The Rise Of The Artisan…Beautiful Chocolates…Everywhere I Turn

Years ago, a brilliant friend expressed concern to me about the dumbing down of humankind.  Advertising was getting more and more crass, news more sensational versus serious, products mass produced.  Retailers became more price focused versus quality focused, primarily because consumers seemed to only care about the price.  Well, she was right.  Except that in the midst of this mass of mediocrity being spewed at us, the rise of the niche marketer, the niche manufacturer, and the artisan has emerged…and they have emerged strong!  Many of them achieving almost rock star status in their field.

The internet and ability to quickly search for whatever it is you desire has been an incredible boon to most of us, (it’s how I’ve discovered much of the tea I prefer.)  Where brick and mortar mass merchandisers used to scare me because they offer so little choice in many categories, I am now comforted to know that for most things, I can still find variety via a bit of searching.  This week, in Dean & Deluca  (fine food, wine, and kitchen store), I came across stunning, artistic chocolates which identify their makers/chocolatier’s names on each tag.  Have you heard of Christopher Elbow? How about Chris Kollar?  These are two of the handmade, artisanal chocolatier’s products I was so impressed by this week, and since have seen their names and products in other fine stores.

I am thankful for artisanal master crafters of products who have such a passion for what they do.  I am grateful that they take a risk and give product development their all.    Hurray for the artisan –  bread makers, cheese makers,  farmers,  grist millers, wine makers, single estate tea growers….and on and on.  In this global society, we need the mass produced and the handmade artisanal goods to survive and to thrive.  In a way, it’s just one huge circle of a production cycle going from big to small, meeting the needs of all.

Tied to the rise of the artisan is the advent of the fresh, local market and shops that are popping up. San Francisco’s Ferry Building inspired many of these markets.   The Mix in Costa Mesa, California is one such place (mentioned in last week’s blog).  This week, we were told to check out Oxbow Public Market in Napa, Ca.  I will post about it soon, they had quality artisan shops featuring Tillerman Teas, artisan coffees, Hog Island Oysters and much much more…all individual “mini” shops featuring single maker, high quality, artisanal items.  While internet shopping is a good thing, there is nothing like being there, touching, smelling, experiencing the products.  These new shopping experiences actually feel like a “throwback” to the days of old when you walked on Main street to the butcher shop, then to tea shop, then the cheese shop…it’s kind of like  going “back to the future.”

This week…in light of Valentine’s Day…the featured artisan category from me is the chocolate maker…check these photos out…the product is even better than they look  –  I did some quality control checking while scoping out these guys 🙂   and I know from recent experience attempting to learn how to make beautiful chocolates that this is a true art, skill, and craft – with a bit of science involved too.

From the Vintage Inn, Yountville, Napa Valley, California – afternoon tea

Dean & Deluca – fine foods, wines, and kitchen wares – St. Helena, California

We got a tip from a pastry chef we met to check out the fabulous chocolates at Kollar Chocolates, Yountville…Chef and Chocolatier, Chris Kollar and Naomi Pasztor own this gorgeous, tantalizing chocolate shop which boasts a demonstration window.

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O.K…. I promise, this is the last post about chocolate for awhile…next I’m taking you to the Bale Grist Mill in St. Helena, Ca…where artisanal organic grains are ground in front of you.  I will be trying out some new recipes for quick breads and scones with the grains I purchased…buckwheat, polenta, spelt and more.

In the meantime, I am enjoying a cup of assam tea with one of those little rectangular dark chocolate ganache tarts right now…  mmmmm

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Surfas Opens In The “O.C.” Next To A Modern Tea Bar

Guess I’ve been on a bit of a chocolate roll the past two weeks.   I now have my sister completely ‘hooked’ on Kusmi’s spicy chocolate tea…and she liked my darling little one-touch teapot so much that I lent it to her (but am surprising her with one of her own in green that I’m picking up next week).  My handmade chocolates from Chef Katie Averill’s class were well received and disappeared in a hurry.  Now I am on the hunt to buy my own baking and decorating chocolates for a couple very special cakes I’ve been recruited to make in early April.

A few months ago I wrote about Surfas, a gourmet food and culinary supply store  located near Los Angeles.  It is a food lover’s delight.  They recently opened a location in Orange County…much much closer to where I live (hurray).

Surfas carries an abundant supply of baking accessories and ingredients including dozens of types of baking chocolates, much of it the coveted Valrhona brand  (oh, here I go again, going on about chocolate).  There are chocolates in every shape and size…large blocks to tiny little pearls and several curled offerings. You can purchase 100% dark, bittersweet, semi-sweet,  milk, and white chocolates.  I know where I’ll be going to pick up what I need next month.

Surfas is located in a design, furnishing, and contemporary food shopping center.

Surfas...Surfas sidewalk...nearby...the Mix with the Seventh Tea Bar

Surfas…Surfas sidewalk…nearby…the Mix with the Seventh Tea Bar

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My girlfriends and I were done shopping and eating and going to head our separate ways when Jean said…”oh, let’s run into The Mix and check out what’s going on.”  She had heard they had an interesting coffee bar called Portola Coffee Lab. The first thing I saw upon entering was this cool tea shop called The Seventh Tea Bar.   “The Seventh Tea Bar design can best be described as Victorian Punk, where old-school tea has a modern edge.”  We will most definitely be making a trip there soon to partake of their tea menu…they do a Gongfu tea tasting and offer tea menu items for individuals and groups that fulfill the most commonly followed tea times from around the world.  The teas I sampled were perfectly prepared and their baristas knew what they were talking about.  The quality was superb.

My friend Jean offered to buy us each a dark chocolate truffle while I was sampling teas from the “tap”… I had to say “yes”…these were velvety smooth, decadently dark, and as the tea barista said as she sold them to us…”watch out for the explosion of cocoa as you take you first bite”…she was right.  We each had cocoa powder all over us and thoroughly relished every morsel as we wiped away the residue.

I can’t wait to go back and experience a full, piping hot tea experience with tea foods.  This contemporary tea bar is just the kind of place where tea is the star.

12 Week Challenge Final Update:  Well the numbers are in and…..drum roll …. they are inconclusive.  “Bummer,” I say.  Actually, I made good progress, but am still not where I need to be.  My doctor and I decided that I was doing so well though, that I should keep doing what I’m doing for another 12 weeks.  We anticipate hitting the target at that point if all goes in the direction it is currently heading.  So.  I am extending my 12 week challenge another 12 weeks.  Will update you occasionally as this has really helped to keep me on track (as my husband pointed out to me when I told him I was tempted to just say “everything was fine and I was done w/ the challenge.”)  So whether you like it or not, you are inspiring me and are my accountability team.  I will update now and then at the end of my posts.  Thanks for your continued support with this ongoing challenge.  New habits are formed and progress is made!

Teas That Taste Like Dessert – Go Ahead, Indulge!

Last night I was craving something sweet.  As many of you know, I am coming to the end of a 12 week challenge to bring my blood sugar to a lower level.  I’ve been focused on eating fresh, whole foods, limiting carbs to 45 grams per meal, limited sweets during the challenge, and attempting to lose 10 pounds through diet and exercise.  Well, last night, I was just about to “get in trouble,” foraging through cupboards and our freezer to see if I had some little sweet dessert stashed somewhere, when I remembered that one of the teas my sister-in-law brought me from Paris included a chocolate spice variety from Kusmi Tea.  I steeped a cup in my favorite little steeping tea pot, from Tea Time Trading Company, which our friends, the Wickers, gave me last year.  It gave me the perfect cup.. hit the spot and saved me from myself.

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Kusmi chocolate tea, steeping in Teatime teapot, Mighty leaf six chocolate tea varieties

Kusmi chocolate tea, steeping in Teatime teapot, Mighty leaf six chocolate tea varieties

You might want to enjoy guilt-free indulgence by steeping teas that taste like dessert.  Sheer  decadence without the calories…without spiking blood sugar levels either…what a treat.  Normally, I am a fan of “pure teas” with no inclusions or scents (other than jasmine), but this one really was dessert-like and satisfying.


Add water (middle photo) , close lid, let steep…release steeped tea into the bottom of the pot with a “one finger” touch on the red button.  Pour into cup and drink up.

Many of the tea companies I purchase from offer a wide variety of delicious teas that hit your sweet tooth – you get decadence in flavor without the calories and without artificial anything.

I’ve tried dozens.  Determining which ones are right for you depends on your tastes (of course)…below are offerings from tea purveyors whose product I trust and indulge in often.

Mighty Leaf teas has a six flavor variety pack of their chocolate truffle teas.  I purchased these a couple years ago and had an “all chocolate” tea for my teenage niece and her friends…they loved it.  Below is this year’s collection and their description of the blends.

“Our Chocolate Truffle Tea Collection includes sumptuous chocolate blends with rich tea leaves for a multi-sensory indulgence. Since ancient times, whole leaf tea and artisan chocolates have seduced the soul. Drink in the decadence of Mighty Leaf’s chocolate truffle teas.”

Contains 6 tins of loose leaf tea: Mayan Chocolate Truffle, Masala Chocolate Truffle, Chocolate Mint Truffle, Chocolate Orange Truffle, Mocha Pu-erh Truffle and Pear Caramel Truffle.

Harney & Sons is another excellent source for teas, including these sweet tasting offerings – Chocolate Mint, Apple Cinnamon, Soho Tea Blend which has chocolate and coconut, and a Valentine blend with chocolate and rosebuds.

Adagio Teas has Sweet Potato Pie, Nut & Spice, Coconut, Hazelnut, and Chocolate Chip, Caramel and Strawberry.

Most good tea purveyors offer dozens of  interesting blends.  I order the smallest portion size available when tasting a blend for the first time.  It’s fun to put on a  tea tasting with friends.  The feedback never ceases to amaze me.  Each taster offers a different perspective.

There are organic varieties (which I am ordering more and more of), Rooibus (African Red Bush, naturally non caffeinated infusions), and blends to include pears, caramels, cocoa chai (my grandson’s favorite), banana, orange spice and more.

When doing a tasting, I usually serve 3 to 5 different teas, using small cups like the one below.  Have a dump bucket on hand too so guests aren’t “stuck” with something they don’t enjoy.

These tea blends make lovely Valentine’s gifts too.  I’ve been getting lots of emails this week with deals for Valentine’s day from my favorite purveyors.  It’s a good time to check them out.  (Harney & Sons and Mighty Leaf deals came through this morning).  Who doesn’t like chocolate for Valentine’s Day?…These tea blends offer a healthy, creative,  and tasty version of chocolate.   The tea is really good served with actual chocolate too (or pear, or caramel or whatever one you are tasting.)  Pair it up.

Seems there is a tea for every occasion…I encourage you to give some a try.

Challenge update: Next week I should have my final update on my 12 week challenge…I have plateaued at -8 pounds on the weight loss and been keeping on track with eating and exercise…I feel like the numbers should come out good this time…we’ll see (keeping my fingers crossed.)  I have appreciated all your encouragement.  I’ve also been working on new afternoon tea menus which burst with flavor and satisfaction, yet reduce carbs.  Will be sharing those going forward.

A Monarchy Tea Inspired By Royal Fashion @ FIDM Los Angeles/Irvine

Recently, my sister sent me an invitation to an interesting lecture held at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM), Los Angeles (at their Irvine campus) which included an enjoyable mid-morning tea buffet.  I will get to the tea part, but first, a bit about the collection and FIDM.

Helen Larsen exhibit

Helen Larson exhibit

For 50 years, Los Angeles based historian, Helen Larson collected over 1,100 garments, primarily from England, creating an impressive historical fashion collection that apparently has left some British fashion historians wondering, “how did we let go of some of these iconic, historical pieces worn by our royals?”  FIDM’s fashion council and museum curators are on a fundraising campaign to purchase the entire offering from the Los Angeles based Larson estate, in an effort to keep this important collection from being broken up.  This lecture and tea was one of their fundraising events.  They have two years to raise the requisite funds.

Helen Larson was intrigued with royalty.  Most of her pieces with royal provenance were acquired during the 1960’s and 1970’s, when she employed British costume historian and dealer Doris Langley Moore to bid for her at auctions, as well as make contact with extended members of Britain’s royal family in hopes that they might part with old clothes worn by their illustrious relatives. Larson funded her hobby of collecting by creating an early “costume rental business” for the Hollywood entertainment industry.  She gathered impressive pieces worn by Queen Victoria and a variety of British monarchy through various sources and trunk buying at a time when few were purchasing “old” clothes.

Monarchy collection on display at FIDM...

Monarchy collection on display at FIDM…

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About 100 guests attended this event which included a tour of the gallery featuring several of Larson’s royal collection, a lecture describing the provenance along with fashion details of each piece, and my favorite part, a Victorian inspired tea menu.

FIDM is a modern looking institute with high energy and invigorating design.  It was exciting to be around such potential. My sister has always been into fashion merchandising (which was her college major and degree) –  and going with her was a treat.  As we walked in, here is what we saw:

The interior is modern and conducive to collaboration, learning, and innovation.

FIDM L.A. has produced many renowned designers, including current popular fashion designer, Monique Lhuillier, who designed this Barbie Bride collectible.

Barbie dress by FIDM graduate

Barbie dress by FIDM graduate

They are proud of their graduates and show off their achievement in the lobby.

In the museum gallery, we were treated to a truly incredible display, including a reception gown worn by Queen Victoria (whom was a bit shorter and more stout than I remembered from my history classes).  It is the black gown above.

Princess’s gowns were included, this was my favorite in the gallery.

O.K., we saw the collection, listened to several lectures, now, finally, the food.

Notice I didn’t say, the tea.  Typical of many a caterer, the tea just reeked.  It reeked of coffee.  They used a hot water urn that had obviously been used for coffee and it bled into the delicate fragrance of whatever tea bag one used.  So I will skip the tea beverage discussion and move onto the food, which was really good and nicely done.  The selection was so appropriate for a mid morning tea.  The finger sandwiches were nice and moist (no dry bread here).  The scones were perfectly sized, distinctively flavored, particularly the pumpkin scone.  The accompaniments were spot on and plentiful.  The caterer did a beautiful job of keeping trays refreshed as we masses hovered over platters of deviled eggs, cucumber sandwiches, chicken salad with almonds and celery, and plenty of sweets with scones as a feature (as it should be, particularly at a British royal inspired event.)

The breakfast tea foods...and proof that we enjoyed it all...

The breakfast tea foods…and proof that we enjoyed it all…

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There were two platters of scones, and plenty of toppings for them.

Here’s proof that all thoroughly enjoyed the food, which included “seconds” by most…

We met interesting people and had dynamic discussions about the collection, teas, podcasts, and tea houses.  In particular, we enjoyed a spirited conversation with a young filmmaker and costume designer named Colleen Marie Monroe.  Check out her podcast which features fascinating costuming stories at

As we talked about the tea,  I got truly encouraged that the twenty-somethings in the arts looking for great tea…and I mean the whole tea leaf… will lead the way to continuous improvement of quality in our U.S. tea business.  It seems that art, fashion, design and tea have a strong synergy.  To this point, a dear friend of mine just got back from Harney & Sons SOHO (NYC) tea shop, he said it was run by and inhabited by “hip twenty-somethings.”  All of which, I think, bodes well for more and better tea product in the U.S. going forward.

Regarding today’s tea service…I was thrilled with the food.  I will keep giving feedback –  one person, one caterer at a time – offering  this tip about serving tea (the beverage);  it’s pretty darn simple, “when serving tea – use fresh, clean, filtered, hot water that is pure of other fragrances, scents, or impurities.  Serve from  a vessel/urn dedicated to water only, never one that coffee has inhabited.”  It’s simple.

Week 10 Challenge Update:  Well, I have my fingers crossed still.  The four pounds I dropped while being under the weather last week have almost stayed “off.”  (down 3 🙂  I am so excited, while not the best way to lose a few pounds, I’ll take it!  I suffered for it …  So, two weeks to go and 8 down, 2 pounds to go… I am working out a bit everyday now (except Sundays…that’s currently my day to watch NFL playoff  football – go 49ers!)  Coincidentally, my challenge ends when the season ends…January 31.

Enjoy tea!!!  and tea time….

Afternoon Tea Time At The Mission Inn…Revisited

My daughter, “A,”and I love to take in an afternoon tea and we enjoy the setting at the historic Mission Inn in Riverside, California.   U.S. presidents have stayed in this gorgeous property situated on a lovely square in downtown Riverside.  We have attended beautiful weddings at this site too.  “A” and I took in tea here last year, just the two of us.  This time, we invited the boys (my two young grandsons, who enjoy putting on their finest clothes, and Grandpa too.)  All had fun walking around the property identifying the various decorations of angels, carolers, and musical bears hanging off the many balconies, and talking to the two Macaws that greet guests.  Once the tea goodies came,  the boys were quite excited, and particular, about which sweets they preferred. They tried Devon clotted cream for the first time. As long as strawberry jam was on the scone too, they were fine.

Carolers and “pretend” guests hang out on other balconies…quite clever.

Inside courtyard, above our table, decorative angels sing out —

There were plenty of sweets…French macarons, coconut macaroons, fruit tarts, cupcakes filled with cream, even canoli.

Mission Inn, Riverside, holiday tea time...

Mission Inn, Riverside, holiday tea time…

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When one of us asked for their low carb menu…they brought this plate of fruit instead of the sweets and scones.  Not “quite” what I had in mind, (was thinking more eggs and shrimp) but still better for me than all the desserts.  The boys LOVE fruit, so they enjoyed most of it.

All in all, a lovely afternoon. While the tea selection is limited, and oddly offers no “just plain black tea”, the service is nice.  I did hear a few guests at other tables asking for black tea.  Since we are seated in an outside patio, the tea got cold quickly, would have been nice to have had a cozy or the pot sitting on a tea warmer.

While the food is really beautiful, I wish they would prepare their scones to order and serve them hot, or at least warm.  Makes for a tastier bread which brings out the flavor of butters, clotted cream and jams more fully.

Week 9 Update…3 weeks to go…well, I don’t know if this week should count, as I lost almost 3 pounds; however, it is due to my catching a bug and being under the weather, unable to eat much for the past 4 days. We will see if I can keep any of that off going forward (I must say, even though not well, it was exciting to see that many pounds finally drop off, even though they are likely to bounce back.)

A Few Of My Favorite Things…. Plus Week 6 Challenge Update

My family and friends know just how much I love food and tea related gadgets and tools.  This year, I received some clever, interesting, and highly functional items.  You might want to check these out for the foodies in your life.  Each is $50 or under…

My favorite things, under $50 - Amish cake tester, French olive oil, butter dishes, Cucina kitchen hand soap, iPhone tripod, clever tea bags, all about tea cards, small cake dome, Kitchen papers table runner

My favorite things, under $50 – Amish cake tester, French olive oil, butter dishes, Cucina kitchen hand soap, iPhone tripod, clever tea bags, all about tea cards, small cake dome, Kitchen papers table runner

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I just LOVE these butter dishes.  They are from Crate & Barrel and cost $4.95 each.  I first saw them at our dear friend’s home (J & E) – They are easy to store butter in and keep it fresh – the lid does not fall off, it’s quite secure and it is easy to pass around too.

Cake plate and dome:  I received this darling 10″ round fluted cake plate from J&E … decided I needed a dome for it and had a heck of a time finding one.  I searched every brick and mortar store and googled dozens more, but could not locate a 9″ dome….then walked through a neat home store, Jack Thomas at Home, in Laguna Beach (on my way to the best little book store around (Laguna Beach Books), and saw this dome…snapped it up immediately.  I enjoy plating petite sweets for guests’ viewing enjoyment and “planning” ahead for their eating enjoyment…so the clear, domed lid is a good thing.

Next: I couldn’t resist showing off my favorite new table runner …love it love it love it…so do all the guests … from Kitchen Papers.  They have a full line of contemporary and beautiful kitchen paper goods.

My favorite kitchen hand soap…I was first given this by my writing buddy and coach, Hils…it is so wonderful…easy on your hands (not harsh), and has a delightful light scent that diminishes almost fully and immediately after washing.  This I love as I am sensitive to scents and prefer them to dissipate versus hang on. I now purchase the large refill size bottle to keep the counter bottle full. Cucina is the brand and they have other offerings too.

Hilarious tea bags from Germany…I found these in my mailbox, left with an r.s.v.p. to attend the St. Regis Tea and Tinis gathering from my friend, S., who has a knack for discovering the cutest and most clever gifts.

I can’t seem to find this on line any longer, but this wheel gives great tips on what foods pair with which teas…I am inspired to research a bit more to try to find this item again.

Week 6 update….half way through and I definitely plateaued…no weight loss…but no gain either.   I anticipated hitting a wall about now.  I seem to be able to lose 5 lbs, then …it gets truly difficult to go further.  This week will be a real test as I am making a serious effort to lose another pound.  Last week there were a couple holiday dinners that I decided to enjoy, while not going overboard… I need to kick myself in the behind a bit…as I write this, I am feeling energized…the  theme to the film Rocky is playing in my head…. I am now going to publish this and go do some exercise and drink tea!!