TeaGuide: Reviews and Ramblings

January 24, 2014

Ramblings: Water, leaves, and all that good stuff

Filed under: food,tea,Tea sites,water for tea — by teaguide @ 4:24 pm
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As anyone who reads my posts on Facebook might have noticed, I experienced a crisis of world proportions in the past few weeks.

Tea leaves six typesSimply put, tea didn’t taste good to me any more. Whichever tea I fixed — white, green, oolong, black — the aromas were still wonderful but the taste was sadly lacking.

Naturally I presumed it was a problem with my tastebuds. Had I burned my tongue and fried them all? Couldn’t remember doing that. Maybe I’d eaten something so spicy or strongly-flavoured that my tongue had gone completely numb. Nope, couldn’t recall anything like that happening either.

Finally I accepted the fact that my tastebuds had simply shut down for no good reason at all. As I was no longer able to properly taste tea, I figured why waste my good teas and started sipping some of the lower-quality tea I usually keep around the house for iced tea. (I like my iced tea cold-steeped, very brisk, and very strong, and don’t usually like to waste good tea in such a fashion.) Surprise! This stuff, not at all appealing when hot-steeped on a good day, tasted even nastier than usual.

Brita everyday

Photo courtesy of Brita.com

And then it dawned on me: When was the last time you changed the filter in the Brita water pitcher?

That little date-and-circle thingy that accompanies a new Brita pitcher to remind you when it needs a new filter has long since disappeared. Being that I couldn’t recall when I had last changed it, I figured it was probably well past time.

And so I tossed the old filter and put in a new one. Three “drippings” later, I tentatively fixed a pot of one my favourite floral oolongs, hoping this would solve the problem.

To quote Lewis Carroll: “Oh frabjous day! Calloo! Callay!” I had tea again. I could taste it. It was excellent tea! As a matter of fact, every cupful that I’ve sipped in the past week or so has been excellent.

jabberwocky-poem

What does Jabberwocky have to do with tea? You might be surprised …

The moral of this long drawn-out story is just this: A cup of tea is mostly water, and if the water isn’t good the tea won’t be either. Of course it’s important to use good quality fresh tea leaves, but equally important is that you use good quality fresh water.

(The other moral is that if you wait long enough, you too can find a way to interject a portion of Carroll’s delightfully silly poetry into one of your conversations.)

A good cup of tea is so simple yet so complex. It requires just the right balance of leaves, water, temperature, and steep time. If a tea doesn’t “work” for you, it could be attributed to any of these components. A little tweaking of one or more elements can make the difference between a so-so cup and a superior cup.

When your tea doesn’t taste right, don’t presume it’s the quality of the tea leaf — as in “I’m never buying tea from that place again. They have such lousy tea.” It could be the quantity of leaves you’re using, either too much or too little. The water may be too minerally (is that a word? I guess it is now) or too flat and depleted. And it might be that the length of time you let it steep is too short or too long — or that you’re sipping it at too high or too low a temperature.

kitten-sipping-teaExperiment. All of these elements meld together synergistically in a great cup of tea. If a tea isn’t making your mouth very very happy, don’t presume it’s bad tea — or that your tastebuds have become comatose. Any one — or  more — of these components may need some tweaking. (Note that I did not say twerking, which will never make your tea taste better … actually, it will probably leave a very bad taste in your mouth.)

One of the great joys of drinking tea is finding the perfect balance to suit your taste. Sometimes all it takes is a little adjustment. Or a new water filter.

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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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November 21, 2013

Reviews: Tea for Chanukah

ChanukiahFirst off, I want to make it clear that Chanukah is not “the Jewish Christmas.” The fact that these two holidays generally happen around the same time of year does not mean that they are in any way related. Christians celebrate Christmas as the birth of their Messiah. Chanukah is a celebration of the Jewish victory over the invading Greeks, and the miracle of one day’s worth of holy oil lasting to light up the Temple for eight days. Christians have their holiday. Jewish people have theirs.

The tradition of giving gifts on Christmas derives from the gifts brought by the three kings. There is a tradition of giving on Chanukah too, tho’ generally we give money rather than gifts, usually in the form of coins, and as a reward for studying Torah (the first five books of the Bible). One gift tradition that is shared on both holidays is giving to those in need.

wissotsky-tea

Image courtesy of Wissotsky Tea http://www.wtea.com

Giving to charities does not mean that you can’t also give a gift to friends celebrating Chanukah. If you don’t want to give real coins, you can always give foil-covered chocolate coins. For a friend or family member who is a tea lover, you might want to give them a gift of tea or a “munch” to go along with the tea.

There are many good vendors who sell excellent tea. For Chanukah, tho’, I’d recommend giving a gift of kosher tea or scones — or both! (Not sure what “kosher” means? See “The aleph-beit-gimels of kosher tea.”)

One of the original kosher tea companies is Wissotsky, which has been in business since 1849. They carry a wide assortment of teas and tisanes in traditional and pyramid-shaped teabags, and offer a number of gift collections.

SVholidayteablendtin

Image courtesy of Simpson & Vail http://www.svtea.com

For the tea lover who prefers loose leaf tea, try these two of my favourite vendors. Simpson & Vail received their kosher certification last year and offer a large selection of excellent, high-quality teas and tisanes, including exclusive blends. You’ll find another wide selection of kosher teas at Harney & Sons. Both merchants also carry better-quality teabags and pyramid teabags as well as gift boxes. One caveat is that they also carry products from other manufacturers and these may not be kosher; read the product descriptions!

VHS-scones

Image courtesy of Victorian House Scones http://www.victorianhousescones.com

Now what’s tea without yummy, delicious scones and shortbread cookies? Earlier this year our friends at Victorian House Scones received their kosher certification. Their easy-to-fix mixes come in a variety of flavours, which you can prepare “as is” or browse their recipe collection for inspirations for mix-ins. The doughs can be made ahead of time and frozen, to be popped into the oven when you’re ready to serve them — a time-saving convenience during the busy Chanukah season. They’ve also got muffin, biscuit, and pancake mixes, any of which would be welcome gifts to enjoy at family breakfasts. (Currently their chai flavoured mixes are the only ones that are not kosher, but they’re working on it.)

Chanukah begins this year at sundown on Wednesday, November 27th, and continues through nightfall on Thursday, December 5th, so you have plenty of time to order and give kosher Chanukah gifts.

Now I’d like to leave you with this story of a very special and beautiful Chanukah tea tradition.

flaming-sugar-cube-tea

Photo courtesy of npr.org

By the 1790s, Jewish people in Russia were subject to many restrictions. Most Jewish people were banished by 1799 by Catherine the Great to the Pale of Settlement — an area encompassing parts of Russia and Poland. They were forbidden to practice most of the more lucrative professions, with the result that most of the Jewish population were deeply impoverished. Only a small number of Jewish professionals — physicians, for example —  were permitted to stay in the cities. It was they who developed this lovely Chanukah ritual:  Each guest was given a glass of tea and a brandy-soaked sugar cube on a spoon. The sugar cubes were then lit on fire. The guests held the flaming cubes while they sang Chanukah songs. When the songs were finished, all of the guests simultaneously dropped their flaming sugar cubes into their tea — and then stirred the tea and drank it with great enjoyment.

This lovely tradition is still practiced in some communities, and is a fitting custom for a holiday known as The Festival of Lights.

Happy Chanukah!

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