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 22, 2014

Ramblings: Tea time treats

The word tea doesn’t refer only to the leaf or the beverage — sometimes tea refers to a meal. A British working man might come home and ask his wife “What’s for tea?” just as we here in the USA ask “What’s for lunch … or dinner?”

I originally developed this recipe after a trip to Québec and Montréal, where we had — as usual — purchased a fair quantity of their wonderful maple syrup. Two things I’ve always loved are maple syrup and sweet potatoes. When I fix candied sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving I always include maple syrup, and thought there must be other ways to pair up these two complementary flavours.

Another long-time favourite is almond butter. It’s healthful and it tastes so good. I use it as cake filling, in smoothies, and of course slathered on anything in the baked-goods family. Finally the light bulb went on: why not put them all together?

Well, it worked even better than I’d hoped and it has become one of my favourite teatime recipes. Especially when I can use the sweet potatoes from our own garden, which start to mature in mid-October, just in time for Thanksgiving. I’ve served this simple spread with scones, biscuits, crumpets, toast, and even shortbread many times. Perfect paired with a fragrant Darjeeling, or a malty Assam, or perhaps a smooth Ceylon tea.

Sweet potato butter

The first sweet potato we pulled from our garden this year. It weighed a whopping 800g (1.75 lb) — and it was yummy!

Be sure to use the best quality pure maple syrup, preferably Grade B, which is less refined and much more mapley. Almond butter is available at many supermarkets next to the peanut butter; if you can’t find it, try a natural foods store or look online.

You can cook the potatoes by boiling or baking, tho’ I prefer to cut them into cubes, place them into a shallow bowl, cover with a damp paper towel, and nuke for about twelve minutes or until tender.

Serve this yummy treat at your next autumn tea and I almost guarantee you and your guests will smile. Be sure to let me know how you like it!

Sweet potato butter
About 1-1/2 cups

1-1/2 cups mashed cooked sweet potatoes (about 2 large potatoes)
2 Tablespoons almond butter, unsweetened and unsalted
2 Tablespoons maple syrup, or to taste
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg

Place the potatoes into a mixing bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients to the mashed sweet potatoes. Mix well by hand, or purée briefly in a blender or food processor for a smoother texture. Serve with biscuits, scones, crumpets, or tea bread. The butter can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for about two days, but is best served as soon as possible after preparing. (Tip: Be sure the almond butter is at room temperature before mixing it in.)

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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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