California alone!), but rather for importing and blending tea: the behind-the-scenes stuff. Hmmm… interesting!

After my first three-hour session at what I fondly think of as Tea School, buddy Detta declared me a tea snob.

For example… once you learn why tea bags are a joke, it’s pretty difficult to continue using them. Spoiler alert – you can’t unknow what you already know, so skip this paragraph if you want to keep using your (pedestrian!) teabags. Teabags are inferior because: 1. There is not enough tea in the teabag to make a proper cup; 2. There is not enough room for the tea to properly expand, meaning a weak, non-representative cup; 3. The tea in a teabag consists of the fine dust and fannings, in stark contrast to the broader flavour profiles to be found in the larger-leaf loose teas. Tea dust is used by soda companies (and Red Bull!) to boost caffeine levels.

And did you know that ALL teas (we don’t count herbals here, because that’s just herbs in a cup!), come from the SAME plant? The categories of tea (white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and Pu-ehr) are linked to the intensity of the oxidation / processing that they undergo, and also what parts of the plant are picked (or plucked). It’s also about the terroir of the place: altitude, soil, climate…

And when we taste (or ‘cup’) teas in class, the goal is to slurp it off of the spoon at 125 miles an hour, so that the air and tea spray all three sections of the tongue. And The Sensei knows when you’re only doing 40 in a 125 zone. And the spitting – I can’t get used to spitting the tea out – it’s supposed to taste completely different ‘on the way out’.

When we cup teas, we assess the dry leaf, wet leaf, and the tea (or liquor) itself. It’s pretty scientific, with the loose dry tea weighed to the tenth of a gram, and the water temperature and volume also closely monitored. More like a science lab than an outing at The Empress!

On the first night, The Tea Sensei showed us a white, yellow, green, and oolong tea.

Anyway, I could go on.

That was just the intro course. Next up are courses on sensory development, history, production, food pairings, geography…

But first, I need to pass this intro. It’s telling that the passing mark has been lowered from 75% to 60%.

Part of the final mark is based on a class presentation, with students in groups of twos and threes. The most transporting presentations of the night were delivered by two of the five groups. One group demonstrated two methods of preparing tea: the Gongfu tea ceremony and the method for yerba mate (with a gourd and a bombilla! Who knew?). The second stunner group offered a food pairing, matched against three Asian teas under the guise of a tea company making a bridal shower pitch. Absolutely humbling. Truly.

We sweated the most over the blind tasting after the presentations, when we were asked to identify five teas, without the benefit of seeing the wet / dry leaves.

After that, it was on to a 50-question multiple choice exam. Some questions were ‘gifts’ while others were absolutely perplexing.

Fingers crossed. Now we wait for our marks…

Oh! I made a serendipitous discovery while scouting out a place to get a few hours of tea studying in before The Big Night. In Gastown, just off of Blood Alley in Gaoler’s Mews is a fantastic retail tea shop and tea room called Apres Midi Premium Teahouse. They are in the process of rebranding to Gastown Tea Company. Turns out the owners took the same tea program, and The Tea Sensei was contracted as a consultant to build their tea menu. The space is late 1800’s, and gorgeous. I plan to devote an entire post to this place (with pictures), so stay tuned.

Apres Midi is the shop on the right.

And my dirty little secret: I still take half-and-half cream in my tea. Shhhh… don’t tell The Tea Sensei.

*** a note about the word ‘sommelier’ itself. I have been blown away by how many folks don’t know this word. Kinda makes the whole ‘tea sommelier’ thing a bit of a drag to explain when you have to back up and describe what a (wine) sommelier is. People! Come on!

Now here’s a diet I can stick to.

Just a few hours after gorging on Baileys-filled chocolate shooter cups, and the new salted caramel chocolates at Chocolatas, I found myself headed up the freeway to Chilliwack, with my foodie buddy Detta, to the home of Kim and Karen, owners of Aromatica Fine Teas. They were convening a ‘cooking with tea’ class for eleven people lucky enough to sign up for this $20 foodfest.

All attendees were women. What the HECK were the men doing that could have been as interesting as this?!?!

After serving crudite nibbles with a green tea dip, Karen prepared prawns sautéed in a Lapsang Souchong tea. Light soy sauce and orange zest set the smoke off nicely.

The atmosphere was relaxed as we all stood in the kitchen while the couple cooked, and taught us about the best ways to infuse teas and herbs in honey.

While Karen attended to finishing the main course, we joined Kim in the living room, where he delivered a more general background on tea, and a helpful decision tree on which treatments to use when cooking with tea.

The meat eaters noshed on tea-scented pork and chicken, plus chai-infused meatballs, while I enjoyed the sunrise rooibos basmati and nut crunch quinoa, pacing myself for the mammoth dessert course!

Detta and I were a bit like the Sprats, with her taking the meat while I fell upon the sweets. A veritable platter of tea-kissed desserts was placed in front of me: soft angel dreams (mint) shortbread cookies, hearty gluten-free banana walnut tea bread, green tea and pecan chiffon cake (made with Aromatica’s signature Treasures of Japan tea blend), and a no-bake lemon myrtle cheesecake.

As if this wasn’t a cool enough experience, Kim offered to open up the tea shop (9pm on a Friday!), just a few blocks away.

Sweet, excruciating choices: as people trundled over to Aromatica, chocolatier Monica began to roll chai-infused chocolate ganache in expensive flavoured sugars that Karen brought out.

Detta and I tore ourselves away, heading over to the shop to pick up some Kenyan and Chinese black teas, two of over 100 teas on offer.

And the calorie gawds smiled upon me this day: zero weight gain!

Woot! Woot! Bring on the dessert platters, chocolate, and Baileys! Now THAT’S a diet I can stick to.

And thanks to new friend Cora for taking these photos!

A sure-fire way to hasten the impending death of a business…

A few weeks ago, I wandered into the Clayburn Gourmet Gallery, slightly more than 90 minutes before closing time on a Saturday. I had some work to do, and was looking forward to taking over one of their big rustic tables with a cup of tea. The table is a larger draw than the tea: I bring my own tea bags because this place only offers Stash Tea*.

So there I am, basically willing to pay tea prices for a cup of boiling water, in exchange for a nice place to do my reading.

Instead I find all chairs already up on the tables, aside from the chairs where two patrons are chatting. I ask the barrista if the place is closing but she assures me that they are not. I ask permission to take down a chair.

The food display is dying a slow death, filled to around one-third capacity.

A sign taped to the cash register warns patrons that when there is only one staff member on shift, the service will be slower.

I force myself to forge onward, buy the water, and get to work establishing my space. Sigh.

Around 15 minutes before closing, I am reminded by the staffer of the closing time. The unwelcoming vibe (which has now been replicated in the person of the lurking and intense new owner of the Parallel Marketplace location of The Wired Monk) is palpable. It feels as if the goal is for the Gourmet Gallery staffer to have her key in her car’s ignition at 5:01.

Everything in the place screamed scarcity and desperation.

Pity, as it’s such a cute room, and they have a virtual monopoly on the geography.

*As a tea footnote, the man who developed the Tazo tea line sold it to Starbucks, then went on to develop Stash. After selling his second successful tea brand in Stash, he took off to Paris, where he intended to retire and relax. But he couldn’t stay away from tea. Inspired by the Parisian perfumeries, he returned to Portland and started the most superior of his tea companies, Smithtea. Occasionally Chapters carries selections, but it can be ordered online anytime! Check it out! I could BATHE in the stuff.