High tea at the Prince of Wales Hotel, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario

High tea tiers


One of my only regrets about our 2011 trip to the UK was my inability to enjoy afternoon tea in the countryside. The signage, the sweets, the beverages at the tea rooms — oh, how they taunted me. Because we were with a tour (and on a schedule), I couldn’t pause to sip Earl Grey or nibble a scone. No how, no way.

The most painful place I had to leave — under complete duress — was in Kilkenny, Ireland, where they were serving a fantastic-looking spread at 4 p.m. I remember watching the minutes tick down as we drove away on our big bus, knowing I’d never be there again.

I’m a wee bit dramatic, I know. But there’s plenty of truth there.

The Jane Austen lover in me is just so enamored with the idea of high tea — and knowing how much I love beverages (and, you know, eating), I recently jumped at the chance to join my mother-in-law for the experience at the lovely Prince of Wales Hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. The Victorian Drawing Room proved the perfect spot for our lunch and pinkies-out sipping.


Prince of Wales

Menu

Table and chair

Close tea


The days I have something decidedly fancy to do are, of course, when my hair simply will not cooperate . . . and my tender strands? Not a fan of Niagara water, friends. Not at all. I tried to gussy myself up for our reservation and act like the sophisticated traveler I desperately longed to be, but the reality is . . . well, I’m just a photo-snapping, frizzy-haired American tourist who likes sweets.

Lots of sweets.

The spread did not disappoint: sandwiches with cucumber, salmon, turkey and cranberry; savory scones studded with fruit; individual lemon meringue pies; tiny cupcakes; raspberry bars; shortbread so tender it actually melted in our mouths. We both went light at breakfast knowing this 12 p.m. date awaited us, and I was still stuffed — like really, really full — for the rest of the day.

We wound up requesting a box to take at least half of these treasures back to our hotel. I would pay a million dollars for one of those cookies right now.


Tea spread

Sweets

Lemon meringue pie


Isn’t that the way with vacation? You dine out constantly, have all these awesome meals, and then you just . . . get tired of it. Take it for granted. After a week away, I long for a simple, light and home-cooked meal — especially these days. But a week or two later, visions of scones start dancing in my head . . .

And they are so dancing right now.


Scones


The food was delicious, the service impeccable, the location stunning . . . but the company was the best! Because my parents-in-law live two states away, we don’t see each other as often as we would like — and this weekend away was wonderful for catching up with them and getting some time to chat with my mother-in-law, especially. An avid tea drinker, Alex loved the experience, too — and we both adored having our own pots brewing while we enjoyed our time there.

Should you find yourself in Niagara-on-the-Lake, tea in the Victorian Drawing Room is served daily from noon to 6 p.m. with a variety of options to suit your tastes.

It was really fun to feel sophisticated . . . if only for an afternoon. 😉


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Random things that make me happy, pt. 3

1. Tea.

The quickest way to perk up my afternoon is to make myself a cup of hot tea. I have no less than six different kinds in my desk drawer — and I often find that the most exciting part of my work day is choosing a flavor. (It’s the little things . . .) When my boyfriend’s parents were in town at Christmas, I took his mom to an awesome local tea room. I just wanted to gobble up everything there!

2. Pretty postage.

I send lots of mail. Whether we’re talking postcards, love letters or old-fashioned mail to family, I better have a hefty stack of stamps at my disposal. I have the “Garden of Love” stamps now and use them to death.

3. Spencer’s wrinkle-nosed laugh.

Everyone has a Face. It’s the look you make when someone has really tickled your funny bone, you know what I’m sayin’? I’m not talking an obligatory chuckle here — I’m talking a big, from-the-gut, uncontrollable laugh that cannot be controlled. And when I say something that really makes Spencer double over or do something clumsy and hilarious, he wrinkles his nose and gives me a look of utter disbelief. That makes me laugh. And I love to laugh — especially with him.

4. Beautiful book cover art.

I totally judge books by their covers, and sometimes their covers are awesome. The books themselves? No clue. But at least they’re pretty.

5. Nail polish.

My obsession has reached a critical juncture. I joined the Julep Maven (affiliate link) program and am now treated to surprise nail shades and goodies coming to my mailbox every month, and let me tell you: this is bad. Well, I mean, it’s good; it’s awesome getting surprises in the mail. But it’s bad because I have to pay for it. And I have very little self-discipline when it comes to cosmetics.

It’s also bad because I’m the nut who now needs to change her polish constantly, and since I’m rarely sitting down long enough to do it . . . well, I’m typically up at 11 p.m. trying to keep my eyes long enough to give myself a manicure. Don’t stare too long at the smudges.

6. Post-Christmas clean-up.

I love holiday decorating as much as the next guy (or gal), but I’m very eager to pack up the inflatable snowmen and Christmas bulbs once the season has passed. We cleaned up our house last weekend and Spencer packed up his place this week, too. My desk is now free of miniature pink Christmas trees and my officemates have helped take down all the hanging icicle lights once strung along the ceiling of our office space.

The new year always feels like a clean slate, and I like having a (literal) clean space in which to embrace all that possibility. It feels good to have order restored, you know?

7. Instagram.

Yes, yes — after joining the iPhone world, I’ve become completely obsessed with the Instagram app for photos. You might have noticed my own recent shots look a tad bit different than the photos I normally share, and that’s because I can’t stop snapping shots with my phone.

While I once judged this and judged this harshly (I mean, what kind of quality are you getting with a phone?), I understand now. Instagram is awesome. And if you thought I took too many pictures of my food before, be afraid.

I’m also doing a 2012:366 project (leap year!) wherein I take one iPhone photo daily for 2012. I’ve seen lots of folks doing similar but always thought they were unrealistic for me. Since I’m not going anywhere without my phone, it’s easy to remember to document at least one small part of my day — and it gets my creative juices flowing on otherwise hum-drum occasions. And yes, there’s an app for that.

Etsy Find Fridays: Spot of tea for you?

We have a really awesome water cooler at work. Maybe you do, too, which means we both work for stellar employers. Because this baby? The literal water cooler around which we often perch, chatting and quenching our thirst? It has hot water.

This might not seem all that exciting at first. I mean, hot water? We can get hot water from a tap. We can get hot water in the shower. But having hot water right from the water cooler means I can quickly, conveniently make myself a cup of hot tea in the afternoons.

No less than six types of tea bags take up residence in my desk drawer. Choosing which to sample in the afternoon is a special treat, and it’s these little luxuries — simple things — that can spice up a long afternoon. And I’m no tea monogamist. Black tea, green tea, white tea — all are welcome here. (In my mug.)

As such, my interest in tea extends beyond merely drinking the lovely elixir. To avid tea drinkers, tea is a way of life. It’s synonymous with comfort. When someone I know is sick, that’s the first thing flying out of my mouth: “Want me to make you some tea?” And when I myself am ill, that’s what I would like to be offered: “Meg, shall I make you a spot of tea?” (In this scenario, you are British. I like that about you.)

In a favorite song by The Script, the chaps sing, “They’ll be a smile on my face and the kettle on, and it’ll be just like you were never gone — if you ever come back, if you ever come back . . .” The lovely image of a handsome guy sitting there with a cup of tea desperately hoping to see my face again? Ready to pass me a mug of tea and listen to my stories, all while apologizing profusely for his wrongdoing? Yes, please. With sugar.

If you’re a tea-swilling crazywoman like me — or just need some holiday gift ideas for someone who is — I invite you to peruse my favorite beverage-related items from Etsy this week. Click on each image to be taken to the item’s listing.



Are you a tea drinker?
What’s your favorite kind?


Sharing the vanilla chai love

The first time I ever took a sip of chai tea, my sister and I exchanged puzzled looks.

“It tastes . . . rancid,” I decided, wrinkling my nose. I took another sip to be sure of my findings, of course; yep, still weird. Unusual. Spicy.

“It doesn’t taste like tea,” Katie agreed.

I’ve come a long way from the skeptical, just-straight-coffee-and-cream-thanks girl I once was. Furthermore, I’m no longer the Red-Rose-black-tea-until-I-die lady I was in my early twenties. (Sidenote: I can now say “early twenties” because I’m in my mid-twenties. Lord.)

When I worked at Borders and the newspaper, juicing up on some sort of caffeine was a nightly requirement. No one can work 14 hours a day without some sort of jolt. A friend reintroduced me to chai tea when I was a wee little bookseller — and then, to my great astonishment, suggested adding vanilla syrup to it. Delicious.

I was at Dunkin’ Donuts yesterday getting gas and trying to break a $20 bill before going to the gym, where I needed $5 cash to get past the fitness center guard who seems skeptical that I would want to pay as I go — once or twice a week — rather than invest in a monthly payment plan and itmakesmereallymad because IjustwanttodowhatIwanttodo without being questioned. Every single time.

Ahem.

So I went into my local DD and perused their beverage board. I’m used to ordering my gingerbread latte or, when I’m feeling randy, a peppermint mocha, but neither option is available now.

But then I saw something better.

A vanilla chai latte.

I’ve never seen a vanilla chai latte pre-made, friends! I thought it was . . . well, that it was something special my old Borders buddy had made up. I have vanilla chai tea bags in my desk, true, and they’re awesome, but they don’t compare to the creamy, milk goodness that is a chai tea latte. With vanilla.

So I ordered it and it was fantastic — seriously, so good — but I burned my tongue until eternity on the scalding hot milk. When will I learn to give hot beverages the prerequisite 20-30 minute waiting time before sipping them? Seriously. You’d think I just got here.

But I didn’t. Hot tea has been a staple in my life forever.

Growing up, my mom was a huge tea drinker — and Red Rose was her variety of choice. My favorite part of any tea-making habit was peeking in the Red Rose box to see which of the Wade Whimsies was buried inside with the teabags. The tiny animal figurines were favorite trinkets of my sister’s and mine, and Mom would help us place them all in a little cabinet. I used to cup them in my hands and admire the smooth feel of the porcelain. We still have most of them.

January is National Tea Month, y’all. Americans drink more than 50 billion cups of tea each year, one website claims, and I have a feeling that number is far higher in places where teatime is actually a ritual. Like England. Where I’m going in April. (More to come on that soon!)

If you’ve never tried chai tea (or a chai tea latte), make that your first order of business. It’s a taste of warmth and comfort in a cup. In fact . . . well, I need to brew some now.

And how do you take your tea? Or do you hate tea? One commenter will get a note from me (oh, the joy!) and some of my favorite teabags. Just make sure I have your email! Random winner will be selected on Saturday, Jan. 29 and emailed by yours truly.

Updated Jan. 30: Congratulations to Patty, my randomly-selected tea winner! I’ve sent you an email.

Book review: ‘High Tea’ by Sandra Harper

Margaret Moore runs a quaint tearoom in downtown Los Angeles, where she’s lived near her ex-husband and grown daughter for decades. A British expat, Margaret adjusted reasonably well to life in the Golden State — but now, after years away from London, she’s wondering what she might have missed. Compounded with her disillusionment over the hurried, superficial lives of L.A.’s residents, Margaret’s daydreams about returning home may become more than fantasies.

Baking scones and brewing tea alongside Margaret at Magpie’s Tearoom are Lilly, a pastry chef who yearns for more out of life — and her relationship with Deborah, her girlfriend much her junior; Clarissa, an aging actress still desperately clawing for that one part to send her on the path to stardom; and Lauren, a younger actress who spends more time gallivanting with her boyfriend than studying the craft of acting . . . but still manages to snag good roles. Lauren and Clarissa are servers at Magpie’s, but tensions around the building are brewing faster (and stronger) than the tea.

Sandra Harper’s High Tea looked to be a light, savory little chick lit novel — and I guess, if I were feeling vapid and ridiculous, I might have enjoyed it more. I read Harper’s Over The Holidays last December and thought it was fun, though it was badly stricken with Too Many Characters-itis. This one suffered the same illness: too many characters and far too many storylines resulted in my total ambivalence about everyone in this quick read.

Margaret is our main character and, as such, we get the most of her back story — which would have been fairly interesting if I had a clue what any of it meant to her. Her ex-husband, Tony, was a starry-eyed actor who brought his young family to Los Angeles as he pursued a stage career. Now older, wiser and, you know, gay, Tony and Margaret have divorced but continue to raise their daughter, Kate, together. As the years have gone on, Margaret and Tony have become friends — even as Tony, now 60, lives with his long-term boyfriend but watches said boyfriend parade young men through the house.

All very interesting, but how was Margaret feeling? She’s a 60-year-old divorcee whose husband — a man with whom she was once madly in love — has left her and come out of the closet. That’s enough to send anyone into a psychotic break, I’d reckon, but we never get even an inkling of emotion from our heroine. This isn’t a fresh wound in the story, of course; all of this went down years before High Tea opens. But still: there’s nothing.

Lilly’s plotline felt completely ridiculous to me, too. Here we have a woman with dreams, ambitions, goals — and the inability to stop being a doormat to her young girlfriend, a high-powered Hollywood producer who treats Lilly more like a mother than a significant other. Lilly is obsessed with their sex life — or lack thereof — and spoiler: she hops into bed with a stranger with absolutely no preamble. Struck dumb by the idea of life without Deborah, Lilly somehow has zero issue cheating on her with someone she doesn’t even know. And suddenly they’re planning a whole life together? In about .567 seconds? What?

Clarissa and Lauren passed in and out of the story so infrequently, I can’t really bother to comment on them. I never got to know either woman, other than that one was “old” and one was “young,” and apparently that’s an “issue” in Hollywood. Yeah, thanks for the breaking news that all starlets are supposed to be fresh-faced, doe-eyed and thin. Got it.

Meh. I won’t go on. I’m a huge fan of chick lit and love tea — hence why I picked this one up, coupled with the pink cover — but I sped through it in no time because I was bored. Margaret’s sojourn to England provided a brief and promising change of scenery, but it never amounted to much.
Lackluster.


2 out of 5!

ISBN: 141658062X ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘The Teashop Girls’ by Laura Schaefer

teashop_girlsA word of caution for those of you just beginning Laura Schaefer’s The Teashop Girls — that raging sweet tooth you have? Yeah, it’s going to be aching. With a phenomenal mixture of family, love, sweets and tea, Schaefer’s young adult novel is one fabulous treat.

Thirteen-year-old Annie Green adores the time she spends at the Steeping Leaf, her grandmother Louisa’s cozy tea shop in Madison, Wis. With her best friends Zoe and Genna, Annie has spent countless hours on the cafe’s well-worn and well-loved couches as a member of the Teashop Girls, a trio they formed in elementary school. As the girls prepare to enter high school and Annie begs to be given more responsibility at the Steeping Leaf, Louisa eventually agrees — and her granddaughter becomes the Leaf’s newest barista. The position comes with a crush, too; Jonathan Schultz, a high school sophomore with serious ideas about “business,” arrives on the scene with plenty of thoughts on how to improve the Leaf’s dwindling customer base.

And the shop definitely needs some help. It’s not long before the Leaf’s lights begin to flicker and the landlord arrives, demanding back rent. Louisa takes it all in stride but her granddaughter, ever astute and organized, springs into action. The Steeping Leaf is the site of her fondest childhood memories and she clings to them as everything around her begins to shift and change. And even though the Teashop Girls have begun to drift in different directions, can they all band together to save the spot they once loved the most?

I won’t tell you that, of course,  but I’ll give you a hint: everything in The Teashop Girls is completely fun and delicious. Seriously, if I were 12 again? I would have gobbled this one up. (Hey, I’m so very not 12, and I still devoured it whole.) I first saw the novel floating around a few blogs last year and immediately developed a raging love affair with the cover. As someone who has known (and brewed) tea since she was a little girl herself, I could completely relate to Annie — definitely an old soul. Everything about our narrator felt believable; Schaefer did an impeccable job of capturing the sweet, wise voice of an eighth grader owed far more credit for her smarts and wit than others are willing to give her.

What I think I loved best about the novel, definitely aimed to the 11- to 14-year-old set, are the overall “morals” of the story — which were prevalent, but not heavy-handed. The idea that anyone, regardless of age, can be innovative and accomplish seemingly impossible goals was inspiring. Along that vein, Annie’s crush on Jonathan felt like a 13-year-old’s crush — and it’s clear in the novel that getting a boyfriend will not solve all your problems, make your life impossibly better or make you a more worthwhile person. As someone who spent more than a decade in a boy-obsessed stupor (you guess which decade and when that period ended — you won’t hear it from me!), I definitely appreciated Schaefer’s fresh take on adolescent crushing! It’s easy to forget that as desperately as we want other people to like us, we have to like them, too. And — ahem — that’s definitely a lesson that I benefited from refreshing!

And the drawings! Genna is an artist and, Annie tells us, many of her drawings of the Leaf and other goodies accompany the text. Each chapter begins with either an awesome recipe, brewing instructions for the perfect cup of tea, or vintage tea advertisements with Annie’s commentary. I was completely entranced by them and almost looked forward to the art most of all! (Well, almost.)

I wouldn’t hesitate a moment to recommend The Teashop Girls to young ladies — and to girls young at heart. I completely loved it and am taking some of Louisa’s calming meditation techniques to heart; we could all use a little more Zen in our lives! If I could trundle over to Madison and was assured a cafe like the Steeping Leaf would be there to greet me, I’d grab a book and get in the car right now.


4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1416967931 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Copy obtained through BookMooch

British mug-aphilia

My obsession with all things British has been far-reaching and serious, as I’ve frequently blogged about before. Last year for my birthday, my sister carried my London theme to framed pictures, a wire replica of Big Ben and a lovely corkboard with London emblazoned across the top! And for Christmas this year, she got me an incredibly awesome mug printed with London landmarks. Silly me just got around to taking photos of it, so I bring you . . .

img_5121

The British Mug!

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I have a really cool mug featuring the “disappearing” wives of Henry VIII, too — my dad got me that for my birthday, too. When you pour hot liquid into the mug, the ladies vanish one by one! Pretty creepy.

henry_mug

So cheers! I’ll have my London cuppa and get ready for the weekend. Should be fun — before the “monster storm” sets in, anyway . . .