The Art of Scented Teas: Aftelier Perfumes


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It’s said that Cleopatra drenched her ship’s sails in jasmine to announce her arrival in Rome and seduce Mark Antony. Imagine the extravagance of it: today, average estimates suggest that it can take as many as 10,000 jasmine flowers to make one gram of absolute; a pound of that would sell for $1000 or more. It’s one of the reasons why the jasmine so many of us know isn’t really jasmine at all and doesn’t approach its natural allure. Companies around the world, and sellers of pretty much any product in history, have always found ways to make things more quickly and cheaply. So it’s little surprise that some perfumers use lower grade oils or synthetic variations that stray from the real thing, sometimes unrecognizably.

claudette colbert1934

Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra, 1934

Scented Teas Fit for Emperors

The same can be said for jasmine teas, which first appeared during China’s Tang dynasty and became even more popular during the end of the Song era, followed by the Ming and Qing periods when tea fragranced with osmanthus, rose, orchid, chrysanthemum and even lotus came into vogue. Traditionally, scented teas involve an intensely laborious, weeks-long process of layering flowers that’s somewhat similar to the concept of enfleurage—laying petals in fat to absorb scent. Trusted purveyors of Chinese teas have said that quality scented teas absorb the aroma of flowers in their bones, and are not likely to lose their scent even after many steepings. Such teas were often bestowed as gifts upon emperors.

Jasmine tea, which tends to use the nightblooming jasmine sambac, is the most popular scented tea in the world, with flowers often mixed with green or white tea of varying levels of quality. It’s not unlike Earl Grey—its equally popular flavored sister, which is often infused with lower quality bergamot oil to mask lower grade black tea. Easy as it is to find a jasmine green tea or Earl Grey in shops or cafes across the globe, it’s rarer to find ones that use, say, good bergamot from Calabria in Italy or true jasmine flowers as well as high-quality base tea. Experts say that many tea shops use artificial ingredients in their flavored and scented blends, akin to the preservatives used in Orange Crush or Fanta.


Jasmine Sambac

You can taste and smell the difference in the presence of natural, well-executed tea. So much so, that scented or flavored teas have become dirty words among some of the world’s most respected tea purveyors and connoisseurs, many of whom prefer to focus on the beauty and complexity of pure, unadorned tea. The prevalence of lower quality scents and flavors could explain why so many people shy away from scented teas: fake florals can be overbearing, headache-inducing or even nauseating to some people, especially those used to drinking a plain old cup of good tea.

Oolong teas—my own personal favorite—are more oxidized than green teas but less so than black. They can have a range of flavors from roasted or darker notes like raisin, stone fruit or cocoa to lighter, creamy flavors, with the taste and scent of florals embedded in the leaf itself and slowly unfurling as it infuses. You can steep most oolongs many times, and experience different layers of scent and flavor as you would in perfume, with different top, middle and base notes unfolding over time. Classically, the first steeping is often just for aroma, which can be as exquisite as a first-rate fragrance for some oolongs. Which begs the question of good oolongs or high-quality tea of any sort: does adding scent or flavor enhance the tea or detract from it?

I spoke with perfume expert Mandy Aftel to get her take on the delicate and very high art of flavoring and scenting rare teas with some of the world’s most extraordinary ingredients. Aftel makes luxury natural perfumes as well as superior-grade culinary oils and blended teas, including a new blood orange and cardamom black tea released in late 2015. (Please see a full tea list below.) Her teas are served at restaurants like Coi and Alta in San Francisco.

Tea and Oranges, All the Way from China: the Art of Scenting & Flavoring with Mandy Aftel


How do you think about your scented teas and the process of creating them?

Aftel: I’ve been a tea drinker my entire life and love all the nuances of tea: how it looks, smells, tastes, its color and mouthfeel, how the tea leaves unfurl in the infusion process. The whole experience of making and drinking tea is incredibly rich and aesthetically pleasing to me. I especially love hand-rolled teas, and enjoy watching the leaves unfurl during the infusion process. I also enjoy hunting for beautiful teas. As with everything else I buy, from perfume ingredients to culinary oils, I see myself as an explorer on the Spice Route, and am always searching for the very best materials. I do the same when I shop for tea. I buy rarer teas, often quite high up the supply chain, only after I’ve done a lot of comparison shopping.

I don’t plan to make a fragranced version when I find a tea I love. I drink it for its own sake and appreciate its inherent nuances. But sometimes an idea for marrying the tea with scents or flavors springs to mind. I experiment and strive for a marriage that respects the integrity of the base tea as well as the fragrance or flavor, while also creating something new. It’s similar to the way I think about composing a perfume: I work on it until the various ingredients are in harmony and have locked into place. I consciously keep my collection small, and rarely add to it. If I don’t think I can truly add something with a blend, I don’t do it.

Tell us about your newest tea, launched this past fall. How do you think about this creation?

Aftel: I grew up in Michigan and used to drink a lot of a popular orange spice tea there—it’s still widely sold across the country. It wasn’t an especially good tea but at the time, it was the most exotic thing in the world to me—I believe it’s the same tea Leonard Cohen mentioned in his song Suzanne. The thought of that tea brings me back to Michigan winters, which I miss sometimes, living in California. I often create new perfumes or teas based on feelings or memories like that, and hope that people will discover their beauty firsthand, in a way that feels personal and laces into their own memories.

I love the cardamom and blood orange tea for the winter holidays. I’d come across an extraordinary black tea for the base: it’s unusually clean and light, with beautifully rolled leaves, closer to an oolong. I bought up all of it from the supplier, and had the feeling I could create a more exquisite version of that old orange spice tea. I chose a big-hearted, raspberry-like blood orange oil—the most layered of all my orange essences. I also opted for a warm, well-rounded cardamom rather than cinnamon. I try to convey simplicity in all of my teas and perfumes, with just a few rich ingredients, whether it’s the cardamom in the black tea or allspice in the matcha chai. People don’t always get spices at their prime, but when you find truly high-quality ones, you can experience many layers of sensation with them, even in very small doses. I feel very grateful to work with these extraordinary materials, and like to share them with people, so they can feel the difference in quality themselves. It’s truly a luxury.

Four teas: A meditation on the seasons


Teahouse at Koishikawa the morning after a snowfall, Hokusai, 1830.

We often think of the seasons as four distinct times of the year. In reality, they tend to be much more fluid, with some days warmer, or cooler, darker, lighter, greyer, brighter, or even swinging dramatically from summer to fall, winter to spring. Aftelier Perfumes’ collection feels very much like a complete oeuvre—think Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, with each tea suited for colder or warmer weather in its predominant characteristics, yet containing many underlying nuances to account for the transitions and variations of different days and moments. Each one offers many layers of aroma and taste, with just a few extraordinary ingredients: certain notes and seasonal qualities come to the forefront, or recede, with each successive steeping. The beautifully rounded matcha chai is one example: warming, earthier spices like cinnamon seem naturally suited to late fall or winter, while the brightness of green matcha offers the hope of new buds in spring.

Blood Orange and Cardamom Black Tea: A rare, organic Red Pearls black tea from Fujian, China, with fully-oxidized Mao Feng tea leaves rolled into small black pearls that open into fall-like leaves. Clean, slightly smoky, with bright orange, fresh, green cardamom and a caramel-like color and aroma, this tea takes the many orange spice blends on the market to a more refined, sublime level. A rich, festive tea for later fall, the holiday season and throughout winter.

Frankincense GABA Oolong: From Nantou, Taiwan with fruit and honey notes, also rich in GABA, a natural enzyme that calms and relaxes. Scented with the finest hojary frankincense, tinctured from the resin by Aftel, with balsamic notes, citrus-y undertones and hints of wild strawberry. Imbued with the history of frankincense and ancient resins, this is a grounding tea for colder months. Tightly rolled leaves unfurl during the first steeping, and may be re-infused up to four times, retaining their fragrance.

Matcha Chai: Ceremonial grade matcha, grown under diffused sunlight in Nishio, Japan, where the leaves are then ground into a fine vibrant emerald-green powder. Flavored with vanilla absolute from Madagascar, organic Vietnamese cinnamon, Jamaican pimento berry, and Indian cardamom. No need to add a dash of milk or sugar here: the blend itself has layers of creaminess from the matcha and a sweet touch of vanilla—a natural latte.

Turkish Rose and Ginger Oolong: A rare Taiwanese tea that’s oxidized and roasted by a traditional tea master. The oldest tea in the collection, first inspired by a rose-ginger soufflé, this full-bodied, floral, slightly green tea opens with ripe fruit notes and has a smooth aftertaste, enriched by soft Turkish rose and spicy ginger. Tightly rolled leaves unfurl during the first steeping, and may be re-infused multiple times. A lovely way to watch the summer months go by, and roses re-bloom through early fall.

Boozy teas & scents (with flowers)


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I’m hardly a drinker beyond the occasional cocktail or Armagnac. But love experimenting with flavors and hosting any guests who drop by our place. My husband has a pretty extensive whiskey collection and I find myself drawn to the warmth, comfort and good old-fashioned fun that fine spirits can bring to the table through the holidays and colder months.

Barrel-aged and scented teas


Smith holiday teas, Stumptown, West Village, New York, October 2015.

Portland’s Smith Teamaker came to New York earlier this fall with a sampling of their holiday brews. I’d spent some time with master blender Tony Tellin for a tea and food pairing feature for Fresh Cup Magazine and was already deeply impressed with Smith’s delicious line-up and their approach to blending–rooted in tradition and authentic, high-quality base teas while breaking ground with elegant new flavor combinations.

What a luxury to attend the holiday preview: I nearly gasped when Tony said that the first holiday tea was a white Yunnan with chrysanthemum flowers and dried pears rehydrated in pear brandy. Yes, you heard right. Lesser known white Yunnans tend to be one of my favorite teas for their light but hugely rustic country charm. Pairing that with sweet, grassy and somewhat dusty chrysanthemum flowers struck me as brilliant before I even tasted it. The smell of the dry tea was exquisite-delicate, floral, somewhat peppery and just barely earthy. It made me think of dusty sunshine.

Did I mention the tea was aged in rum barrels? The brew tasted like a light rum cocktail-a sublime and dreamlike concoction without the hangover. I was delighted to see Sara of Tea Happiness there, who did a far more extensive recap of everything we tasted (please read it here.) Much as I loved the whole affair (each holiday tea was truly stunning in its own way,) my heart was with White Chrysmas. You’ve got to love a company that can carry off a chrysanthemum pun like that. Look out for Smith’s holiday teas (any day now, I suspect)–they sell out in a heartbeat.

A few weeks later, this article on barrel-aged teas caught my attention in Imbibe. I ponied up for a 2001 vintage puerh aged in oak barrels from Rare Tea Cellar-one of the few on their site not sold out. Theresa Wong from T Shop NY and I had just been talking about how many whiskey lovers tend to like puerhs for their rich, earthy, aged, ancient forest quality, not unlike whiskey. (Whiskey comes from grains, after all, and is often aged in oak barrels.) As it happens, I’d stopped into T Shop one afternoon for some grounding cups of puerh after spending several hours at MiN New York and feeling a bit heady from smelling so many amazing perfumes. You can read more about boozy, gourmand fragrances in my holiday round-up, including a Barrel scent from MiN with notes of absinthe, rum and oak moss.

The Rare Cellar tea was incredibly rich and smooth with a rounded, velvety mouthfeel and tremendous layers of depth. Drinking it made me feel like I was descending into a dark cave, without a trace of fear. My husband, who doesn’t normally drink or even like tea, also dug it and pressed me for more information about what kind of oak barrel it was aged in. This is all I know at the moment beyond the experience of tasting it. It’s a 2001 puerh aged in an oak barrel; the tea leaves are from centuries-old trees.

Holiday flowers & tea ceremony

smoky oolong

My personal tea ceremony for sommelier training with Yixing pot, gorgeous Chambre de Sucre holiday sugars and Teance high mountain dark oolong. November 2015.

We were charged with the delightful task of creating our own tea ceremony for the last class of my World Tea Academy sommelier course in global tea traditions. I was highly influenced by my all-too-short travels in Japan a few years ago and a ceremony I attended this February with Souheki Mori in New York: we sipped matcha from unique handcrafted bowls and had sweets flown in from Japan the day before. A petit four-ish white square with snow-like sugary paste most impressed me; in it was buried a real cherry blossom petal to remind us that spring was coming. (Yes, that really happened, and I could see the snow falling from the teahouse windows during the ceremony.)

It’s impossible for me to recreate this in my Brooklyn garden. But imagine late fall in New York, a bare pear tree, marigolds and hibiscus still blooming, a Teance smoky high mountain dark oolong with notes of cedar and chocolate, handcrafted sugars from Chambre de Sucre, and a little chocolate sweet with lavender flowers, dusted with salt. Steeping after steeping of smoky tea, a few nibbles of sugar and chocolate at the end, surrounded by flowers. The dried ones on the platter are from Silk Road Teas’ outrageously beautiful Three Flowers Celebration with chrysanthemum. For me: the ideal holiday, with plenty of real smoke and flowers.




Chai, oolongs & tea fragrances


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Homemade chai using Joseph Wesley Black Tea's kullad, made by artisans in Bangalore. September 2015

Homemade chai using Joseph Wesley Black Tea’s kullad, made by artisans in Bangalore. September 2015

I vividly recall smelling barrels of spices in Jodhpur, India about five or six years ago. I scooped up a bunch to lug home in my suitcase, including a packet of Assam tea and a masala chai blend. Liquid chai mix was so popular in the U.S., it was the first time I understood how chai was actually made. (Red-eye chais with two shots of espresso were a common drink for me in my twenties and early thirties.) I remember looking up the instructions and being a bit surprised about having to take out a pot and boil the tea, milk and spices. It may have also been the first time I ever made tea with looseleaf (in this case, little Assam pellets): I kept it in a special tin on my kitchen counter.

This fall, a kullad came into my life from Joseph Wesley Black Tea, along with a small canister of their bold but smooth Assam. (Kullads are clay cups made in the ancient tradition and meant to be thrown away after using. They naturally degrade in the earth.) I couldn’t resist keeping it for little perfume vials on my desk after brewing up some chai one brisk September morning. Joseph Wesley also offers up this recipe for a traditional South Indian chai with fennel and cardamom to awaken your senses if you’re feeling slightly more adventurous.

Afghani Chai No. 18 from Bellocq, with red poppy flowers.

Afghani Chai No. 18 from Bellocq, with red poppy flowers.

A chai for every mood
Warming spices like clove, cinnamon and cardamom are a natural pick-me-up for cooler fall days (this recent foray into chai-making also has me flashing back to my ayurvedic days when I religiously followed suggestions from Pratima Raichur for holistic beauty and wellness; my husband still comments about my concoctions and inevitable turmeric spills on the bathroom sink.) There’s an astounding range of chais available to consumers these days. Among my own personal favorites are the rich and velvety Afghani Chai from Bellocq–the first tea I bought from this marvelous dream of a tea shop when I stumbled upon it in my neighborhood a few years ago–to the more rugged and spicy Pekoe Sip House chai from Boulder, which reminds me of cold, clear and happy hours visiting friends in Colorado one Thanksgiving, watching their dog Oscar frolic in a park. I also enjoy In Pursuit of Tea’s Cacao Chai from time to time, with cacao shells, rooibos and Assam for its own dark and smooth chocolate-y groove; their Assam on its own is, I might add, rather delicious and sparkly.

Cozy, roasted oolongs

Mooncake & oolong party at my house for this year's harvest moon, September 2015.

Mooncake & oolong party at my house for this year’s harvest moon, September 2015.

I had the pleasure of stopping into Smith Teamaker’s tasting room in Portland this August and asked the crew for some of their favorite fall picks (I got an enthusiastic recommendation from Donovan for this Bai Hao No. 20 which wraps you up like “a cozy sweater.” I’ve been keenly feeling the roasted oolong vibe in the last month or two–it can be such a lovely drink for late summer through early fall (if you aren’t familiar with roasted oolongs, they’re on the more oxidized side with a dark, toasty, earth-and-twig quality but still retain a whole bunch of complex notes from floral to fruity, depending on the many different varieties.) I love this particular Bai Hao–also known as Oriental Beauty–for its bright stone fruit peachiness grounded by underlying earth tones. The Asian mid-autumn festival has always enchanted me, so I headed down to Chinatown to pick up some mooncakes for a chilled-out afternoon of oolongs and sweets with friends in the hours before the harvest moon rose in late September (the last bright orange blood moon for about thirty years.)

Rishi’s Ruby Oolong–from Thailand with notes of cacao and raisin got a few compliments too–a gorgeous segue to fall. Teance has some of my other all-time favorite oolongs, including a high mountain dark from Taiwan’s San Lin She mountains, with cocoa, cedarwood and citrus, as well as steeping after steeping of unfurling smoke. It’s a noir-ish tea if you feel like splurging (and reminds me of one of my favorite cocktails from local old-timey watering hole in Brooklyn–the Richardson’s Long Goodbye with smoky amaro, honey liquer and lime.

Oolong cocktails to fall perfumes with tea, smoke & leather

American Pharaoh, with oolong-infused shochu, calling up Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night. Maison Premiere, Brooklyn, October 2015.

American Pharaoh, with oolong-infused shochu, calling up Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. Maison Premiere, Brooklyn, October 2015.

Speaking of cocktails, I had the luxury of spending a rainy evening in the garden of Brooklyn’s Maison Premiere last Friday–a nostalgic trip evoking the bygone glamour of Gatsby-era parties (the killer combination of rain and palm trees in the garden felt very Tender is the Night to me.) I was treated to American Pharaoh–a bright, sparkly concoction of rosewater, citrus and oolong-infused shochu (think earthy Japanese vodka.) As it turns out, oolongs and shochu are a popular combination in Asia. I daresay the cocktail was almost champagne-like with lingering notes of wood and smoke, and fit the lost-days-of-Gatsby-grand-fading-garden mood quite well. I was intrigued to learn it was made with Mi Lan Xiang Fengxi (otherwise known as honey orchid) from Camellia Sinensis–a fruity, woodsy oolong I already knew a bit (I took a very memorable tea and whiskey session with Camellia’s Kevin Gascoyne earlier this year and rummaged through my oolong drawer in the wake of Maison Premiere to brew a few cups of the honey orchid at home.) I happened to be wearing a sweet-and-smoky perfume–Le Labo‘s Vanille 44, inspired by the city of light and from the French perfume maker’s collection of city exclusives. I was also wearing it at the farmer’s market one day, catching the attention of a very charming young man who’d recently moved from Paris to New York and told me it reminded him of home. It’s a gorgeous incense-y perfume with seductive gaiac wood (the evidence here also seems to suggest that Le Labo’s city concept is working!) Read here for some of my other favorite fall fragrances, especially if you’re in the mood for tea and the smell of burning leaves.

Me & Maison Premiere's American Pharaoh, October 2015.

Me & Maison Premiere’s American Pharaoh, October 2015.

In-between days (summer-to-fall teas & scents)


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Teatime in Vermont, with a found Japanese teapot, hard water & Joseph Wesley tea, August 2015

Teatime in Vermont, with a found Japanese teapot, hard water & Joseph Wesley tea, August 2015

For the last ten years, my husband and I have taken an annual summer trip up to Putney, Vermont, to stay at our friends’ barn–it’s smack dab in the middle of a field, with limited Internet service and amenities. Pure heaven. You can actually see the stars at night, and the occasional bat, great blue heron or bear cub. My four-year-old son claims to miss some of his toys from New York, but nonetheless seems elated to frolic in the creek for hours and pick up bugs. I love the experience of paring down to essentials whenever we go, and abandoning things I think I need. By the third or fourth day, I’m able to hear and see so much more, thanks to the natural silence and darkness; the first few days back in New York inevitably feel like an assault on the senses–it’s all so loud and bright.

Tune into Nature
I was able to read Mandy Aftel’s Essence & Alchemy while my son napped in the afternoons–a bible for perfume lovers about the history of natural fragrances. I also had the luxury of sampling her newest blend, Bergamoss–an old-fashioned seeming yet completely fresh and original take on the chypre, a style of perfume popularized by Francois Coty in the early 1900s that blends brighter citrus notes and woodier bases like oak moss. One thing I love about natural scents in general is that you have to really pay attention to get the full effect of their many charms. To call out the different notes in Bergamoss–like the wild sweet orange top note or oak moss base almost belies how exquisitely blended and magical it is. You have to lean in and listen to this scent to hear it: one long, blissful note–a bit bright and sunny, but also soft and fading like dusk. Possibly my favorite all-time scent from Aftelier Perfumes, along with the supremely quiet yet powerful wildflowers–it’s an ideal scent to guide you through these meandering summer days before fall officially kicks in.

I had also squirreled away a sample of Vertmont Perfumery’s Eros–another lingering summer fragrance fit for the cusp of equinox (I love the combination of rich and earthy jasmine sambac and woodsier orris root and juniper.) A pine-laced trip that brings me back to Vermont even as 95 degree heat bears down on New York City sidewalks and everyone rushes back to work.

Snapshot of the Miller Harris perfume shop and tea room in London, originally published in the Independent.

Snapshot of the Miller Harris perfume shop and tea room in London, originally published in the Independent.

Not so easy to come by in the States, but absolutely worth the adventure of hunting them down are the exquisite natural scents from Lyn Harris of London’s Miller Harris, who was classically trained in Grasse and also serves tea at a few of her shops. (What I wouldn’t give to drop in for a cuppa once in a while and be surrounded by such intoxicating smells.) I’m eager to get a whiff of one of her newest creations–Tea Tonique–but have been smitten with Figue Amere in recent days. Inspired by the green figs of Ibiza–with notes of bergamot, violet leaves, cedar and sea moss–this beauty is truly end-of-summer beach holiday for me, with the sea moss taking it straight over the edge. Just a hint of green holds onto summer while offering up a graceful transition through September.

Homemade matcha granola (in a makeshift recipe by me) and Mariage Freres Casablance tea. My garden in Brooklyn, August 2015.

Homemade matcha granola (in a makeshift recipe by me) and Mariage Freres Casablanca tea. My garden in Brooklyn, August 2015.

Black tea (with a hint of green)
It seems natural to shift toward warming black teas as the weather cools down (more on chai teas in the next edition of These Foolish Things.) For now, I’m head over heels for a few well-blended hybrids like the ever-gorgeous French tea maker Mariage Freres’ Casablanca black with Moroccan mint green. I love this mid-day with a tagine and couscous (I recently discovered the magic of sprinkling in some urfu pepper and sumac) or even just a handful of almonds and dates for a quick snack. Utterly transporting.

American Tea Room–the Beverly Hills shop that recently opened a location in downtown Los Angeles–offers up a bright Assam and Nilgiri blend, perked up even further with rich and exotic cardamom. A robust choice and sparer take on chai that’ll help you hang onto summer for a bit.

Don’t you just love it when tea calls up notes of strawberry jam and pine? A recent discovery of mine and favorite late summer woodsy dream vacation pick is In Pursuit of Tea’s Tung Ting. As promised, it’s a lovely roasted oolong with notes of wood, strawberry jam and caramel that softens into more vegetal, floral undertones over many steepings. A fine summer swan song.

Me, picking blueberries in Putney, Vermont, as if lost in a marvelous dream. September, 2015.

Me, picking blueberries in Putney, Vermont, as if lost in a marvelous dream. September, 2015.

Garden Revival: summer tisanes


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Flowers do grow in Brooklyn. Zinnias in my garden, late July 2015.

Flowers do grow in Brooklyn. Zinnias in my garden, late July 2015.

For me, August spells vacation: wildflowers, pine trees, little to no email reception and the chance to forage for berries and what not in two of my favorite states anywhere: Oregon and Vermont. That’s right–I’m a city gal, ready to commune with nature (luckily, I can retreat to my garden the other fifty weeks of the year–now brimming with a vibrant array of hydrangea, zinnia and marigolds.) I also managed to steal away for my birthday to spend a few hours at the New York Botanic Garden’s version of Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul. Another mood-boosting dose of bright yellow, pink and orange (with transporting guitar music.) Note this dreamy recreation of Kahlo’s work desk–so inspiring, I wonder why I should not try to build a little nook like this for myself next spring and summer. For now, I’m taking delight in herbal tisanes and garden-inspired natural scents.

My dream work spot. Frida Kahlo's desk from Casa Azul, New York Botanical Garden, July 2015
My dream work spot. Frida Kahlo’s desk from Casa Azul, New York Botanical Garden, July 2015

Lovely herbals
I don’t often drink herbal infusions but have been less into black tea in the heat, and do enjoy the occasional tisane, especially some lemon verbena after dinner or cooling mint with spicy food. I love this blend of three Pacific Northwest mints from Portland-based Plum Deluxe. It’s the real thing (you can smell it before even opening the package). Beyond minty and so refreshing.

A blend of rooibos, fresh cut mint, rose and marigold–“Privilege” from Parisian tea maker Theodor–also caught my attention recently. (I stumbled on the brand at the French market Le District down by Battery Park City a few weeks ago and it hands down won me over. If you’ve read my posts before you probably know by now that I’m a sucker for well-blended French teas.) I love the balance of flavors in this infusion–it’s rather full for a tisane–and delicious iced. I also adore their description of herbal infusions–called the weeds. When have weeds ever sounded so good?: “Weeds means everything but tea that may grow from this world’s fertile lands and its multiple virtues, thousand-year-old flavours…Human beings need only to listen nature’s voice. Their souls and bodies will be fed from it.”

The Weeds–from elderflower to linden
Truth be told, the tisane that reeled me back into the world of herbal infusions this summer was In Pursuit of Tea’s Karnak Elder Flower from Maine. Not only can you see that this is truly the whole flower, sprigs and all–it smells divine and tastes almost impossibly “savory and rich” for such a light tisane. Snap it up while you can since it’s a limited batch. If you feel like getting a bit more woodsy, Mt. Olympus would be an excellent choice–it’s fresh, peppery and a far cry from the dried Greek teas available in many local bodegas.

Scandanavian tea maker Lov Organic also came into my life recently at an event celebrating French-Russian tea company Kusmi’s collaboration with Jean Paul Gaultier for his current exhibit in Paris. It’s a brand all about being in tune with nature in a very Nordic way. I learned that their tea bags are made from biodegradable corn silk, and had the chance to smell and sample the most lovely linden-rose (with lavender) and a nice lemongrass. Such cheerful packaging–it’s like a cotton-candy summer dream.

Lov organic line perking up my garden on a hot summer's day.
Lov organic line perking up my garden on a hot summer’s day.

You Belong Among the Wildflowers…
A romp in the garden would hardly be complete without my cherished wildflowers solid from Aftelier Perfume (indeed, it is so dear, I keep it in a small antique carrying case with an engraved bee and morning glory.) Smells like honey to me and the luxury of time–sitting in a field with nothing to do but pick wildflowers–in other words, heaven.

Summer whites (with a kick)


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Silk Road White Peony tea with ricotta, pansies from my garden & Bakeri's lavender shortbread.

Silk Road White Peony tea with ricotta, pansies from my garden & Bakeri’s lavender shortbread.

Summer’s hit New York in full glory–the sun is blazing and it’s all about staying cool and reveling in everything the season has to offer. For me, that means ice cream, park sprinklers, corn on the cob, sweet cherries, and you guessed it: white tea. One of my favorite discoveries lately has been the marvelous combination of white tea, ricotta and honey (picked up from Silk Road Teas at an event they did with Murray’s Cheese this spring.) Just looking at it makes me feel cooler in 90 degree heat–it’s the ideal teatime snack or breakfast. Try it, too, at a little summer party with friends-it’s easy and elegant. And why stop there, especially if you’re feeling a bit adventurous: Bellocq Tea Atelier and the French Cheese Board paired an aged white peony tea and semi-soft Raclette cheese at a lovely tasting I attended in June–also highly recommended for summer nibbling.

Summer drink of choice
The beauty is that most whites taste pretty fresh and light–it’s the least processed type of tea and close to the naturally plucked leaf. Of course, there are tons of varietals. Bai Mu Dans, more commonly known as white peony, include one bud of the tea plant and two leaves per pluck, compared with silver needles, which are buds only and tend to be even cleaner and subtler. I’ve been enjoying lots of Bai Mu Dans during the recent heat wave and love how robust so many of them are–they’ve got that grassy, barefoot-in-the-hay, summertime quality while still feeling so clean. Here are some of my favorites:

Rustic village whites
I first came across Yunnan white teas at Kevin Gascoyne’s tea and whiskey tasting at World Tea Expo this spring (they’re far less common than whites from China’s Fujian province.) There were two things that really grabbed my attention about Yunnan whites from that introduction: first was Kevin’s description of that particular varietal (from Canada’s Camellia Sinensis) as a rustic village-y white. The other was how well this relatively subtle tea could actually hold its own with a whiskey (in that case, Glenmorangie.) Who knew white tea could pack such a punch? I’ve been enjoying In Pursuit of Tea’s Moonlight White–another Yunnan with robust, haylike summer notes and even tried it with a lighter whiskey from craft distiller St. Georges recommended by my husband (Lot 14-a floral spirit with notes of honeysuckle.) A perfect summer cocktail! Just the tiniest sip will do.

Another sparkling white tea with plenty of character is this limited edition Bai Mu Dan from Joseph Wesley Black Tea–one of my favorite tea makers offering expertly sourced single-estate teas from around the world. This Bai Mu Dan has a nice kick to it, with underlying barnyard notes. A rustic village tea that makes me want to wander down a country lane in the middle of nowhere. Heaven.

Garden party

Fourth of July madeleines, made with Palais des Thes' Songes des Blanc tea

Fourth of July madeleines, made with Palais des Thes’ Songes des Blanc tea

Last weekend, I made madeleines (baked with Palais des Thes’ gorgeous des Songes Blanc tea) and served them in the garden. What says Fourth of July, after all, more than white tea madeleines? Another cool and inspired summertime treat that led me to experiment with some summer floral perfumes (des Songes Blanc–or tea of songs and dreamy meandering thoughts–is blended with safflower petals and strawberry.) I subsequently fell in love with Aftelier Perfumes’ Cuir de Gardenia–made with the rarest tiare flower, or Tahitian gardenia. Honestly, I don’t think I knew gardenia at all before smelling it. This magical–and sexy–summer scent starts out with a burst of fruit for me, almost like strawberry but with some tropical notes. It’s surprisingly earthy for a floral perfume and far from what you might expect. My husband had no idea what it was but was impressed by the dark edginess of the flower. As with every Aftelier scent I’ve encountered, Cuir de Gardenia unfolds beautifully over time, and then tapers off to a softer floral, with less fruit, but still deeply alluring and very much of this earth.

Another “dark flower” perfume that’s seduced me lately is Dame Perfumery’s Mexican Black Flower, with strong notes of vanilla as well as jasmine and gardenia. I became acquainted with Jeffrey Dame after discovering that anyone who sends him a postcard will receive a sample from his perfumery in Scottsdale, Arizona. What a luxury–do it! I had requested the lime and gardenia (light and lovely) and received this as a bonus. Indeed. Inspired by the people and terroir of Veracruz, Mexico where vanilla may have first been cultivated.

Have a favorite summer tea or perfume? Tell us here. And have fun in the sun.

Van Gogh’s Irises & Roses


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"Roses," from 1890. Credit The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection

“Roses,” from 1890. Credit The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection

May was very much about irises and roses for me. For one thing, I was lucky to see Van Gogh’s Irises and Roses exhibit at the Met–a collection of four paintings he did in May 1890 just before leaving a mental asylum in St.-Rémy. During these last few weeks, the irises and roses also came up in my neighbors’ gardens in Greenpoint and I’d sneak out early every morning to smell them through the fences and take in their beauty. I’m often moved by how fragile flowers are–the surprise of first buds, followed by full blooms, and then how quickly they fade. Cliche as it may seem, it’s a strong reminder to stop and smell the blossoms when you can. It struck me how the Van Gogh paintings capture that transient beauty and somehow make it permament, as if freezing time.

I was also fortunate to attend a beautiful tea and cheese tasting the other day with my local tea atelier Bellocq and the French Cheese Board (two marvelous resources in New York). As a general rule, I try to avoid taking notes at pairings like this and just go with whatever happens. The teas and cheeses were exquisite. Among my favorite pairings was the Kikuya tea (a Japanese Sencha green tea with rose petals) and triple creme Brie from Burgundy that together called up a feeling one might describe as somewhere between floral and oceanic. Imagine yourself, perhaps, lying in a field of Grasse roses staring at the sea.

Should you have missed the roses and irises this spring (or need more in your life), consider immersing yourself in these teas and perfumes to stop time for a little while.

Bellocq No. 20 Kikuya. Japanese Sencha with rose.

Bellocq No. 20 Kikuya. Japanese Sencha with rose.

Just a hint of rose: I’m sure it’s no secret by this point that I adore flowers–real flowers, pure flowers–to be blunt about it, not fake floral smells and flavors. I find that many people who tend to shy away from rose, for example, seem to appreciate the real thing, if given the chance. One of my all-time favorite rose teas comes from master natural alchemist Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes with Turkish rose and Tieguanyin oolong. The smell alone is gorgeous. But as with all oolongs, one can steep the same leaves multiple times for a long, evolving dream sequence (the rose fades letting the oolong unfurl its darker, roasted green notes with an added ginger kick.)

French tea maker Palais des Thes’ Rose de Chine is also most lovely (I’m a huge fan of mellow, well-rounded biscuity Keemun teas to begin with and the rose complements that in such a subtle way.) I like to serve this at teatime with shortbread and lighter cakes but it is naturally beguiling on its own.

I’m drawn to classic chypre perfumes–often with elements of citrus and wood–and always learning more about them. Une Rose Chypree from natural perfumer Andy Tauer has been casting a spell on me lately, with notes of Damascus rose, lemon, geranium and oak moss. It’s a tad powdery and old fashioned without being stuffy–fresh and woodsy–like wandering barefoot in a sun-dappled Victorian forest.

My neighbor's irises, taken by me, peering over the fence.

My neighbor’s irises, taken by me, peering over the fence.

Quiet, mysterious iris: Many years ago, I was walking with my husband in his grandfather’s neighborhood in Salem, Oregon–he stopped to smell some irises and told me they were his favorite flower (not a bad line at all to get the girl!) I’ve come to appreciate irises more and more over the years and was intrigued by L’Occitane’s Iris Bleu & Blanc from their new Grasse perfume collection. The iris in this is subtle–a mix of French blue and Florentine white, just lurking beneath a bolder peachy scent. Very nice for late spring into summer. It’ll carry you through the dog days of August, long after the irises have faded.,82,1,37551,701611.htm#s=67120

I also recently stumbled upon the Annick Goutal shop in Soho and was graced with Duel–a fresh, but mysterious blend of iris root and yerba mate, a botantical infusion common in Latin America and sipped through a hollowed-out gourd with a metal straw. This fragrance haunts me in the most beautiful way–it opens with a very strong green, grassy tea-like cadence with darker floral undercurrents and softer buttery notes. Charming and a little bit coy.

Read more here about tea & cheese from Bellocq and the Cheeses of Europe.

And please do indulge in these pieces on the Van Gogh exhibit at the Met and the roses in Grasse. Dream a while if you can’t make it there yourself.

New York Times on Van Gogh: Irises and Roses

Conde Nast Traveler on Why Grasse has the Best Smelling Roses in the World

Once more, with feeling: oolongs & food


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People sometimes ask me what I love so much about tea and perfume–it can seem a bit niche or esoteric. How does one keep track of where it’s all from and what the notes are? Much as I love learning from experts (and classic books), my absolute favorite thing about tea (and perfume) is the experience of smelling, tasting or wearing them, and letting things happen. I like to trust my own feeling and sensations at first, and see how they change–does the same thing feel different after many steepings, two hours or even weeks later, at other times of day? To me, it’s like listening to many versions of the same tune–Billie Holiday, Etta James or Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong can all sing “These Foolish Things” for the hundredth time but I still hear and feel something new.

Tasting in the dark with Kevin Gascoyne
I’ve been lucky to attend some wonderful tea and food events in recent months and was especially inspired by a few tastings with Kevin Gascoyne of Camellia Sinensis at World Tea Expo. I love his approach to tasting (which he called “Let’s get Visceral”–pretty much trying teas without knowing anything about them or drawing from preconceived ideas.) I drink a lot of very floral oolongs and am not shy about my love for pure, dramatic flowers (though more reserved violets are among my favorites–I’ve been all about violets this spring In one of the tastings, a lightly oxidized floral oolong struck me as “coquettish” and made me think of oolongs as blondes or brunettes (Kevin said that a lot of people fall in love with spring-y oolongs because they smell and taste like a bouquet at first. But that they don’t always have much going on under the surface. He suggested that one might also try some of the winter harvest lighter oolongs for a bit more depth.) It dawned on me that I had been drinking Camellia Sinensis’ Shan Lin Xi Winter Harvest wulong for many weeks already and was quite taken with it. I served it at a small tea gathering (while four-year-old boys ran rampant in the garden) and was able to pair it last-minute with some lovely cheese in the crisper–Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a nutty Alpine-style swiss made in Wisconsin. They seemed to work beautifully together–I suspect because both have a somewhat mild, sweet quality as well as some earthier, darker undercurrents.

Tea and food by intuition
I would propose that one can also pair tea and food nicely by learning a few basics and experimenting based on what feels right. Start by smelling and tasting the tea–what are its underlying qualities? What foods does it remind you of? Things can seem complicated with so many choices out there–should one pair a Darjeeling with cheddar or brie, milk or dark chocolate? There are some great charts and books like Cynthia Gold’s Culinary Tea or Robert Wemischner’s Cooking with Tea that can help guide one in finding classic combinations like Assam and chocolate or Darjeelings and almost any traditional tea service. It is a wonderful place to start. So is being your own matchmaker and trusting your gut.

Food-friendly oolongs
One thing that can be a bit tricky about pairing oolongs and food is how complex and delicate oolongs tend to be–some foods simply drown that or compete with it. I had a great Tieguanyin Oolong from Silk Road Teas at a cheese and tea pairing they did with Murray’s in New York’s West Village last week. I already knew the tea a bit and thought it was a little overpowered by a Manchengo-like Pyrenees sheep’s cheese but loved it with a somewhat milder, creamy, almost brie-ish La Tur. (Another taster suggested a Comte.) I quite enjoy the Silk Road with a range of foods–the company supplies teas to a number of restaurants in the Bay Area, including Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. It’s nice, too, with just a handful of raw unsalted almonds. One of my other favorite oolong-for-all-seasons is In Pursuit of Tea’s aptly named Nantou Four Seasons. I’ve been delighted to see this well-rounded pleasing tea at a bunch of venues in my hometown Brooklyn from Japanese tea and sweet specialty shop Patisserie Tomoko to my much-loved Bakeri and local French spot Le Fond. And have found that it’s delicious with earthy lentils as well as lavender shortbread, matcha meringue and berry jam macarons.

L’il bit of sweets
Baked goods are one of my favorite things and I’d be remiss not to mention a classic pairing I had at Palais des Thes earlier this year with madeleines from the amazing Upper East Side French bakery Maison Kayser and this lovely Bao Zhong that evokes jasmine and narcissus flowers. It’s also a good bet with shortbreads and financiers. I also love this Paoli Tung Ting from JT&Tea with plainer baked goods as well as savory spring dishes, made rather simply from garden vegetables. It’s floral but has a lot of green in it and tasted marvelous with a pot of Rancho Gordo beans with fresh oregano, spring onions and turnips that I threw together in a pinch with what was on hand. JT & Tea also has a charming blog with some suggested oolong and food pairings here Like Julia Child says, “try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!” Let’s talk more sometime about the Julia Child-inspired French cooking course I recently took and how the poached pears and vanilla might pair with some darker oolongs…

Flower power: jasmine reigns


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I came to Los Angeles last May for work and was completely bowled over by the star jasmine outside my company’s apartment (I hardly knew what it was at the time but the smell was so strong I had to stop my morning walk to investigate.) As it happens, I’m back in L.A. again for this year’s World Tea Expo in Long Beach (I was a bit wistful about leaving New York during these rare, beautiful weeks when the linden is just blooming on our street with its own stately presence and a chorus of tulips and daisies are in full swing in the garden.) But I can hardly complain since L.A.’s jasmine is also center stage right now and the city is buzzing with lots of other new blooms. I woke up very early to this Monday morning’s Flower Moon, which flooded the apartment with light, and traditionally marks the time when the seeds of a long winter burst out in full force.

Smell like a queen
If you aren’t well acquainted with the intoxicating effects of jasmine, I’d highly recommend getting your hands on a sample of Mandy Aftel’s grandiflorum jasmine concrete (with a bit of citrus.) I’ve been carrying a bunch of fresh jasmine sprigs in my pocket–it’s transporting and heady, a natural mood booster. I love how the grapefruit and blood orange in the Aftelier add sparkle and brightness to balance jasmine’s natural trance-inducing charm. French perfumer Le Labo (with stores around the world) offers a lovely jasmine blended with musk, sandalwood and vanilla that give it a clean floral quality (but keep it grounded). My dear friend (and fragrance writer) Sally also tipped me off to L’Occitane’s new Grasse collection (known by many as the perfume capital of the world.) I was fortunate to pop into the shop at the airport and sample their Jasmine Bergamot. I scored a little bottle of the shower gel and made myself a bubble bath here to help ease a bout of travel-induced insomnia. Dreamy.,82,1,37551,377497.htm

Fix a royal spring tonic
I had a strong craving for dimsum the other day so I headed downtown to one of my favorite New York spots–Nom Wah Tea Parlor established in 1920. The 20-year puerh is a natural, age-old complement to dimsum (and also a nice digestif.) I opted for a pot of jasmine tea at the end of the meal and was surprised by how much it called up some long-forgotten memories (like Proust’s tea and madeleine) and inspired me to watch Chinatown with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway after so many years–a dreamlike masterpiece. Should you wish to drink your jasmine (and be seduced in your own opium-den-like way), try the dragon pearls from Teasenz or their emporial jasmine, enjoyed by royal families during China’s Song Dynasty. Thanks to my much-loved cousins from Portland, I’ve also got a crush on Smith Teamaker’s Jasmine Silver Tip, harvested in China’s Fujian Province each May–it’s fresh and green with that not-of-this-world romantic finish. Harney & Sons has a sweet, somewhat earthier jasmine pouchong that lands somewhere between a green and oolong.

Have a favorite jasmine-related perfume or memory? Please share it (and let yourself be swept away to faraway places.)

Hint of blossom (and petit four)


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My mother wasn’t much into cooking when I was growing up. We ate pretty simply: spaghetti and basic stews, with very few desserts. Around the holidays, we sometimes ordered from the Hickory Farms catalog I got at school–an Ohio-based gourmet food and gift shop established in 1951 that sold cheese logs and salami, nuts and chocolate. My favorite thing was the box of petit fours. I remember studying the catalog carefully–each was its own little work of art. I knew how special they were whenever we got them.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend a Japanese tea ceremony hosted by Souheki Mori in a penthouse apartment turned cultural center near Union Square. (The gorgeous 2015 issue of The Daily Tea has a feature on Souheki and her efforts to share this age-old Japanese tradition with New Yorkers.) I went on a snowy day in February. We were treated to thick bowls of matcha served in unique ceramics and paired with two special sweets recently flown in from Japan. One was a white sugary square with a fresh cherry blossom petal buried inside, promising just a hint of spring in the midst of late winter.

The other day, I stopped into New York’s Plaza Hotel and was delighted to discover the lovely Three Tarts bakery and their petit fours decorated for Easter. I grabbed a small box and thought they’d be a nice tradition for my little boy (they turned out to be his favorite holiday treat and he kept asking me for another “Easter.”) I snuck one myself with a little oolong, sat down quietly for a while and was transported back to the tea ceremony with Souheki. It was a lovely holiday weekend in New York, a bit warmer, with some daffodils starting to sprout and just a bit of spring after a long winter (we can finally see the ground again after months of snow.) We also had the full moon Saturday–known as the Pink Moon–which brings pink moss and the season’s first flowers. It’s a beautiful time to savor teas and perfumes that call up that end-of-winter feeling–green shoots and early blooms. Enjoy.

Bellocq No. 63 High Mountain Oolong: I have a huge crush on the lighter, more floral oolongs right now and am especially fond of this high mountain oolong from Vietnam. I like Bellocq’s description of it as a “delicate pale green brew [that] evokes fresh mountain grass, fragrant gardenia, whole milk, and wild clover honey.” For me, it’s a perfect blend of grass and wildflower (with a strong buttery quality.) Most delicious with delicate little pastries like the Three Tarts petit four. Much more to come from me, by the way, on pairing oolongs with pastries and the inspiring tastings from Palais des Thes this March and April. I heart Bao Zhong oolongs and madeleines.

Palais des Thes’ Theophile: Speaking of Palais des Thes…here’s another one of my current favorites. A true green tea infused with lychee, lotus and rose. It’s got that classic French floral elegance grounded by earthy spring green. I’m told it makes a lovely summer iced tea. But am happy, for now, to pair it with somewhat milder cheeses like the utterly gorgeous Hudson Flower–a sheep’s milk from Murray’s Cheese aged with real elderberry and lemon thyme–and even some lighter Asian dishes. Try tofu with scallion and jasmine rice. Spring heaven.

Serge Lutens’ Feminite du Bois. I think it goes without saying that every scent from Serge Lutens is a poetic adventure–one really needs time to let the magic happen and dream. I love how Feminite du Bois reels you in with a seductive cinnamon and clove–it’s a bit familiar but nonetheless exotic–then carries you off to a cedar forest, with just a few early spring blossoms–a demure but powerful shrinking violet. One of my favorites–quietly sexy, understated but multilayered.

Le Labo Iris 39: My lovely friend Sally from Mexico tipped me off to this small-batch perfumery a few weeks ago so I was doubly intrigued by a note announcing the opening of their new Upper East Side studio (I love their city exclusives line and the sparkly Tubereuse sold only in New York stores.) I’m also quite smitten with their Iris 39. This one will carry you through spring.

Read more here on pairing tea with cheeses (and Murray’s Hudson Flower)

Tea Ceremony with Souheki Mori