TeaGuide: Reviews and Ramblings

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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November 13, 2013

Ramblings: Everybody starts their tea journey somewhere

People often strike up conversations with me at the supermarket. Usually I enjoy these conversations, which generally fall into one of three categories. Some folks just want to chat, and I guess I look pretty harmless, so they figure it’s safe. Others must think that this is my first visit to a supermarket, because they give me all kinds of advice on what to buy.

iced-tea-glass-lemonThe third type of conversation, and naturally my favourite, is with folks who think I look smart, and actually ask for my advice. Often it’s a gentleman who can’t quite decipher his wife’s shopping list, so he asks me which is better, white or red grapefruit. (Red, fer sure.) Or the couple who needed a tie-breaker because one wanted to buy their usual brand-name stuffing and the other wanted to try a new brand because it’s less expensive. (I told them that for a difference of less than a dollar, I’d go with the known quantity because everybody notices the stuffing!)

A couple of days ago I was perusing the aisle with teas, as I often do just to see what the big tea companies are putting out and what local people are drinking. There was a lady standing there with two boxes of teabags, carefully reading labels and comparing one against the other. As I walked up, she turned to me and asked if I drink tea. Ha! “Yes I do, ma’am.” (I’ve been doing my best to get into the lovely Southern habit of addressing folks as sir or ma’am.)

Then she told me that she loves her tea but her doctor had just informed her that her blood sugar is too high and she needs to stop eating, and drinking, sweets. And that she doesn’t like any of the sugar substitutes so she was hoping to find a tea that she could drink on its own.

(Some of you probably don’t get the connection with tea and sugar, but here in the Southlands everyone and probably their dog drinks sweet tea — that is, iced tea sweetened to the point where it makes your teeth curl. Sweet tea is so popular in these parts that it’s often referred to as Southern table wine, tho’ most folks simply call it “tea” and everyone knows exactly what they’re talking about.)

supermarket-teaWell, this lady showed me the boxes she was holding and looked at the others on the shelf and asked me if I knew which one would taste good without sweetener — something with a nice flavour. So I looked at the boxes, and I looked at the shelf, and then I looked at her. “Ma’am,” I said, “do you use the Internet and the Web?” She answered sure, who doesn’t these days, and told me how much she loves chatting with her grandchildren in Canada over the ‘net.

I dug into my purse for a pen and a piece of paper while telling her that the teas on these shelves were okay but I didn’t really think any of them were particularly tasty, and that a lot of them were probably old and losing flavour before they even reached the shelf. Then I wrote down the web addresses of a couple of tea vendors, and handed it to her.

“These are two of my favourite long-time tea sellers, and I’ve always found their teas to be fresh and tasty — and they have a big variety of them, so you’re sure to find something that appeals to you. Browse through their products — they have loose-leaf tea and good-quality teabags. If you don’t see something you like, or if you don’t want to wade through all the many teas they offer, give them a call, tell them what you want, and ask them to make recommendations. They’ll send you a print catalogue if you prefer, and will be happy to send you samples so you can try them before you buy a full-sized package. They’re all nice folks and have been in business for a long time, and they’re always happy to answer your questions.”

stk73391corShe looked at the note and said she recognized one of the companies because she had seen some of their teas on the shelf of a local gift shop she likes but had never thought about buying “fancy” teas. I explained to her that tea is pretty inexpensive compared to most other beverages, and that the enjoyment you get from drinking good tea is worth the few extra cents per glassful. Or cupful, if she ever wants to fix up some hot tea.

Then she asked me what kind of teas I drink, and I told her honestly that I generally prefer oolongs … but that she might want to start with a black or green tea — something that would be closer in taste to her usual Luzianne tea, tho’ with much better flavour.

She thanked me, said she’d look them up, and we went off in our separate directions. I sure hope she does look them up, and that I see her next time I’m out shopping, and that she remembers me so I can ask her which teas she decided to try. And I sure hope I’ve played a part in introducing another tea drinker to the enjoyment of better-quality teas. Because everybody starts their tea journey somewhere.

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November 7, 2013

Ramblings: Shopping at home … for tea!

Filed under: food,men drinking tea,shopping,tea,Tea sites — by JanisB @ 2:22 pm
Tags: , ,

This is not an article about online shopping … that’s coming up in a week or two with TeaGuide‘s suggestions for Christmas and Chanukah tea-gift-giving.

No, this is about shopping completely inside your home. Most of us have done this at some point. For example, you’re cleaning out a drawer and discover a shirt or scarf you completely forgot you owned. Maybe you got it as a gift, or you might have bought it yourself — and then tucked it away because you didn’t have anything to wear it with at the time. Fortunately you do now, and you’ve got a “new” shirt or scarf by “shopping” at home!

Unless you are far more organized than most people, you’ve occasionally come across a forgotten box of pasta in the pantry, a piece of jewelry inexplicably stuffed into your “stuff” drawer, a nifty pair of boots hidden at the back of the closet, or perhaps a pretty teacup obscured by several other pieces of china in your breakfront.

Shopping-in-your-own-houseJust to be clear: I’m not talking about things you know you lost and have been looking for, like your keys or the coupon for 20% off at your favourite shop. This is about things you’ve forgotten about that become “new” again when you find them!

A couple of years ago I came across several sealed, never-opened packages of tea that a long-defunct tea company called Junglesque had sent to me years before. They were all China teas and as I no longer consume anything sourced from China I’m going to leave them where I found them for now, tho’ will probably give them away eventually.

Recently, and more serendipitously, I did some more “tea shopping” at home.

As I’ve mentioned, when we moved from the New York City area to the Southlands, we bought some land and had a house built on part of it. The layout of the house included a room that we designated as our library and tea room. We built bookshelves around the walls; decorations included a set of wooden storage boxes. Several shelves, and one of the boxes, are dedicated to storing tea, tea ware, and tea books. Whenever I buy tea, it is stored in a seagrass bin on one of the shelves, or in the wooden box.

Before we built the house we were living in apartments, and teas were stored in the drawers of a rolling kitchen cart. The cart now holds our bread-making machine. I thought I had removed all of the tea packages from the drawers, but apparently not. When I opened one of them the other day, I found several packages of tea that I had forgotten about.

tea in cup top viewWe used this cart for storing tea until we moved into our house in March of 2006, which means that the teas in it pre-date that date. I really wasn’t expecting any of the teas to still be drinkable given their age, and some of them weren’t. I tossed the “Russian Georgian” tea that I used to adore, along with a couple of others, all of which had been packaged in non-airtight sacks. A few other teas, however, were still sealed in their original airtight sacks, unopened.

Several of these teas were full-size or sample-size from Capital Tea in Toronto. Knowing that Capital’s teas are very fresh and of a consistently high quality, and that their packaging is strong and airtight, I opened a couple of them up. Sure enough, they were still good to drink! I was particularly impressed with the Pothotuwa Estate Ceylon tea that I had marked as being purchased in 2004. I cut the sack open and was rewarded with a very clear aroma of dried fruit — mostly plum with a hint of apricot. Amazing! So I fixed a pot of the tea; the aroma continued through the steeping, and produced an extremely flavourful cup of plummy-nectary delight. The husband and I have enjoyed several potsful — this tea is particularly nice with something rich and chocolate-y. And we have enough left for several more potsful until we need to re-order.

Yes indeed, it’s very nice to shop without leaving home — and you never know what goodies you will find!

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