When Jennifer Commins was a little girl, her grandmother cultivated a tea garden. “She’d take me outside, hand me the scissors and say: ‘go pick something delicious,’” recalls the entrepreneur, who would snip thyme, mint, rosemary or lavender, then return to the kitchen and create her own blends.
Jennifer’s grandmother died two years ago, around the time that Jennifer, a newly qualified tea sommelier, was making the transition from interior designer to president of Pluck Tea, her own loose-leaf tea house. “This is all in honour of her,” she says, gesturing towards the tins on our table at Gilead—a cafe and wine bar owned by Toronto’s most famous locavore chef, Jamie Kennedy, who’s already a loyal client.
What’s unique about Jennifer’s approach is that she takes Ethical Tea Partnership-certified tealeaves from countries such as China, India, Sri Lanka and mixes them not only with traditional ingredients (think orange peel, ginger and cardamom), but also locally grown ones: from Prince Edward County lavender to Muskoka dried cranberries to Niagara grapeskins.
Bringing the notion of terroir—taste of place—to tea might seem counter-intuitive in Canada, because the plant itself doesn’t grow here. But Jennifer sees great opportunities in her venture. “We have phenomenal fruit producers in Ontario whose entire crops might not make it to stores,” she says. “Rather than dump things like apples that are a little too green or too small or that have weird stems in the garbage, we can repurpose them in my teas.”
As for the grape skins, they are essentially a waste product in the winemaking process. Jennifer buys them from Southbrook Vineyards, a biodynamic and organic winery to harness their earthy, fruity flavour and the same reported health benefits as a nice glass of Pinot Noir.
Jennifer is also keen to give back to the community. She’s in talks with Not Far From the Tree—a Toronto-based volunteer group that picks ripe fruit, which would otherwise have been left to rot on branches, in the gardens of busy homeowners and on public land. Pluck hopes to dry some of the fruit NFFTT volunteers pick next year and produce a new blend. A portion of the profits will be used to raise funds for the anti-hunger and anti-poverty programs of The Stop. From the outset, 50% of profits on the Green Barn Blend, sold by Pluck Tea at Wychwood Farmers’ Market and some local restaurants, have been going directly to this trailblazing community food centre.
The fledgling business is great for family bonding too. Jennifer’s two step-daughters, aged 17 and 21, hand-pack the teas; and her 9-year-old son is a whizz at closing pouches with the heat sealer. Jennifer does all the blending, and has gone from doing 1-2 kg to 16 kg at a time. “It’s like baking: You get to a certain point where you can’t just multiply quantities; you have to rewrite the recipe, as things go out of balance. We always taste and correct for larger quantities.”
Pluck Tea currently sells 20 blends, to individual consumers and restaurants. At Gilead, you can try Spa Day, a peppermint tea with chamomile, hibiscus, rose petals and rosehip, or Sunset in Provence, a smooth roiboos with elderberries, rosehip and local lavender.
Jennifer also does custom blends, like the one she produced recently for Shangri-la. Her mandate: to capture the signature perfume pumped into the lobby of Shangri-la hotels across the world. Jennifer had a report on the scent to work from, but many sections were blacked out, so in the end, she had to trust her nose. “I got ginger, bergamot and green tea as the top notes,” says Jennifer. “I created a blend that I hoped was close, and they were blown away.”
Engaged couples have started coming to Jennifer for blends to serve at their receptions and offer as wedding favours. “I have to pin down their flavour preferences and personalities,” she says. “At the end of the day we create a custom package with a little story—and it’s the story of them.” What better way to tell the world you’re with someone who’s just your cup of tea?
* * * * *
Jennifer is partnering with Open Kitchen for a new contest. The prize is a custom Pluck Tea blend, valued at $100. She will talk with you on the phone to create a tea that reflects your tastes and personality. Your blend will also bear a personalized label. The prize package includes the custom tea consult, and art, plus 200g of tea, packed in one tin and three bags. One winner will be chosen on February 22, by a random selection app.
To be eligible to win, first make sure you’re signed up as a subscriber to Open Kitchen (sign-up box is on the home page). Then to enter, answer the following question in our comments section:
What ingredient that’s local to you would make a fine addition to a terroir tea?
* * * * *
Read Jennifer’s guide to making the perfect cup of tea here.
* * * * *
Feb 22, Update
Thanks to everyone who entered this contest; I wish we could all have a giant tea party together.
Our winner, chosen by randompicker.com, is: Avery Peters!
Congratulations, Avery! Can’t wait to hear how your custom blend turns out.
There will be more contests coming up this month, so please keep checking in at valsopenkitchen.com. Bye for now! xo