Friday, 19 December 2008

Tea books, round 2!

Next on my list of books of tea enlightenment to review is The New Tea Companion by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson. This came out in a new edition in October 2008, covering an expanded list of teas (120, I believe, as compared with 80 for previous editions). The copy I have is one of those hardback books that is a bit narrow for its height and page-thickness; this coupled with its newness can make it a little hard to hold open comfortably. But it’s well-worth the effort.

The book opens with a section on the history and production of tea, with a North American focus (how I do long for a book about tea in the Australian clime; perhaps I shall have to write it myself) including a section (of course) the Boston Tea Party. This is an event I haven’t read much about so the coverage of it here was of considerable interest to me – although given that the section is only a few (narrow) pages long it may be too brief for others with a deeper knowledge of the history of this event.

There are also short sections about brewing different styles of tea (black, green oolong etc) and then the really drool-worthy bit begins – the remainder of the book is devoted to an encyclopaedia of teas by world region (India, China, Sri Lanka, Japan, and smaller tea-producing countries as well). The Chinese, Indian and Sri Lankan teas are classified by estate/region and flush, where appropriate (this kind of classification is not used in the production of Japanese green teas, as I understand it). The authors present photographs of the dry and wet leaves and the brewed cup along with brewing suggestions and some tasting (or other) notes about the tea.

I am not sure how easy it would be to source (from Australia) some of the specific estate teas that are mentioned – and from what I read on lists such as TeaMail there can be a great deal of variation in quality, flavour, etc between harvests even from a single garden (as you would expect from a product so deeply affected by issues of climate and terroir as tea). But it’s definitely a book to curl up and dream with!

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Temperature, continued

Just a brief update on my experiments with temperature… Over the weekend I decided to boil some water on the stove in a saucepan (not having a stovetop kettle) to make tea with and see what the temperature came to that way – because at least I could then see that the water was boiling, rather than just rely on the electric kettle to turn itself off at the right time.

When I placed the thermometer in the rapidly boiling and bubbling water, it promptly registered 95°C… so clearly I think there must be some issues with the electric kettle, because I don’t see how the water could cool down by twenty degrees while I pour it into a teapot or jug.

Still, I will conduct more experiments as time goes on, and I think I will also be boiling my water on the stovetop more often over the next little while… Might be time to invest in one of those non-electric stovetop kettles, perhaps? A glass one would be cool, if I could find such a thing…

Saturday, 13 December 2008

International Tea Day

Just a quick note about International Tea Day (Monday, 15 December), which has come to my attention through a post on the TeaMail list. 

International Tea Day is dedicated to the tea workers in the tea-producing countries including India and Sri Lanka. The focus this year is on improving conditions for women tea workers in particular. You can read more about it here

Thursday, 11 December 2008


The temperature of the water you use to make tea is all-important, particularly for the more delicate green and white teas (black ones and herbals are more robust so can withstand boiling water). Too hot and the tea will swiftly become bitter and astringent, too cool and the leaves won’t release their flavour and colour properly, particularly if they are tightly twisted or rolled varieties like jasmine pearls, for example.

I’m not generally too fussed about measuring temperature exactly; usually what I do is bring my water to a full boil in the kettle and then decant it into something else, like a jug or my glass teapot, to cool. Sometimes (if I’m feeling adventurous) I will pour it from cup to cup a few times - this has the advantage of cooling it more quickly and also warms the cup or mug I’ll be drinking from, but the disadvantage of making it slightly more likely that I will scald myself. I think I might have read somewhere also that this method ‘aerates’ the water, restoring some of the oxygen that got lost in the boiling process, but who knows whether this is actually the case – certainly not me! Could well be one of those urban tea legends…

So I don’t normally resort to using a thermometer to determine when my water has reached the right temperature for the tea I’m brewing. However, last night I decided to brew up a new green tea that I had waiting in the cupboard (more about the tea itself in another post) and thought I would take the scientific approach instead of the slapdash haphazard one.

I was surprised, when I poured out the amount of freshly-boiled water (just under a metric cup) and then placed the thermometer in it a few seconds later, that the temperature that registered was only about 75°C* (that’s about 170°F for all you imperial readers out there). I didn’t think that the water would cool that much in the short interval – space- and time-wise - between the kettle and the jug. I placed a second thermometer in the water and it registered only up to about 60°C while the other was still on about 70°C.

So I am rather confused. Is my kettle not actually reaching boiling point? Is one of the thermometers wrong, or are they both inaccurate? Does a relatively small volume of water cool much more rapidly than I would have expected?

More experiments will have to be conducted, and more tea drunk. Mmm… need more data.

* serendipitously, this was just about the exact temperature of water that I needed for this tea.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Tea books I

Over the last few months I’ve had the pleasure of a few parcels in the mail from Amazon (there won’t be too many of those in the immediate future while the exchange rate is up the creek as it currently is, alas) which have contained some beautiful tea reference books. I’m going to review these over the next few posts.

Today it’s The Story of Tea by Robert J and Mary Lou Heiss, themselves tea retailers (through their store Cooks Shop Here) who have taken the trouble to travel and experience the world of tea production, to help them identify, and more importantly understand, the characteristics of truly superior tea.

This book is wide-ranging – it provides botanical information about tea plants, details of how black, green and oolong teas are manufactured, descriptions of tea practices in Eastern and Western culture, a brief encyclopaedia of teas from across the world, and recipes using tea to boot. It is beautifully photographed throughout, with images of tea manufacture, tea gardens, tea wares, and of course the teas themselves.

Before reading this book I did not understand how the manufacturing process affects the look and feel of the finished tea – but with some practice it is apparently possible to identify particular processes from the shape and colour of the finished leaf. Fascinating!

The book is very accessibly written – there’s enough detail so that the reader gets a good understanding of the processes involved, but it’s not weighed down with highly technical stuff, which can be off-putting if chemical formulae and that sort of thing are not your bag (they’re certainly not mine). Scattered throughout the book there are also fascinating anecdotes about the Heisses’ adventures in different countries, seeking out teas at the tops of mountains and attending tea auctions. I would love to see some of the places they’ve been to. Maybe one day!

In short, a highly recommended read, and one I’ll definitely keep coming back to.

A reason to switch from tea to coffee??

An unusual title for a post on such a blog as this, you might think. However, I was just at a talk given by someone at my work (he has been with the Department for 20 years and was giving us a few edited highlights) and he mentioned the reasons for his own switch from tea to coffee some years ago.

This was back in the good ol’ days when there was a tea lady who came around every day at 10.30 and brought you your tea or coffee and biscuits and cake. Yes, those were the days and how things have changed since then (for the worse, naturally).

Anyway, this gentleman at my work was explaining that he always used to have tea at these times. This preference changed when one day he had to pop into the tea room to organise some tea and coffee for a meeting, and saw the tea lady straining the tea… through an old stocking. He only drank coffee from that day on.

I’m not sure whether the stocking was also previously used and worn by this tea lady (I would hope not, and I imagine also that tea leaves might be difficult to extract from it for subsequent wear). Still, it has set me to wondering what might deter me from drinking a given cup of tea.

I don’t think a stocking filter would, unless it actually was a used, freshly-worn stocking - that would be gross (conceptually, even if it didn’t affect the taste of the tea). A clean, unused stocking, though, would not bother me much. And certainly, there is nothing that would deter me from drinking tea for the rest of my life!

Monday, 1 December 2008

Blending Tea

I have been having a lot of fun over the last few weeks trying to develop some tea blends of my own. These are mostly herbal blends because that’s what I feel most confident with – black and green teas seem so complex, and indeed it seems a shame to tamper with their own beautiful flavours sometimes – although I have had a go at a couple of black tea blends as well. I’m hoping that I may be able to start up a little tea business on Etsy sometime in the next few months but am trying to come up with a solid range of blends first before I get in over my head.

I don’t have access to the artificial or natural flavouring essences used to make regular flavoured teas so I’m confining myself to using the stuff I can buy at the herbal and grocery stores near me – although for the Christmas tea I have been trying to blend I did buy an almond flavoured black tea to use as the base (from The Tea Centre). This means dried fruits, spices, nuts, cocoa, vanilla and of course herbs like chamomile, rose petals and hips, spearmint…

It’s a funny process, trying to blend tea. Sometimes I seem to hit the nail on the head straight off - at least to my taste, and my friends who have tried the teas seem to like them well enough also (luckily!) – and sometimes things don’t work out like I was anticipating at all. Dried apple, for example, doesn’t add as much apple-y flavour as I’d thought it would, whereas dried apricots seem to work really well if you steep them for a decent period of time. Cardamom pods (crushed) have an extremely strong, almost overpowering scent – I really thought I’d gone overboard with the amount I put in - but when the tea is brewed the resulting flavour is quite subtle. I am curious to experiment with some shredded dried coconut…

The ideas come from a variety of places too. Some of them I just come up with on my own, but I’m also inspired – I do confess it – by blends that I read about in my beloved (but o-so-trashy) Tea Shop Mysteries… I own a couple of these and borrow the others from the library semi-regularly, not to re-read in their entirety but just to skip to the bits where they talk about the teas at the Indigo tea shop, and the catering that they do… and the recipes and tea party ideas at the end. It’s my little bit of escapist tea fantasy… Embarrassing but true.

I do wonder just how infinite (or otherwise) the number of possible blends is, though – at least for ones that will also be tasty. I was congratulating myself on being fairly original in coming up with the idea to try out a mix of fennel and lemongrass – then discovered at the cafĂ© of the Embassy theatre in Wellington that there was a blend there that contained those two things (along with juniper berries, I think – wish I could remember the name of the brand of tea, I should’ve written it down…)! It seemed like an amazing coincidence. It also tasted pretty good – I think I will still try my own version.

Once the conference I’m going to is over and done with at the end of the week I am definitely looking forward to trying out more of my own tea blends, and will be taking careful note of the results for future reference… stay tuned!


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