Thursday, September 21, 2017

Places

On our first visit to Milan, my husband and I hired a guide to see the historic sights of this busy city and discover its past.

While there were many highlights, including Michelangelo’s The Last Supper, and tours of the Duomo and La Scala Opera House, the sweetest discovery was a visit to Pasticceria Marchesi.

This unexpected surprise started with a visit to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, one of the most beautiful luxury shopping centers in Italy.  Built in 1865, the Galleria connects the Piazza del Duomo and the Piazza della Scala in front of the opera house.  The Galleria is anchored by stores such as Versace, Rizzoli, Louis Vuitton and Prada.  This historic building is like a jewel box boasting colorful marble and mosaic tile floors, skylight glass ceilings and beautiful old world architecture nestled among some of the most delicious and legendary ristorantes.

There are loads of fascinating stories about famous people like soprano star, Maria Callas, who loved to dine at some of the best restaurants including Ristorante Savini. Callas frequented this popular meeting place for artists and scholars after many of her performances at La Scala Opera House.

This was one of the many stories our tour guide shared with us about celebrities and their favorite haunts; these insider history tips make hiring a tour guide well worth the expense, not to mention the added benefit of discovering where to find the best gelato in town or saving time skipping long wait lines to enjoy special exhibitions.

It was during a tour of this gorgeous Galleria, that our guide casually mentioned  a second floor pasticceria; an Italian pastry shop. This fact would have been lost on me if it weren’t for the word pastry. Hmmm… Turns out the shop is the oldest in Milan so I duly filed this information under a note to myself – MUST VISIT!

We awoke the next morning to a gray, rainy day. What better conditions for indulging in a decadent breakfast?  Our hotel was near the entrance of the Galleria, so we set off for Pasticceria Marchesi armed with our umbrellas and appetites . As the sparse yet elegant window displays of filled with chocolates and other confectionary delights came into view, it felt like we were leaving the real world for a fairy tale island of sweetness. The displays pulled us up a winding staircase, the way Christmas windows on 5th Avenue in NYC do. We were like excited children who couldn’t wait to see Santa Claus.

Pasticceria Marchesi specializes in chocolates, fruit jellies, single origin teas, jams, marmalades and creams packaged in beautiful pastel boxes making them an elegant gift or treat to take home.  I discovered Pasticceria Marchesi was established in Milan in 1824. It is the first of several, and is located at Via Santa Maria alla Porta. It’s no wonder it is still in operation today.  The  shop has gained a reputation for its fine confectionery offerings from exquisite treats to rich coffees. It has a cult following among the Milanese as well as world travelers.

The spring green marble interior, with green silk wall coverings and inviting velvet green seating, is an oasis in the middle of the crowded city. We bathed in the soothing colors and soft upholstery as the waiter directed us to our table. It was a perfect setting to focus on the impossible task of choosing which pastry or sweet to enjoy.  I fell under the spell of the tranquil mood of the cafe, as I relaxed into this beautiful, intimate setting.

Italian coffee is always delicious and my Americano café, robust and hot, was no exception. It was the perfect companion to my sweet Pasta Ciotti pastry, a heaven-sent custard filled pastry.  But the standout was my non-coffee drinking husband’s hot chocolate.  It arrived accompanied with a separate demi bowl of fresh whipped cream.  Dark, thick, brown liquid in a simple white cup, his spoon stood upright in the aromatic concoction!

Wonderful, perfectly rolled omelets with fresh vegetables and parmesan cheese followed our sweet starters. The flawless service during this delicious repast matched the perfection of our meal.  We lingered an embarrassing length of time, soaking in our verdant atmosphere while observing the mixed clientele of tourists: a small executive power meeting being led by a young, well dressed woman who held two businessmen captive, while other locals enjoyed their espresso standing at the bar before rushing out the door to start their day.

The traditions and allure of Marchesi have remained, despite changes in 2014 when Prada, another Milan institution, acquired 80% ownership of Marchesi.  Miuccia Prada,  the female designer and head of Prada and the pride of Milan’s business community, saw the value of expanding and promoting the much adored Marchesi.  Prada seems like a match made in heaven, with this powerhouse brand known for its luxury goods.

Two more Marchesi stores have opened in Milan, and Prada is thinking about expanding outside of Italy since the merger. Discussions about new locations include expansion into Hong Kong, Japan and Abu Dhabi. The two latest restaurants in Milan have certainly maintained the exclusiveness of Marchesi as a beautiful place to indulge in delicious treats with a loved one or special friend.  This unique place is rich in both history and decor, making it a great place to celebrate life’s small pleasures in our fast paced life.  Linking luxury brands with luxury treats is a sweet deal that makes Milan’s most beloved bakery even sweeter!

My husband claims I bought all of the tea in China – or at least, that’s what he said when the Beijing government refused to ship it to America because it exceeded the 2 kilogram weight limit (roughly 4 ½ pounds). Eventually he forgave this transgression; five countries and two checked bags full of tea later.

After climbing the Great Wall, I couldn’t imagine leaving Beijing without some souvenir tea. After all, Beijing is the tea capital of China with some of the best tea in the world. Tea comes from the camellia evergreen bush native to China, Tibet and Asia, but hundreds of different tea bushes have been cultivated as hybrids from the original camellia sinensis and camellia assamica bushes. According to the tea master of the Shin Shin Tea house in Beijing, tea lovershave more than 3,000 types of tea to choose from.

Our tea lesson and fallout buying spree started at a large teak table filled with a myriad of different scents and tea paraphernalia. Stacked shelves lined throughout the two- floor complex, paid homage to the art of tea in China. It is as complex as the cultivars, which are a cross selection of tea bushes stemming from the original evergreen bush. Each cultivar possesses characteristics unique to the provinces or countries where the plant is grown. Factors like the bush type, climate and production process influence both the qualities and flavor of the tea. Tea production is not unlike wine production with growing variables in each industry determining the unique taste characteristics and customer appeal.

The tea ceremony was an experience I’ll never forget; a combination of fact-finding and olfactory overload. The tea samplings helped us to understand how tea is classified and the significance of the processing techniques. While there is still debate about the number of official tea categories, experts generally agree on these categories and these medicinal properties:

  • Green tea – is heated to stop the tea leaf from oxidizing and has a grassy, toasted flavor with a clean finish. It has the highest caffeine levels and polyphenols (optimizing medicinal and mineral health benefits) so you feel energized yet calm;
  • Yellow tea – is most expensive and rare. It is similar to green tea but undergoes an added heating process that softens the flavor, making it more like a sweet white tea. It is crammed with polyphenols to prevent cancer, treat liver and bowel disease, and aids in a host of other health benefits including diabetes, weight loss, and beauty enhancement;
  • White tea – is the least processed with a light and elegant nutty flavor… a great morning cup can boost antioxidants for cardiovascular health, lower cholesterol, bolster anti-cancer properties, and aid in weight loss;
  • Oolong tea – is semi-oxidized tea with a wide variety of flavors to keep the freshness of green tea but additional roasting and processing techniques give it a smooth, fresh, fruity flavor or deeper toasty notes. Health benefits include teeth and bone health, enhanced memory and energy and weight reduction;
  • Black tea – is almost fully oxidized tea (called red tea in China) with rich tannins and diverse, robust flavors. The sweet notes and a comforting aroma help you to feel relaxed and the health benefits improve blood circulation, asthma, and digestion.
  • Post fermented tea/Pu Erh – ferments and ages over time (20-25 years) with a woody, earthy flavor that’s clean and fresh. Health properties include preventing diabetes, and lowering the bad and raising the good cholesterol.
  • Scented teas – often green tea scented with flowers or flavored with fruit. Jasmine is one of the most popular types of scented teas, helping to build your immune system and promote relaxation and stress reduction.

Tea tasting is an enlightening experience in Chinese tradition and philosophy. No attention to detail is spared, and the ritual of preparation, presentation and enjoyment dates back more than 5,000 years to Emperor Shennong. While the tea industry has developed and modernized since then, Chinese people believe tea tied to our longevity and mental health, and tea should be savored to attain “joy of spirit”1.

Motivated to learn more about the health benefits of tea2, we filled our baskets and rang up a hefty bill only to discover we would have to lug this tea with us on our continued travels. But resting comfortably at home and sipping on the teas of my labor, I can see why tea (second only to water) continues to be the world’s most consumed beverage. Here’s to hoping I’ve bought enough to stay healthy for a long, long, time.

  1. See: http://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/chinese-tea/
  2. See China Life website: http://www.chinalifeweb.com

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