Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Tea Thought of the Day, and some fruitiness

‘The progress of this famous plant has been something like the progress of truth: suspected at first, though very palatable to those who had the courage to taste it; resisted as it encroached, abused as its popularity spread, and establishing its triumph at last… by slow and resistless efforts of time and its own virtues.’ Isaac D’Israeli, cited in Alan Macfarlane and Iris Macfarlane, Green Gold, p.42.

Apologies for the text-heavy posts lately – I would like to break them up with more pictures but am hampered by a number of factors, including my mediocre photography skills, poor lighting at home, cold weather (which means lack of opportunity to take nice pretty photos outside).

I am working my way slowly through Green Gold, which is proving a most interesting read, full of information which I would never have guessed, much of which is disturbing at the same time that it’s fascinating. For example, I never knew that the tea and opium trades were closely linked during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the demand for tea in Europe exceeded the amount of silver available to pay for it, and opium was traded instead (somewhat illegally). Gripping stuff (no, really, it is).

Today I am drinking some Berries of the Forest, another tea brought up from Tea Leaves for me by my friend. This, as its name suggests, is a fruit tea, containing dried blackcurrant, strawberry, blackberry, bilberry, elderberry, hibiscus blossoms and rose hip. It really is worth photographing, and I will remember to do so on the weekend, because it produces a most amazingly vibrant tea of a deep cherry red colour. It has a wonderfully rich flavour as well, not too tart and not too sweet but a pleasing balance of both. Another plus is that so far as I can tell there are no added flavours (whether artificial or natural); the taste is all from the actual ingredients.

Berries of the Forest is really good hot but when the weather is warmer it would also be a wonderful iced tea – perfect with some sliced strawberries and maybe some mint leaves in it too. It can take quite a long steeping time as well (five minutes minimum, I reckon), which makes it a good option for work where I can make it and forget about it and then drink it and it’s still delicious!

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

In my cup today

Today is a festival of rooibos (yesterday was too), which is one of the teas which my friend so very kindly brought up for me from Melbourne when she came to visit on the weekend.

I haven’t had any rooibos (pronounced roy-boss) for ages, due to the difficulty of getting any at a reasonable price in Canberra, and had nearly forgotten how nice it is. It’s fragrant and sweet-smelling and brews up to a really lovely deep red-brown colour, but because it has little or no tannins it is not astringent or bitter at all, even if you forget about it and leave it to steep for too long. Which I do, fairly regularly.

Here is a handy Wikipedia article about rooibos, including a little bit of information about its health benefits which are helping to make it so popular these days. It’s meant to be frightfully good for you because it contains antioxidants (no one wants to hear about boring plain old minerals, amino acids or vitamins any more, apparently, it’s superfoods or nothing). This means that it will help to prevent damage to organs like the brain and the heart and will help to boost your immune system. If you are herbally or chemical-analysisly minded (ok, I made that last word up) have a look here at page 3 of the Rooibos Story on – if you scroll down a bit you will find an analysis of the metabolites of rooibos and their potential effects.

The list is fairly impressive, and includes anti-allergic, antibacterial & anti-fungal, hypotensive (reduces blood pressure), expectorant (gets rid of mucus from your lungs) and anti-hepatotoxic (which means it helps stop bad things happening to your liver). Now apparently these results came from the water soluble metabolites so it seems like you should be fairly sure of getting at least some of these in your cup of rooibos tea, which is good news. Of course these are not the only reasons to drink it – it actually tastes nice as well and blends beautifully with other flavours, particularly floral ones like rose petals.

Ha, I recall that I would haplessly recommend rooibos as a substitute for caffeinated tea at the health food store where I used to work, which led to me being vilified by tea-drinking customers as an ivory-tower herbal nut who didn’t know what I was talking about (‘It doesn’t taste anything like tea, it’s disgusting’). Well, ok, no it doesn’t taste that much like regular tea, although the colour is pretty good (like a nice robust Assam) and it does have a nice round flavour and can take some milk as well if you want it to. I suppose when you’re a grumpy customer who’s just been told you can’t have anything that you like any more because it’s bad for your health at the moment you are not in the best position to appreciate the plusses of something like rooibos.

So if that’s the good news, then what’s the bad? Not much, it would seem, although I did come across this article from August 2006 (through a link at The Simple Leaf blog) which raises concerns about the impact which intensive rooibos cultivation is having on parts of the South African eco-system. This is because with the increasing demand for rooibos, more farmers are beginning to grow it and they have been (sometimes illegally) ploughing up previously uncultivated land to do so, thus potentially further endangering already endangered species of plants in those areas.

This is a bit depressing (although it’s not just rooibos to blame, other types of farming are involved too), not to mention concerning. What to do? I’m not sure. It may be possible to purchase certified sustainably farmed rooibos from responsible growers, but as we are all becoming more and more aware, certification is just another minefield for consumers to get taken advantage of in. I will still continue to drink rooibos, in the meantime… just not too much.

Friday, 18 July 2008

My tea week

Apologies for the lack of posts this week; I haven’t been feeling very well (and am in fact still rather sniffly and sneezy). However, despite the fact that I am feeling rather gluggy, there are a few things which have happened this week to maintain my sense of joie de tea!

The first is that I ordered, from Amazon, The Story of Tea by Robert and Mary Heiss (apologies for the current lack of hyperlinking, I can’t get Amazon up on my web browser at present for some reason). This book is one of those on the recommended reading list of the American Tea Masters’ Association, so I presume it must be good. I had a brief look through a copy at Borders the other day but it was $70 so I thought I would see if I could get it cheaper elsewhere… and I could! So I ordered it and am happily anticipating its arrival, although it won’t be for another four weeks or so, by which time I will probably have forgotten about it and consequently get a nice surprise in the mail one day.

I also intend to pre-order another books recommended by the American Tea Masters’ Association, The New Tea Companion by Jane Pettigrew, of which a revised and updated edition is coming out in October, as I recall…

The next exciting tea-related thing which happened this week was that a friend of mine, who is coming to visit for the weekend, sent me a message from one of my favourite Melbourne tea locations, Tea Leaves in Sassafras, asking if there was anything I would like her to bring up for me. Well, of course there was… I’m only human after all. I am waiting keenly until tonight to see if she was able to acquire the blends I was after, and will review them over the course of the next week once they arrive!

Thirdly, I purchased (from a local independent bookstore this time) a copy of Alan and Iris Macfarlane’s Green Gold: The Empire of Tea. I think this must have been published in the United States just as The Empire of Tea, as this is the title it’s given on Tea Guy Speaks, where Tea Guy gives it a most favourable review. I’m only a short way into it so far, but I will write more about it over the next week as well, as soon as I have finished it…

Speaking of tea related books, today at the Twinings Tea Blog there is another handy instalment (also written by Tea Guy himself) in the series ‘The Tea Drinker’s Bookshelf’. Check it out!

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Musings on tea

I have recently been following a thread on Teamail which kicked off with a member posting about her experience at a tearoom (somewhere in the US, I think) which expected visitors to ‘dress up’ – not just in the sense of wearing your nicest clothes and doing your hair and make-up, and looking all pretty, but of literally dressing up in clothes provided by the tearoom: hats, feather boas, gloves etc. Now this sounds extremely odd to me, but apparently it’s something that some tearooms go in for. The person who started the Teamail thread was not enthused at the idea and the thread kind of segued into bit of a discussion of what it meant or should mean to go out for tea and what makes the experience ‘special’.

So this set me to wondering the other night, what is it about tea that appeals to me?

I think the answer to this is multifaceted, and depends very much on the kind of tea that I’m drinking.

If I’m drinking something like gyokuro or Buddha’s Tears or oolong, or a beautiful first-flush Darjeeling, there’s the excitement of having something so exotic and rare (relatively speaking) in close proximity to me, literally in my hands. There’s the thrill of knowing that this tea has come from such a long way away, and that so much care and so much traditional knowledge has gone into growing and crafting it, especially if we’re talking about something like a bouquet tea ball or any of the other fine hand-made teas.

In the case of Chinese and Japanese teas as well, there’s also the link with the Way of Tea and the philosophies underlying the traditional practices of drinking tea. Not that I go in for gong fu-style or chanoyu in any kind of a big way (although it would be exciting to learn them), but there’s a special kind of pleasure in standing at the stove on a quiet cold morning, when I’m the only one awake in the house and it’s grey outside, heating water and watching it boil, listening to the soft sounds of it pouring from the saucepan into the teapot, and sitting down to drink the tea with nothing else to distract me…

And of course there’s that particular kind of comfort which comes from just a good plain old cup of black tea with milk and a bit of sugar, or alternatively from chai masala, and the way it warms you up and fills you up – especially in the early evening after work, and especially in the cold weather we’re having right now. Not to mention the nostalgia – at several times removed from my generation, obviously, but nostalgia nonetheless – for an old-fashioned English afternoon tea; a kind of longing for ritual which I suppose is what the people who run and patronise the dress-up tearooms are looking to fill…

Herbals teas almost always seem less exotic to me, much as I love them (although it depends a bit on what the herb is – a beautifully put-together blend which I’ve purchased will always seem a bit more special than just slinging some chamomile into the pot, even if the chamomile is organic and comes from Egypt, which I think most of mine does). But I love the colours and scents and shapes of them, I love the fact that they can heal so powerfully, and I love the fact that you can grow them in your own backyard if you want to (not something you can do with Camellia sinensis!).

What makes tea special for you?

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Chai Review 2 - Hari Har Chocolate Chai

I have finally got around to brewing up a pot of the second tea to feature in my chai masala reviews - the Hari Har Chocolate Chai.

This is labelled 'chocolate chai' because of the inclusion (amongst other things) of cocoa powder, although I must say that I've never found that it tastes particularly chocolatey. I think, though, that as I'm getting to the bottom of my packet the cocoa powder has been a bit more concentrated, as today I did notice a bit of a chocolate taste in it. It's not strong though, which is a bit of a pity, because I actually think that the combination of tea and chocolate would be quite a good one.

This tea as you will hopefully see from the picture below is made with a very finely cut leaf. The tea itself is grown in the Daintree Region of Queensland, Australia, the only place where tea is grown in this country I believe. The packet claims that the tea from Daintree is 97% caffeine free and tannin free. I'm not entirely sure whether these claims are legitimate (particularly given the difficulties associated with trying to ascertain caffeine levels), but let's not worry too much about this on a Sunday morning. The tea also contains nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon and licorice root, all very finely powdered.

So I brewed it up in my usual way (following the packet instructions) - bring 1 tsp to boil per half cup of water, and then add half a cup of milk and reheat slowly (not letting it boil this time). This takes only about 5 minutes or so for such small quantities. The tea is richer-coloured than the T2 chai, possibly partly because of the addition of the cocoa and possibly because of the leaf being more finely cut, which means you get more per teaspoon I suppose. I have to say I prefer a darker-coloured chai, although I have no idea why.

I made sure to use low fat milk like I used for the one at work, to try and ensure that the mouthfeel would remain similar and the results be consistent. However I did notice that this tea felt much creamier and thicker in my mouth than the other, and I'm not entirely sure why. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I brewed it in a saucepan rather than just steeping it in a teapot? I'm not sure.

So: the big question - how did it taste? I have been drinking this blend for a long time so it was an interesting experience to turn my attention to it fully. It produces a lovely creamy smooth tea, but I feel that there is no one particular flavour that really stands out and grabs your attention in the way that the cloves did in the T2 one. Overall it's a very subtle taste, a gentle warm spice. Probably the cinnamon is the most noticeable thing, but it's still very mild. The tea is not astringent even after relatively strong brewing (maybe there really aren't any tannins in there), although the milk would help prevent that in any case. It's warming and comforting, which is the main thing I'm looking for when I drink this tea. I didn't sweeten it, because I usually don't anyway, but a teaspoon of honey also goes very well in this particular brew.

I really recommend this one, it has been my favourite chai masala blend to date. Stand by for the third instalment of the chai masal reviews - Oriental Tea House Chai!

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Tea discussions online

Today’s focus is on flora (well, foliage, anyway) and fora – over the last couple of weeks I’ve managed to find a number of interesting places to chat with like-minded people about the joys of tea.

Firstly there is the forum available through Felicitea (click the link on the right hand side to enter the forum). This is a fledgling forum at present, but with luck it will grow. Summer Plum at Felicitea also has a blog and she makes and sells loads of interesting products, including tea cups with hand-written haikus on them (why didn’t I think of that, it’s a brilliant idea). I would love to try some of her teas, they look delicious.

Then there is the rather better-established TeaChat which is run by the people at Adagio Teas. They cover a very broad range of topics from the teas made by Adagio (which all sound delightful and I wish they shipped to Australia), to tea-room planning and management, to tea recipes and much more. I’m looking forward to reading more of this one!

TeaMail is another of the hardcore sites. This is one you have to sign up to through Yahoo! Groups, which is a little bit of a pain, but on the other hand there appear to be a lot of very knowledgeable and passionate people who are part of it. The public homepage also contains a number of interesting and useful links on the left-hand side - including a page which gives you all the references to tea in Sherlock Holmes (how I’ve managed this long without knowing, I have no idea), how to fold an origami teapot, a guide to tea rooms around the world, and a link to the Tea Entrepreneurs Association. Handy!

For all your tea-and-biscuit discussion needs (mainly British ones, but Tim Tams get a mention every now and then too) check out Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down… now these are people who take their tea and biscuits very seriously. Make sure to take a look at the polls which they have running, as these are invariably hilarious… I am longing to get my hands on a copy of their book and have been dropping some not so subtle hints to my husband about it which will hopefully bear fruit in the not too distant future, heh.

(With any luck he’ll be reading this now and will know that the entire internet is now expecting him to purchase it for me, thus hopefully increasing his sense of obligation to do so.)

And finally, if you are hanging about on Facebook wondering what to do with yourself (aren’t we all), there is the abundantly enthusiastic group A Cup of Tea Solves Everything – lots of friendly tea banter to be had there, indeed.



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