London/ United Kingdom

The time I became a Tea Master

I wasn’t sure what a day-long Tea Masterclass would be like but in the end it made me a better person. Well, at least it made me a better tea maker.

What reminded me of my aspirations to Tea Mastery was an article on The Yums (theyums.com) about the Clockwork Rose Team Emporium in Beaverton, Oregon. It sounds like a fun place to visit. The Yums’ article says it’s got a steampunk feel, and I can tell that the food would ring my bell. Fill up a three-tiered tray with little sandwiches and cakes and I’ll be there before the kettle boils.

Clockwork Rose Tea Emporium, Beaverton, Oregon

Clockwork Rose Tea Emporium, Beaverton, Oregon, courtesy of TheYums.com.

Tea is a drink, but in Britain it’s also a light meal. The only place I’ve noticed anyone talking about “High Tea” is in North America. High Tea is what they offer at the Clockwork Rose. I’ve had it at the Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria, BC, Canada, and also at the Fairmont Banff Springs here in Alberta.

In the UK, I’ve had the three-tiered treatment a few times. The first was at the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square.

My friend and I stumbled upon the restaurant on our first visit to the gallery. It was busy but we were lucky enough to get a table. We soon became rather enchanted by the well-dressed elderly lady sitting about two tables away, on her own. This was back when the Queen Mother was still living. We’re pretty sure that’s who it was. Gloves, hat, great posture, 150 years old …. check.

The fancy Afternoon Cream Tea arrived, reasonably abundant in crust-free sandwiches, scones with cream and jam, and some dainty cakes and cookies on the top tier.

By the way, not only do the Brits have a zillion kinds of tea for drinking, they also have a zillion kinds of cream for eating. If there is any possible way to turn liquid milk into a spread or sauce, they’ve figured it out. For a cream tea, you cover your scone with clotted cream and then top it off with some strawberry jam. Heavenly.

The people who say to put the jam on first are wrong, as my Instagram video clearly proves.

True confessions: What I like most about tea might be the cakes. Quelle surprise.

The Tea Masterclass wasn’t about cakes. It was about the tea you drink. I was there as an interested tourist, but some of the others were much more committed. There were tea shop owners and true tea devotees. I felt like a bit of an amateur but everyone was very nice, and my lack of tea awareness wasn’t a problem. The whole point of being there was to learn.

I already knew that in England, tea is everywhere. The charming Twinings family tea shop on the Strand in London has been there for 300 years. Every grocery store, down to the tiniest corner shop, stocks tea. Tourist places sell souvenir tea in fancy packages. Fortnum and Mason’s store on Piccadilly (also a 300-year-old establishment) has shelves full of custom blends to choose from.

I’ve brought home Countess Grey from Fortnum’s, Earl Grey from Twinings, and Gold Label from Marks and Spencer. Each sip puts me back in London.

At the Tea Masterclass, experts Jane Pettigrew and Tim Clifton taught us so much, including where tea comes from, how complicated it is to take the tea leaf from plant to cup, and how to make a pot of tea properly. We touched and smelled tea leaves, crisp and crinkly bits of plants in shades of black, brown, green, grey, and white, with leaves ranging from a few inches long down to mere crumbs. There were names like “Silver Needle”, “Ceylon Uva”, “First Flush Darjeeling”, and “Pu-Erh” (not my favourite).

Some of the many shades of tea at the Masterclass / Jill Browne

Some of the many shades of tea at the Masterclass / Jill Browne

At one point, Jane and Tim passed around a sealed bag of “Ceylon White”. My notes on this one say “£1,500 per pound. White tea. Untouched by human hands.” The Ceylon White pickers wear white gloves, cut the leaves off with golden scissors, and catch them in porcelain bowls to avoid bruising. On one tea company’s website, they say the picking is done before the sun comes up.

Ceylon White Tea, untouched by human hands / Jill Browne

Ceylon White Tea, untouched by human hands / Jill Browne

Throughout Tea Mastery Day, we sampled all kinds of tea, from the dark and earthy (Pu-Erh is in this category, and that is being charitable) to the light, champagne-coloured varieties, and many in between.

At the end I have to say I prefer a mellow, fairly ubiquitous black. I wish I could have developed a liking for something more exotic, but my taste buds just don’t have the sensitivity that Jane and Tim’s do.

Every tea has its own rules for optimum brewing. Often they’re written on the box, though you sometimes have to look hard. Use a clean kettle, fresh cold water, and a non-metal tea pot. Tea bags are OK.

Some of the variables you can control are:

  • water temperature (sometimes rather lower than you’d think)
  • how much tea you use for a given amount of water
  • how long you steep the tea.

For stronger tea, use more tea for the same amount of water. It’s a rookie mistake to try and get stronger tea by leaving the tea bag in the pot longer to steep. If you do that, the tea will taste bitter.

I can make a really nice cuppa now. I own a three-tiered tray, but I haven’t been to Cake Masterclass, so lower your expectations. And if you live in Oregon, you should make a reservation at the Clockwork Rose. It sounds like the kind of place the Queen Mother would like.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    susanonthesoapbox
    August 9, 2017 at 5:36 pm

    I love tea. At this very moment I’m brewing up some Red Rose tea (pedestrian but one of my favourites). I wonder where we could buy Ceylon White. I’m sure it would be heavenly!

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