The Tea Lady of Caledon East
Léna Valiquette blends her tisanes from the flowers and herbs she grows and dries in Hockley Valley. Her shop also carries a wide selection of true teas and coffees.
“When was the last time you had a facial?” Léna Valiquette asks me. I tell her that I’ve never had one. She is studying my face so that she can prepare a custom facial cream for me, and before she can catch herself her clear brown eyes flash and she lets out a quiet humph. “I come from such a different culture,” says the Quebec native.
Rather than admonish me, though, she suggests that I buy a papaya, re-move the skin, purée the flesh and black seeds in a blender, and apply the mixture to my face. “Use a towel,” she adds, “it can be a bit runny.”
I had planned to interview Léna about her companies, Hockley Valley Herbs and Teas and The Tea Boutique, but I couldn’t resist her offer to prepare a facial cream for me. Like many of her “teas,” it would incorporate some of the almost 100 herbs she grows in her garden. Who wouldn’t want a complexion like Léna’s?
The Tea Boutique is just off Airport Road on Emma Street in Caledon East. Inside, there are lots of teas and tea accessories for purchase. But it feels nothing like a classic British tea shop with scones and clotted cream. Léna’s cozy establishment serves lunch made with mostly local, organic and often vegetarian ingredients.
We sit upstairs on a glassed-in balcony overlooking the street on a dull January day as she explains to me that black, green and white tea are all made from the same plant – Camellia sinensis – and only they can truly be called tea. What many of us refer to as “herbal tea” is really an infusion or tisane.
Léna, Ontario’s first Certified Tea Master, makes a range of tisanes from her homegrown flowers and herbs. Her Hockley Meadows blend, for ex-ample, is a digestif; Northern Hamlet improves the throat; Monora is for menstrual problems; Purple Hills is for headaches; and Mono Dreams for sleeping. “I only make beautiful mixtures,” she tells me. Her blends are as gorgeous – full of bright flowers and whole seeds – as they are tasty.
When she opened The Tea Boutique in 2008, people flocked through her door, overwhelming her small kitchen. Léna says things are better these days. Her steady clientele now knows that the meals she serves can’t be rushed. And increasingly, people are also coming for her personalized healthcare products.
Lisa Watson, who writes for this magazine, has been using Léna’s face cream for close to two years. “I get lots of compliments about my skin,” she tells me. “The cream is a bit wet. It’s not like anything I’ve ever used before.”
Léna says, “I’m not an herbalist. I’m an herbo fabricant.” Struggling to think of some way to translate the term into English, she continues, “I make small batches of artisanal mixtures.” In addition to improving facial skin, she prepares herbal compounds that treat symptoms related to eczema, poor circulation and headaches.
Léna’s extensive herb and flower beds are tucked into the Hockley Valley’s steep slopes. “I do my gardening differently from most people. I do moon and biodynamic gardening,” she says. And she is convinced that her plants respond to her enormous tubular wind chimes. “Every plant around those wind chimes is a size that no one has ever seen,” Léna tells me, incredulous herself.
Barb Boag, a gardening consultant in Mono, built Léna’s gardens. Philosophically, Barb’s beliefs line up with her client’s. “I think it boils down to being in harmony with nature,” she says. “I have no doubt that plants respond to stimuli, including music – whether for good or bad.”
While some people may find moon gardening and music-loving plants hard to fathom, there is no doubting that Léna is a perfectionist. She has me compare the quality of dried commercial organic calendula with her own. Her brightly coloured, sweet-smelling product is definitely superior.
“The power of herbs comes from essential oils, which are volatile. Pick them at the wrong time, fail to dry them correctly and the essential oils disappear,” she explains. She pours the contents of a pair of commercial herbal tea bags on to a white saucer. “It’s just dust. It may taste good, but there is no medicinal quality.”
Léna has a line of soaps also infused with her flowers and herbs. She has candles too. I ask how she learned her skills. Growing up in Sainte-Adèle, Québec, near Mont Tremblant, her life experience involved food and remedies that came from the garden.
“I remember having an eye infection and my mother putting flax on it. It stung, but it cleared up the infection. Twenty years ago when my kids were in daycare in Sainte-Adèle, we had an organic-food box delivered. When I left Sainte-Adèle into the real world, I thought I was crazy.”
She says that people in Ontario are only just starting to get it. She has visited many of the world’s tea-growing countries and will soon be visiting Japan. But much of her knowledge is intuitive, karmic.
Léna has a very dynamic business on the go. As well as the restaurant, garden, teas and skincare products, she is writing a book about eating and living a healthy life. “I don’t do things half way,” she tells me.
As I pack up to leave, laden with tea samples, soap and packets of green tea, I ask one last question: “Can you tell me about your hair?” Her impossibly thick and straight platinum mane cascades to her waist.
“The tongue, nails, hair and face are a mirror of your health,” she explains. I can’t attest to the quality of her tongue (though she did study mine), but given the nature of her hair and face, Léna is one healthy lady.