"Tony has an uncanny ability to translate my thoughts and come up with a blend that is at once unique and familiar. I enjoyed this process immensely. With every sip, it takes me back to the time and place I used to call home long ago. This tea is pure magic. Thank you."
-Vitaly Paley, James Beard Award winning owner of Paley's Place, Imperial, and Portland Penny Diner
The story behind our Georgian Caravan tea by Tony Tellin, head tea master. The limited edition product is now sold out.
I was really excited to meet Vitaly; he is a Portland legend, an icon among chefs, and a hero in the culinary world. In addition, Paley’s Place has a special place in my heart for personal reasons.
Shortly after joining Tazo tea in 1998, Steve Smith asked me to join him for dinner after a long day at work. We dined at Paley’s Place. He spoke of tasting and making tea, the trade in general and he encouraged me to be a part of a small tea industry (at the time) and of a classic, yet new form of art. I have been buying and making tea ever since.
A few years later, I found myself again at Paley’s Place at an important life moment, dining with the most beautiful and amazing woman I ever met. That dinner marked the beginning of a long and loving relationship; we are married and have two wonderful boys.
On both evenings, I ate and drank like a king (as one often does at any of Vitaly’s restaurants) and both food and experience will be remembered forever.
One of the best restaurants in Portland
In an email communication- Vitaly sets the stage with “we are going to Georgia on this one”… my excitement builds and I start thinking. I send Vitaly some thoughts.
Vitaly shares that tea is often sweetened with jam in Russia, and that in Georgia, the jam of choice is generally cherry or huckleberry. I have, on occasion, stirred raspberry jam into a cup of Brahmin tea. It is delicious. A vision starts coming into focus. I am really getting into this project.
Vitaly arrives at Smith. I had already made a few concept blends based on our first brainstorm and I share these with him. Although imperfect, the teas did show us both that we were heading in the right direction. I suggested we should also make jam to build on the experience. I will forever remember his almost devilish grin as he agreed.
Sampling in the lab
Our plan was now to make an elevated Russian caravan blend and a house-made wild huckleberry jam. Time to get to work as this project just doubled- tea and jam.
August 12th - September 9th
We wanted this tea to be bold, strong, flavorful and aromatic. It needed smoke, preferably a rich and warm smoke, and it needed to be applied with care. The traditional Lapsang teas are smoky and intense, sharp and piney. This didn’t fit with our vision for a caravan tea. So, I started smoking different teas from several origins with different woods and aromatic ingredients before finally settling on the right combination of tea and smoke. I smoked a Ceylon Dimbula tea with hickory chips soaked in blackberries and vodka. The tea had the right amount of smoke and warmth, with a subtle hint of burnt fruit.
I blended this tea with 2nd flush Assam to add body, astringency and to deepen the experience. Then, I added Chinese Keemun for sweetness, leather and spice. The taste was amazing, but could still use some more work. I went through a bit of trial and error to find the right balance of smoke and flavor. I added 2nd flush Darjeeling, boosting the floral and fruit notes and adding more tannins. The final ingredient was the hibiscus flowers, added in a very careful amount. The tartness and dark fruit notes highlighted the right characteristics of the other teas and pulled it all together.
The final blend is a rich black tea with balanced smoke, fruit, leather and spice with an assertive astringency.
Hickory chips soaked in blackberries and vodka
I first ensured we were legally able to produce and bottle jam with the food innovation center and our regulatory agencies. Since we have bottled our own teas and we are certified to work with fresh fruit and bottling operations, I was confident in our abilities- but it never hurts to ask. We received the green light and I started sourcing a bottle and working out logistics.
Wild huckleberries are delicious. Tart, complex, aromatic. I settled on a recipe after producing about 10 or more batches of jam. A small amount of orange juice and orange zest brought additional layers of complexity to the jam and complimented the tea wonderfully. I made a fresh batch and served it with our smoked tea to the production staff. We also sampled it over vanilla ice cream on a beautiful day.
Vitaly comes to Smith to taste the final product and is accompanied by his mother. She is in town from New York City and we are both eager to see what she thinks of our creation and gain her approval. I can think of no better consumer panel. Meeting Vitaly’s mother was a special treat. She is smart and accomplished, as well as a sweet and honest person. We brew up the tea and show her the jam, and I find myself nervously biting my nails. We stir the jam into the tea and offer her a cup. She takes a sip, briefly closes her eyes, exhales and then gently smiles. What followed was the best form of approval I could have imagined: the tea eliciting memories of Russia and I was finally able to relax as I listened to her stories of tea in Russia. This was the highlight of my day.
We push the tea packing equipment aside, brought in the steam jacketed kettles and start making jam. We stopped halfway through to enjoy one of the best brunches in town at Olympia Provisions next door, then back to the kettles. The product is beautiful and delicious. We are proud.
Bottles of jam
Today we blend to our recipe and pack the finished product in the same process we employ with every Smith product. Dan brings me a sample of the first batch to review. It is good but not perfect. I adjust a few ingredients and he brings me another sample. This often happens; making 10-100 grams in the lab does not always match a full batch production, even in our small batch world. The second sample is great. I cup this blend several times and decide to increase the tea’s fill weight- how much tea for each serving- and approve the tea for packing. Ryan and his team calibrate our equipment and start up the machines. I take a few of the first sachets and taste again in the lab, the tea is delicious.
Vitaly and I enjoy a pot of this delicious tea in our garden out back, stirring in a spoonful of the sweet and tart huckleberry jam. After the last sip and at the bottom of each cup we have warm huckleberries as a special treat, steeped in our black tea. We are both excited to share this with our customers.
The finished product and finished pose
Maker’s 002, Georgian Caravan, was a wonderful collaboration. The product celebrates the customs and practices of a culture steeped in tea while also nodding to the Pacific Northwest and our culinary approach.
Vitaly is inspiring, honest and a delight to work with. He has a refined palate, a deep knowledge of ingredients and flavor, and an infectious passion for food and life. I am honored to have worked with him and now owe another lifelong memory to Vitaly Paley.