Two For Tea and Becoming an “Expert”

I’ve been to two different tea events in the past week. Both very different in scope and both of which left me with a curious little bug in my brain.

The first tea was an afternoon tea and lecture on the health benefits of tea at Toronto’s Casa Loma. Having never been to Casa Loma after living in Toronto going on twenty years, I figured it was high time to do so and tea in the gorgeous marble conservatory was as good an excuse as any. Casa Loma is, indeed, a big freakin’ castle, and was as marvellous as it had been made out to be. It would have been more pleasant had there been considerably fewer tourists, however, because nothing takes the charm out of tea in the lush conservatory of a castle than a bunch of people in ugly shorts and sneakers and ball caps peering through the glass doors taking your photo.

The meal itself was your standard afternoon tea fare – scones, pastries, fruit and sandwiches. Passable, but not outstanding on any level: California strawberries when local ones are still in season, too many super-sweet pastries that got left behind, clotted cream passed around in the jar (!!!) instead of in a dish (am I at someone’s house??), and, as is always the case, not enough vegetarian sandwiches, because inevitably, the meat-eaters will ignore the roast beef and turkey and scoff *all* of the egg salad before you even knew there were any there.

The actual tea for drinking threw us all for a bit of a loop. It seems that Lipton was a sponsor in some capacity because all that was on offer was different varieties of Lipton tea – in bags. There were prize baskets from Lipton given out at the end, and I suspect that the guest speaker was a shill for Lipton as well, so frequently did she tout their products.

A few days later, my “not a girl’s night” gals and I headed to the Bata Shoe Museum for a demonstration of a traditional tea ceremony. This was an interesting evening that focused on the proper way to brew tea that included more complicated steps than most non-ceremonial tea drinkers would ever think to follow. But it was beautiful and intricate and resulted in some really awesome teas for us all to try. Accompanying the tea demo was an unexpected demo by Stephanie Chin, the Chinese Chef instructor at my alma mater, George Brown. She went through the whole process of how to make traditional Chinese Moon Cakes, one of my favourite treats. I had never had the version made with the salted egg, and while some of my gals were weirded out by the flavour, I found the things quite interesting. I probably wouldn’t make them myself – too complicated and too fattening for something that I only ever want one of, but still, a really interesting demo that was kind of an extra bonus.

The weird thing about the tea “experts” at each event was that both women admitted to not actually being “experts” at all. The woman at the Casa Loma tea admitted that she had just compiled some info and approached the events co-ordinator at the castle and they arranged the whole thing (I’m not sure I believe this especially, I think she was on the Lipton payroll in some way), and I sat through her presentation, whispering corrections to her speech in Greg’s ear. The lovely Chinese lady who did the tea ceremony demo at the Shoe Museum also admitted to not being an expert about tea at all, and she referred regularly to her notes, although you could tell she had the ceremony part pretty ingrained.

So my thoughts are this – what exactly does it take to become an expert on a food-related subject? Is it simply the willingness to write a speech and stand in front of a crowd to present it? Neither woman who spoke about tea had a food or culinary arts related background (at Casa Loma the tea expert sat next to us throughout the meal and we talked with her extensively), and you see all kinds of people on the Food Network with their own cooking shows and no real cooking experience – this is obvious, of course, and makes most of those programmes just painful to watch (hold your knife properly, goddammit!!) – but still, someone was convinced they knew enough to put them in front of a camera.

After the Casa Loma event, Greg tried to convince me that I should become a “tea expert” and offer my services for swank events such as the one we had attended. Were I not an awful public speaker (I curse like a sailor most of the time and often forget to curtail the colourful expletives in polite company – this has made for a few amusing job interviews over the years!), I might actually consider it. Certainly, in my current job, the main jist of all my writing involves doing research online and writing about my findings. Maybe I could get back into event planning and catering and do the whole thing – perpare the food and give a talk about it.

I wonder how many people would pay to have me make cute sandwiches and blather on about tea to them?