TeaGuide: Reviews and Ramblings

November 19, 2014

Ramblings: Simon’s crumbs

At some point everyone who enters the realm of estate and single-source tea – that is to say, good loose-leaf tea – encounters the leaf debate: Is whole-leaf tea the best form for making the best tea?

Fresh tea leaves, dried tea leavesThe purist’s argument goes that broken leaves have too many surfaces that allow all the tasty and aromatic oils to escape, so you must use the unbroken leaf that has locked these oils in. On the other hand, there are those who believe that the best tea can be made only with ground-up leaves, which encourages more of these oils to infuse into your cup.

So which is correct? I’ve used both of these methods and have enjoyed many excellent cups of tea. But by far the best teas I’ve ever sampled combined these two methods.

Now a little history …

Since 1998 I’ve been running an email chat group called Teamail. As it was one of the first online chat groups focusing on tea, it has attracted people from all over the world, and at all stages of their tea journey. Much of what I know about tea I’ve learned through Teamail and its members.

One of the earliest participants was a gentleman named Simon. He was located somewhere in southeast Asia – Indonesia I believe – and shared wonderful stories of his tea-drinking experiences. This was a man who knew, and loved, his tea. In Simon’s opinion, the best way to make tea was to use whole leaves … and then crumble a few of them into the pot before adding water.

Heart teaThis was a revolutionary idea for those of us who had just moved from teabags to loose leaf tea. Was Simon actually telling us that everything we thought we knew about the preparation of fine teas was wrong?

Well no, not exactly. He still believed that the best cup of tea was the product of whole loose leaves. But he also understood that some of the essence of the leaf could be released only if the leaf were broken before infusion.

It made sense, and many of us began to follow Simon’s advice, measuring whole leaves and then crumbling a few between our fingers before adding it to the teapot. Lots of us ended up converted to his method. I don’t know whether he developed it or simply reported it, but we all referred to the technique as Simon’s Crumbs. As in: “I sampled a new Darjeeling that I made in a four-cup teapot using Simon’s Crumbs.”

Sixteen-plus years after being introduced to Simon’s Crumbs, it’s still my preferred method for preparing tea, and I still think it produces the most flavourful and aromatic cup. But don’t take my word for it – try it yourself and see.

Simon faded from the Teamail group some years ago. One member reported that Simon was an elderly gentleman and had passed away. I’m sorry to say that I don’t really know; a lot of people have joined and left our group over the years for various reasons. Whatever Simon’s reason, I still think of him whenever I fix a pot of tea with “his” crumbs.

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October 13, 2014

Review: Tea for two at Dobra

Recently DH and I drove up to Black Mountain, North Carolina, from our home in South Carolina, to have tea at Dobra Tea. The day was grey and drizzly so it was not quite as pleasant a drive as it could have been, tho’ still scenic as only the Blue Ridge can be.

Back when I was the editor and publisher of TeaGuide Worldwide Tea Directory (from 1997 to 2012), I learned that tea was almost as popular in Czech as are their wonderful beers, and was delighted to list Prague’s Dobra Cajovna in the Directory. I was even happier when Dobra opened their first tea house in the USA, hoping that a location would open somewhere near us in the NYC area. Sad to say that as new Dobras opened their doors each was further away than the last. (Dobra tea houses also opened elsewhere in Eastern Europe, so I was hoping that if there wasn’t one near us in USA they might decide to locate near Bucuresti, Romania, where it would also be possible to visit. Alas, this was not to be either.)

In 2005 we moved to South Carolina, and a couple of years ago I heard that a Dobra Tea House opened in Asheville, North Carolina. Hmmm, getting closer! Then I heard of another Dobra opening in Black Mountain, a small town about twenty minutes from Asheville.

When DH came home from work one evening and told me that he had a day off next week and was there anything special I’d like to do, I immediately said “Let’s go for tea at Dobra Tea in Black Mountain!” On days when DH doesn’t go to work — weekends, holidays, and any other days off — we spend the mornings together over several pots of tea. And we enjoyed going to tea houses in New York, Montreal, and other places we used to travel to. So off we went.

Black Mountain is a charming little town with small shops and restaurants lining the main street. The tea house is set somewhat back from the other businesses. It’s a lovely wood building with a sizable terrace and a serene ambiance.

Although the day was rather dismal, inside the tea house was bright and welcoming. We walked through the front door past a variety of seating areas, of low tables with cushion seating as well as tables of standard height with chairs or benches. Little nooks off to the sides held book shelves. We picked a table in the front of the tea house where it was filled with light.

We were each handed a thick binder that listed all of Dobra’s tea, tisane, and food offerings. Each beverage and dish was fully and clearly described, and most were illustrated. It took us a while to browse through the book. Our lovely  hostess offered to answer any questions or make recommendations.

For DH the choice was clear: he prefers black teas and has become quite fond of teas from Nepal; there was a Nepal Ilam on the menu. He ordered homemade halvah to accompany it. My starting selection was matcha, sort of like soup before the meal. The matcha was perfectly frothy and brothy, and was accompanied by daifuku — mochi filled with sweet red bean paste. The mochi was wonderful, both in texture and flavour.

When we finished our first teas, DH asked for a refill of his Nepal, while I needed my usual morning oolong. After consulting with our hostess as to the most floral of their Taiwan oolongs, I decided on their Jin Xuan, which I have been favouring of late. I also ordered a serving of baba ghanouj, a dish that I adore — it’s fairly common in the NYC area tho’ rarely seen on menus here in the Southlands.

The oolong tea arrived in a tiny clay teapot along with a cup and a carafe of water for additional steepings, kept hot over a tealight candle. The Jin Xuan did not disappoint; it was exactly what I wanted. The “baba ghanouj” was another story. This dish is a combination of eggplant and sesame tahini, and was so described on the menu. What arrived was more of an eggplant salad — no tahini in sight. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t baba ghanouj.

Service was somewhat awkward: the “salad” rested in a small bowl with a small wooden paddle. As it was rather lumpy it was difficult to dish it out much less spread it on the accompanying very dry, thin crackers (not the pita bread the menu had noted) and some equally awkwardly large chunks of raw vegetables. As the whole plate was generously dusted with za’atar I decided to just do the best I could with it. Again, it wasn’t awful — but I would certainly never order it again.

My oolong provided six outstanding infusions, so that kind of made up for the disappointing nosh. Most of all, I had the opportunity to enjoy morning tea time with my DH without having to fix the teas myself — not that I really mind, tho’ it is quite nice when someone else handles this important job! A sip of DH’s Nepal tea demonstrated that it was expertly prepared.

So bottom line: three excellent teas, two excellent sweets, comfortable seating and surroundings. I’d say it was a near-perfect tea. With the autumn colours now nearing their peak in the Blue Ridge area of southern North Carolina, this has no doubt become a very pretty drive, and and I’m looking forward to our next trip to Black Mountain and Dobra Tea.

Dobra Tea, Black Mountain, NC

Dobra Tea, Black Mountain, NC

Dobra Tea, Black Mountain, NC

There’s a lovely terrace — unfortunately it was raining the day we visited.

Dobra Tea, Black Mountain, NC

A bright and welcoming interior — the table next to ours.

Dobra Tea, Black Mountain, NC

There are also several low tables with floor cushions.

Dobra Tea, Black Mountain, NC

A beautiful display of mostly handmade tea ware.

Dobra Tea, Black Mountain, NC

More tea ware and pretty art work on the walls.

Dobra Tea, Black Mountain, NC

I loved these little cups with the Dobra logo displaying many of their teas and tisanes on the counter so you can see and sniff before you decide.

Dobra Tea, Black Mountain, NC

Our table in the front window. My setting is a cup and small clay pot of Jin Xuan Taiwan oolong; the carafe with tealight candle provided water for six infusions. DH’s setting is his second pot of Nepal Ilam black tea. The green book on the chair on the right is the tea house menu.

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January 9, 2014

Ramblings: The making of a tea drinker

I believe I’ve mentioned once or twice before how my dear husband used to roll his eyes every time I mentioned tea, bought tea, or bought new tea ware. Although he didn’t drink tea at home, to his credit he did join me on several visits to tea rooms.

Cafe-at-Frontenac-Quebec

The Cafe at Chateau Frontenac in Quebec (temporarily closed for renovation). Photo courtesy of Chateau Frontenac.

One of the first tea rooms we visited together was at the magnificent and historic Chateau Frontenac in Quebec. In a beautiful dining parlour overlooking the St. Laurence River we enjoyed a luxurious tea time, complete with white-glove service. I think it was the rich miniature pastries and the glass of sherry that first gave him pause to consider that this “tea thing” might not be so bad.

After that were numerous tea times in New York at the late lamented Teabox at Takashimaya and at the wonderful Franchia. We explored various tea spots — now long gone — in Montreal, where we used to visit twice a year when we lived up North. We even visited the Montreal Botanical Gardens to observe a Japanese tea ceremony. And there were several visits to tea rooms in Bucuresti, Romania, with his father often and happily accompanying us.

Yet still … he didn’t drink tea at home.

tea-leaves_and-cupThen in the autumn of 2002 we were invited for a semi-private tasting of India teas — Darjeelings and a couple of Assams — by Kevin Gascoyne, who was then proprietor of Kyela Tea. He fixed about a dozen of his excellent teas for us to taste. This was around the time when different processes of Darjeeling teas were just being introduced here in North America, and we sampled greens, whites, and oolongs in addition to the familiar black teas of the region. Through Kevin’s gentle guidance, we discovered the nuances resulting from the different methods of processing “the champagne of teas,” as Darjeelings are often called.

This event, for me, was a revelation: these “alternative” teas were extraordinary, and led to my long and continuing journey through these varieties. For my dear husband, tho’, it was the dawn of his appreciation of fine teas, and of understanding why I loved them so.

Since then we’ve spent nearly every weekend and holiday morning quietly together enjoying our teas, and it’s a rare day when DH doesn’t sip his way through two potsful of one of his favoured rich black teas. Recently when we did some exhausting remodeling in the house, finishing at nearly midnight on New Year’s Eve, my dear husband turned down my suggestion of a glass of wine and instead asked me to fix him a pot of tea. (He still doesn’t fix his own tea — after all, his wife does it better. ;-) )

teaHe even has his own favourite cups — and, like me, he prefers his tea served in glass.

Although he doesn’t pretend to know a great deal about tea, he does know which ones he prefers. Generally he likes the more assertively-flavoured black teas. However …

During a business trip to Stockholm many years ago he stopped in at Tea Centre of Stockholm and brought home one of those cute little tins of their signature Soderblandning. I liked it (I was still drinking flavoured teas at this time) and he ended up adoring it. For several years it was his favourite cup — until the regular trips to Sweden were discontinued and obtaining this tea became rather difficult and costly. I took this as an opportunity to expand his repertoire of the flavourful black teas he favoured. And so …

Along with Darjeelings (preferably Second or Autumnal flushes), he likes nectar-y Assams. Amongst his favourites are Assam Golden Tips, Nahorhabi Assam, and Mangalam Assam, all from Harney & Sons; Vithanakande, Pothotuwa, and Pettiagalla estate Ceylons via Capital Tea Limited; and of course just about any black tea from Camellia Sinensis, where Kevin is now a partner and continues his tradition of fine teas.

Recently I’ve introduced him to a few teas from Simpson & Vail that he very much enjoys: a long-time favourite of mine, Orangajuli Assam; their proprietary Dunmore East Blend, one of the very few blended teas I care to drink; and what has recently become his preferred cup: Nepal Aarubotay, which he likes despite its being organically grown ;-). This really is a delightful tea, reminiscent of an autumnal Darjeeling but, as DH puts it, “more so.” Which reminds me that I have to reorder this one …

Kevin has since gone on to write a very well-received book about tea, and has become something of a tea rock star, regularly speaking and presenting tastings at World Tea Expo. Tho’ I’ll always think of him as the tea man who made a tea drinker of my husband.

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