LAPSANG SOUCHONG

Lapsang Souchong, the tea that infuses fear and terror into the most seasoned tea drinkers.  But why?

This time of year my tastes change and I begin looking for deeper, darker, richer flavors – regardless of what foods it might be.  Light, refreshing salads are gone from my table to be replaced by hearty soups and stews.  The seasons have changed.  The sun sets earlier and earlier every day.  The days are cooler and quite often damp and at night I just want to curl up with a good book, a blanket  . . .  and a cup of Lapsang Souchong!

Have you ever been camping  . . .  especially in the Fall?  Is there anything more comforting and inviting than a campsite on a cool October morning when someone has just started the fire for breakfast  . . . or in the evening after a day of hiking and the smoky fire just envelops you.  You can’t help but be drawn to it.  The billows of heady, smoke that comes from a fire is so welcoming.  That same smoky flavor gets imparted into our food (and sometimes into our clothing) and we love it.  So why then do so many tea drinkers say “no thank you” to a cuppa Lapsang Souchong!

Lapsang Souchong … I just love the name!  It’s exotic, unique, rhythmic.  The name comes from the Chinese Fuzhou dialect combining “la” or “pine” and “sang” or “wood” with the size of the leaf, “souchong“, which is the largest or  third leaf in a fine pluck.  The trade name for this tea then became Lapsang Souchong or “smoky, piney large leaf” tea.

This  dark, rich black tea is said to have originated in the Wuyi Mountains of China, as so many distinguished teas have.  The legends about how this tea originated are many.  The one I like most says that during the Qing dynasty in the early 17th century, the Wuyi area was overrun with Manchu soldiers who were terrorizing the local villagers.  The tea growers were already selling teas to the Dutch by that time.  Gathering all their belongings to flea this invasion and not knowing how long they were going to be gone, the farmers quickly dried their tea leaves over open fires in order to speed up the drying process.   Throwing the tea leaves into sacks, they were then able to bury the sacks of teas to keep the soldiers from getting them.  When the farmers returned to their village, they found that their teas were dark and had a smoky flavor . . . ruined, or so they thought.  But to their surprise, not only did they preserve the tea leaves, the Dutch buyers actually liked the flavor better.

The truth, however, is that the Dutch had been importing Lapsang Souchong or bohea tea since long before then.  By the time the East India Company began trading in tea, Lapsang Souchong, was already being drunk in Europe . . .  and happened to be Princess Catherine of Braganza’s favorite tea.  It was, in fact, this Portuguese Princess who is credited with making tea the sought-after beverage of aristocrats in England.   Catherine had grown up drinking tea in Portugal, and in 1662, when she was betrothed to British Prince Charles, along with her other possessions was a chest of tea.  Then, as Queen Consort of England, she helped promote tea into upper-class society with her much-sought-after afternoon tea parties.

Loose Leaf Lapsang Souchong

Lapsang Souchong is available everywhere, on supermarket shelves, through Amazon and from your local tea purveyor.  If you are still unsure about whether or not you might like it, do yourself a favor and invest in the best quality you can find.  There are  ways to produce Lapsang Souchong, which I really don’t want to get into, using artificial smoke flavorings and additives, but you can still find high-quality Lapsang Souchong made the traditional way . . .  in China, in wooden smoking sheds.

After plucking, the large leaves are heated and rotated every 20 minutes until they are pliable.  They are then rolled and, after panfrying, are placed into wooden barrels and covered with canvas, until they are copper in color and have a pleasant fragrance.  The next step is to spray the tea leaves with water, place them into baskets over smoking pine fires to dry and absorb the smoke flavor.  Controlling the withering, oxidation as well as the amount and timing of smoke is critical to producing a great Lapsang Souchong.  A tea which I love.

In the culinary world, the complex piney flavor of Lapsang is a great flavor enhancer.  Add it as an ingredient in marinades or in your next dry rub for meats or fish, or toss a teaspoon into a pot of stew.  The richness and depth of flavor it imparts is wonderful.  Even vegetarian recipes can benefit from a bit of Lapsang Souchong.

Here are a couple of ideas for you.  For a dry rub, mix one tablespoon salt, 3 tablespoons each of brown sugar, paprika and Lapsang Souchong with 2 teaspoons black pepper and ground cumin.  Grind them all in a mill and keep in a closed jar in the cupboard until you’re ready to use.  Or try infusing olive oil with this tea to be used in marinades or to dress vegetables or fish – 2 teaspoons crushed Lapsang into 4 oz. of olive oil, let sit for a week or two and then strain out the tea leaves.  Wonderful!

But, of course, I divert from what is the best way to experience this dark, piney, smoky-flavored tea and that is in your cup!  Steep with boiling water for approximately 3 to 4 minutes.  No milk, no sugar, just hot, comforting and wonderful!!  And should you want to experience this full-bodied brew for yourself, I can recommend the following tea purveyors:

The Larkin Tea Company
Mrs. Kelly’s Teas
The Cozy Tea Cart
Upton Teas
The Tea House

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References:  Wikipedia, Vicony Teas, Boston Tea Party, New World Encyclopedia, Greenhalge,

THE BROWN BETTY

I become practically apoplectic when I watch someone prepare tea using a microwave, a mug and a teabag.  I want to shout “stop, what are you doing?”  But, of course, I don’t.  The reason why is because it really doesn’t matter to them that what they are doing is not preparing tea, but making some sort of hot beverage, quickly.  Am I a tea snob?  Some might say ‘yes’, but I don’t think so.  Would that same person think mixing a teaspoon of instant coffee powder into a mug of water and zapping that in the microwave is a good cup of coffee?  I hope not.

I love all things tea … from the origins of the leaf to the ritualistic preparations, the variety of ethnic traditions, as well as the fascinating accoutrements.  For preparation, the simple unadorned, unpretentious Brown Betty is one of my favorite teapots.  I know its a name that is familiar to a lot of tea drinkers, but I wonder if anyone knows how this modest, round-bellied pot got its name and why some devout tea drinkers think it the only vessel worthy of steeping a perfect cuppa.

Although quintessentially British, the origins of the teapot are actually Chinese.  As more and more tea was being imported from China into Europe and Great Britain beginning in the 1600s, a vessel in which to steep the tea became necessary.  The first teapot ever created was in China in the 15th century, but the Chinese primarily steep their tea individually in small porcelain bowls called gaiwans.  Europeans, however, wanted to steep larger quantities and demanded a more practical way of preparing and serving their tea.  Knowing this, the East India Company commissioned the Chinese to come up with a larger, more useful vessel.

Chinese artisans designed these pots, each with a spout, handle and lid. These vessels were small, unadorned, round pots, made from the red clay of the Yixing area … and ideal for preparing a good cuppa tea.  The teapots were packed in crates by the thousands and placed in the cargo holds in the bottom of the large sailing ships, which also helped to provide ballast, while the teas were then packed on top.  Everything was sure to arrive safely to ports throughout Europe and England.

Ming Dynasty Yixing Teapot

As we all know, tea was incredibly expensive at that time, and kept under lock and key, to be enjoyed only by the wealthy.  As tea pots started appearing, the aristocracy demanded these as well.  The Dutch were the first to request permission to try to reproduce these tea steeping ‘pots’.  In 1679 two potters from Delft sent a letter to the court of the Count of Holland stating: “we, associates, have discovered production techniques which make it possible to copy the teapots from the East Indies. We request permission to produce these pots for 15 years and to be the only ones to market them”.  But it was two silversmiths from Holland, brothers John and David Elers, who also saw the potential for this new industry and relocated to England to become potters.

In the Stoke-on-Trent area, the Elers brothers were able to find veins of fine red clay, the clay most like the red clay the Chinese were using.  The brothers then quickly and secretly established a factory in the area, and began producing some of the finest pottery to be found … some of which is on display today in the Victory Albert Museum in London.  Although their  “fine pottery” business was not financially profitable, they had a huge influence on the growth of this industry, making Staffordshire the ceramics capital of the world.

Two Teapots by the Elers Brothers 1627.  Photograph by David Jackson, CC BY-SA 2.0

As tea became more affordable, teapots became more in demand.  Artisans from Swinton pottery developed a unique glaze from iron and manganese that was brushed on the outside of the clay  pot. The excess glaze was allowed to run down the sides, creating an elegant streaky finish when it was fired.  That shiny brown glaze, referred to as the Rockingham glaze, in combination with the natural color of the clay, helped give the Brown Betty pot its name.

So, we’ve learned how “Brown”, became part of the name of this teapot, but what about “Betty”?

During the Victorian era, every affluent household had servants.  In the grander homes, there were servants who worked “downstairs” and servants who worked “upstairs”.   The “downstairs” servants generally were not known by their name and were usually referred to by their job, “cook” or “boots”, but the “upstairs” servants were well known to the lords and ladies of the house and would probably be referred to by a ‘nick name’.  MaryJane would become “Mary”.  Abigail would become “Abby”.  Elizabeth would become “Betty”.

The name Elizabeth, shortened to “Betty” was a very popular name then.  The hugely successful Betty’s Tearooms were begun (and still very popular today) by Swiss baker, Fritz Butzer, but there was no “Betty” in his family.  Perhaps he was inspired to name his tearoom for Betty Lupton, the queen of Harrogate, or the popular theater production about a maid named “Betty”, or could it have been “Betty” Rose, the granddaughter of his first investor in Betty’s Tearooms.  As Elizabeth was such a popular name, chances were that at least one servant was called “Betty” … and, “Betty” probably served tea.

By the mid-1800s, with many Staffordshire Pottery factories producing them, the teapot had evolved somewhat and became considerably more affordable.  And by 1926, it was estimated that the industry was producing approximately 500,000 Brown Betty Teapots per week … making it the most popular, widely used teapot in the country.

And what is it about this teapot that makes the Brown Betty my favorite pot for steeping tea?  Not particularly colorful or decorative, this unpretentious, utilitarian pot has a big round belly which allows the loose leaves to swirl around and infuse the water properly.  The clay retains the heat from the boiling water, holding the tea at the perfect temperature for me.  The handle is big and comfortable and the spout is dripless.  What more could anyone want in a teapot?

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References:  Hoteliers, Cauldon Ceramics, Wikipedia, VisitStoke, Bettys, Coffeeteaclub, thebrownbetty,

What’s In a Name?

TEA … what a strange name for a beverage.  A beverage which originated in China over 5,000 years ago.  A beverage which comes from infusing the leaves of a specific plant into hot water.  A beverage which has been drunk and enjoyed around the world for centuries.  Where did this simple name come from?

The word for “tea” can be quite different in many languages.  In China, the word for tea is “cha”.  In India and other Far East countries, the word for tea is very similar … “chai”.  In Great Britain and parts of Europe, however, the word for this amber-colored liquor is the word we in the U.S. use … “tea”.   How is it that this, the most popular beverage in the world, can have two completely different names?

Legend tells us that more than 5,000 years ago, the Chinese emperor, Shen Nung, was sitting under a tree in his garden boiling water when the wind picked up and leaves from the tree drifted down into his pot.  Intrigued by the fragrant aroma and beauty of the golden liquid, he drank the infusion and enjoyed it.  Tea has played a vital role in the Chinese culture ever since.

The Chinese character for tea is  .   Written from top to bottom, this calligraphic character is quite beautiful.  The top strokes, which I’ve always thought were shaped like a house, really represents “grass” or a “plant”.  Although Mandarin is the most common language in China, there are over 300 different languages and dialects.  In Mandarin Chinese this “house-shaped” character is pronounced “cha”.  In Min Chinese, however, this very same character is pronounced “te”.
Why is this important?  Because China is a very large country, with different languages spoken in different regions, and depending upon the port from which the tea was shipped, is how this beverage got its name.

China had two primary shipping locations:  Guangzhou (Canton) to the North, and Xiamen in Fujian Province, to the South.  If the tea leaves were exported from the northern route, they went overland, and they were referred to by their Mandarin name, “cha”.  If the very same leaves were exported from the southern route, they went by sea and were referred to by their Min name, “te”.

The northern route, known as the Tea-Horse Road, traveled over 6000 rugged miles through Tibet and on to India, eventually linking up with the infamous Silk Road.  Ultimately this route became vital for, not only trade, but for the sharing of information, religion, and the arts.  The Silk Road crossed into the Middle East, where some goods, including tea … “cha” … were loaded onto ships destined for Mediterranean ports.  With the introduction of the faster and more efficient Clipper ships in 1840, however, the use of this road lessened.

The southern trade route, which was discovered by the Portuguese in the 15th century, actually introduced England to tea.  This dangerous and long voyage traveled from China through Java to Europe around the Cape of Good Hope up the coast of Africa to Europe.  It was these very same Portuguese and Dutch traders who first imported tea … “te” … into Europe.  Regular shipments of “te” had begun reaching England by 1610.  And with the use of Clipper ships, traveling at over 250 miles a day, the race was on.

So, if you lived along the Northern route and into the Middle East, your beverage of choice was “cha” taken from the Mandarin name.  If you lived along the Southern route and into Europe, your beverage of choice was “te” taken from the Min name.  But regardless of where you live and whether you refer to this wonderful elixir as  thé in Paris …or in Rome … chay in Moscow … or chai in Nairobi, just know that you are enjoying the oldest and most popular beverage in the world.

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References:  Wikipedia, History of Tea, Trade Routes, Siam teas, Mental Floss
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GENDER INEQUALITY in TEA?

I was reading an interesting article the other day about the perceived femininity of “tea” …  with which I had to agree.  In this country, except for the ready-to-drink bottled iced tea products, advertising is targeted primarily to women over the age of 35.  If you ask someone to describe an image of “tea drinking”, they’ll probably describe two women sitting at a table drinking from bone china tea cups and saucers, perhaps sharing a plate of cookies.  Mention “tea” to most people and you’re likely to hear “when I’m not feeling well, I’ll have a cup” … “my mother used to give it to me when I had a cold” … “no thanks, I’m a coffee drinker”.

Tea is still perceived to be a ‘snobby’ or ‘aristocratic’ beverage.  Tea houses also continue to be perceived as feminine ‘women-owned’ and operated establishments for the sole enjoyment of tea for women by women.  Unfortunately, many men I know will not accept an invitation to a tea house, because of that perceived femininity.

Sadly, tea does have a feminine image … in this country.  Around the world, however, it is completely different.  In India, China and Sri Lanka, tea is a male-dominated industry.  For the most part, tea plantations are owned by corporations, managed primarily by men.  Although women have begun to crack the glass ceiling a bit, auction houses are still dominated by men.  The highly-regarded profession of tea tasting is another male-dominated segment of the tea industry.  You may see men in the fields transporting the freshly plucked leaves, but it is women who are in the fields plucking the leaf.  You’d be hard pressed to see a woman manager at any of these plantations.  The heavy equipment in the factories are all operated by men while the women sit at tables sorting the leaf.

Visiting a tea sorting room in China.

Again, in every other country, tea is prepared by men, shared and enjoyed by men.  There is no ‘perceived femininity’.  In the middle East, haggling over a purchase doesn’t even begin until the tea is served.  Chaiwallahs in India are men who each day prepare and serve this spicy, rich elixir.  The American Revolution began with the Sons of Liberty making a political statement by throwing crates of tea into Boston Harbor.  In Japan, Samurai warriors were masters of the Chanoyu tea ceremony, brewing tea before discussing important matters of state.  The “mustache cup” was invented during Victorian times so that men who sported virile, elegantly-shaped mustaches could drink their tea without the fear of the wax melting.


In her 1951 book,  A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World, after surveying men and women, in this country, of all ages , author Erika Rappaport reported that 72% of them “believed tea was for women.”   Sadly, that perceived femininity of tea still exists.  So why is it in this country, in order to have men drink tea, the feeling is that we need to create either a ‘manly-blend’ of tea, or we need to have a marketing campaign to convince men that tea isn’t ‘for women only’.  Well, it has happened.

After doing a little research to see if there were any “man-only” tea blends available, I came across two, which I found interesting.  (I’m sure there are others.)  One product is pretty straight forward, with the masculine name of Man Tea.  Yup, a full-bodied blend, packaged for and with an advertising campaign targeted specifically to … men.  There will be no confusion with this message:  “Man Tea is designed for those looking to increase their physical strength and health … increasing stamina and strength, enhancing energy, calming digestion, etc.”

Another new tea with a very masculine-sounding name is Ekön, “the first ever functional tea line designed for men.”  What is Ekön’s message?  Providing men with the opportunity to drink loose leaf tea “without the stigma, the embarrassment, or the feeling that you’re less of a man.”   With blends called “Clean Machine”, “Pound Hacker” and “Dayholic”, they’re obviously trying to appeal to the testosterone-building male.

Over the years I think many other companies have tried to target the male-tea drinker, in the hopes of building that base.  The only product which appears to have gained mass appeal is the ready-to-drink iced tea market.  Arnold Palmer certainly has crossed the gender barrier with his now hugely popular iced tea line.  Lipton has tried over the years with lesser success with Dallas Cowboys quarterback, Don Meredith, as the spokesperson.

I can certainly expound on all the health benefits of tea (rich in antioxidants and polyphenols), and why everyone should be drinking it … regardless of gender, age, or physical limitations.  But, this discussion was purely on whether there is gender inequality in “tea”.  And, yes, I believe, in this country, the perception does exist.  What do you think?
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CAFFEINE

This site is about ‘tea‘, as well as ‘toast‘ and ‘travel‘.  But, it seems lately I haven’t posted much about the actual beverage ‘tea‘.  Many people think this is a site about food only.  Actually, it was my love for ‘tea‘ and the closing of my tea business which prompted me to start this blog.  I think I still had much more to say on the subject but my audience was gone.  Well, I haven’t stopped talking about ‘tea‘ yet.

I do realize that I still live in that ‘tea world’, a world in which most people do not live.  So when I overhear someone saying ‘yeah, I can’t drink tea because it has too much caffeine‘, or ‘did you know tea has more caffeine than coffee?‘ I have to step away from the conversation, because it still makes me a little crazy.  I feel compelled to set the record straight once more … TEA does not have more caffeine than coffee.  In the most simplistic of terms … ” A cup of tea has HALF the caffeine as a cup of coffee.”

Not enough information for you?  Okay, then here’s my CAFFEINE 101.

Camellia Sinensis plant

Where does caffeine come from?  Well, Mother Nature is responsible for caffeine.  She came up with a natural way to protect over 60 plants from destructive leaf, nut and seed-eating predators.  When these hungry, little insects try to eat these plants they get a mouthful of this bitter organic compound.  For the most part, these plants originated from Asia, Africa and South America, which, of course, is where the trees which give us coffee, cocoa and tea originated.  At this point, I am assuming everyone knows tea (not herbal beverages like chamomile, mint, rooibos, hibiscus, etc.) comes from the camellia sinensis plant, which originated in Asia.

Caffeine Structure

Now we’ve established that caffeine is natural.  It can, however, be ‘manipulated’ and it can also be ‘harvested’.  In the beverage we love so much, there are several factors which determine tea’s caffeine content.  In today’s modern world, it begins with the propagation of the bush.  Plants grown from clones can produce twice as much caffeine as bushes from seeds.  Nitrogen fertilizer can also add another 10% to the normal caffeine level.  From there, the caffeine content in the plant can vary according to the picking season. Teas plucked in cooler weather might produce less caffeine than those plucked in the fast growing hot months. Also, things as subtle as the location of the leaf on the stem, or whether its an unfurled bud, can also affect the level of caffeine.  And let’s not forget that the longer the infusion (the longer the leaves sit in the water), the greater the caffeine content.  Did you know that tea bags, which contain broken leaves, fannings and dust, produce an infusion with far more caffeine than loose leaf tea?

Uber-smart Nigel Melican, research scientist and founder of Teacraft, Ltd., says it best Caffeine varies in the fresh green leaf depending on fineness of pluck. For any tea, be it black, green or white, the caffeine is highest in the bud. Silver needle (white tea) is 100% bud and has the highest caffeine content.  If your white tea is 100% bud then it’s going to be one-third higher in caffeine content than green tea made from two leaves and a bud.”

Learning how to properly pluck tea in China.

Please understand we’re not talking about astronomically high amounts of caffeine … perhaps a variance of 8-10% (which might be just enough to keep some people up at night).  The average tea drinker consumes about 180 mg of caffeine per day as compared to the average coffee drinker’s 330 mg per day (far more if they drink robust coffee such as Starbucks).

Upon drinking this naturally-occurring substance, it is absorbed into the small intestine and within 45 minutes is distributed throughout your body.  Yes, it is a stimulant .  And, yes, it has been shown to increase alertness and concentration, quell headaches (which is why some pharmaceutical companies ‘harvest’ caffeine) and it does speed reaction time.  It also increases digestive juices in the stomach (always served after a meal in Asia).  Although it does not dehydrate the body, it does stimulate the kidneys, which helps the body eliminate toxins.  If caffeine keeps you up at night, avoid drinking it four to five hours before bed (which is the amount of time it takes for the caffeine to work its way out of your system).

For most of us, caffeine really shouldn’t be a concern.  High amounts of caffeine, however, can absolutely have a negative affect on some people.  If you are on medication which is affected by caffeine, or if your doctor is asking you to cut caffeine out of your diet, switch to a decaffeinated tea or a caffeine-free herbal.  (Remember, caffeine is not present in herbals unless they are blended with tea leaves.)  Always consult with your doctor if you have any questions about caffeine’s effects upon your health.

There is much more to say on the subject of caffeine, but I think I’ve gone on enough for the average person.  The next time someone tells me ‘tea has more caffeine than coffee’, I hope you’ll realize that, at that moment, I will be doing everything in my power not to go on a rant … as I’ve done here!  And, for everyone who may still be confused … ” a cup of tea has HALF the caffeine as a cup of coffee.”

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References:  Cha DaoCoffee and Health, Wikipedia, Villanova University,

Where Have All the Tea Rooms Gone?

My first visit to a tea room was in London in 1986.  During that trip, I visited as many as I could, from the grand Afternoon Tea hotel experience to the simple, unassuming village repast.  I took what I learned and incorporated it into my business – serving tea to our guests.  They loved it.  And the business flourished.

My next visit to a tea room was in this country, ten years later (I had been busy, very busy).  What I didn’t realize, or perhaps had forgotten, was how much I had enjoyed afternoon tea.  It was relaxing … refreshing … and, yes, even rejuvenating.  I know.  I know.  It’s those three “r’s”, but it really was true.  Was it the tea, the rituals which surround tea, or was it the camaraderie  of being with like-minded friends, sharing food and an experience?  I’m not sure, but, from that moment on, I knew I had found my “happy place”.

An acquaintance soon became a good friend, especially after I found out she and her friends had formed a “tea club”.  Each month they would travel to a different tea room, as a group, and share in the tea experience.  Of course, that didn’t prevent any of them from visiting their local tea rooms at every opportunity.  Immediately, I became a proud member of the tea club.

TEA TIME Magazine

As a group, we’d do our research:  tea magazines, websites, chat groups, word-of-mouth.  We’d be there for the grand opening of the newest tea room, as well as always revisiting past favorites.  There were so many tea rooms to choose from.  We traveled all around New England and then up and down the East Coast.  If the distance was more than 100 miles, we would organize an entire weekend around one or two tea room visits.  The weekends always included staying at a local bed and breakfast, antique shopping and, of course, lots of good food.  Repeat tea room visits ended with our befriending the owners and their staff.  They now becoming “tea friends”.  Our group and tea family grew.

But, no more!

For years, we enjoyed these afternoon tea sojourns … until suddenly … we ran out of tea rooms!  At one time, we could choose from hundreds, now there are perhaps one or two.  I understand tea rooms are, in reality, a restaurant and restaurants are a hard business, a very hard business.  I understand the profit margins are very low.  I understand the owners want to retire.  I understand there’s no interest in the next generation to take over or start up a tea room.  I understand real estate is very expensive.  The reality is I have been a business owner … and I understand.  But, I don’t like it.

Wenham Tea House, Wenham, MA

Did you know tea rooms were the first “women owned” businesses in the U.S.?  At the turn of the century American hotels were mimicking their European counterparts by serving Afternoon Tea in their restaurants, but this was not something a woman could participate in without a male escort.  Unescorted women would not be served.

In the cities and the countryside enterprising women began realizing that women of all classes wanted the ability to socialize outside of the home together, without the required male escort.  They also knew that we were becoming a more mobile and motorized society.  Women in the villages and small towns began turning their front parlors, or shed, or back kitchen into an inviting area where they could serve road-weary travelers a hearty cuppa and something to go along with it.  In the city, middle class women opened their front parlors for other women to gather and enjoy each other’s company without the required ‘man by their side’.  The American tearoom was born.

Tea at Charters Towers, 1880, Courtesy of New Old Stock

These businesses were important.  This was the first opportunity women had to start their own businesses, earning an income, without leaving their homes.  By adding handicrafts and baked goods made by the townspeople, the tearoom also offered a means for others to earn money.  Tea rooms played an important role in our society, our culture and to women.  But now its 2018 and everything is changing.  Why?  Are we all so busy that we haven’t the time or the interest to support this traditional women-owned business?  Are we too sophisticated, or too jaded?  Do we have to be stimulated by something new all the time?  What has happened to the value and importance of traditions?

I can’t stress enough how important it is for you to support your local tea room … woman owned or not.  Small businesses are an important part of our heritage.  Do we really want every shop, restaurant, business in every town to look like the every other shop, restaurant or business?

There are a few tea rooms left around the New England area.  Not many.  I can’t recommend enough that you visit them.  Each is unique, wonderful and an experience you’ll always treasure.  Do it now before they too are gone forever!

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Tea Rooms to Visit in the Greater Boston area
FANCY THAT
WENHAM TEA HOUSE
BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY
THE TEA LEAF
THE DUNBAR TEA ROOM
HEATH’S TEA ROOM
COZY TEA CART

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TEA in SPAIN

I really should title this post “Searching for Tea in Spain” … because I was hard pressed on our recent trip to find any.  No, I’m not talking about the obligatory selection of tea bags sitting next to the carafe of hot water at the breakfast buffet in the hotel.  And, of course, if you ordered tea at a cafe or restaurant, you were served tea … sometimes even in a teapot.  What I was hoping to discover was a love for, a connection with, or history of  … ‘tea’.

We started in the capital of Spain and the third largest city in Europe, Madrid.  An exciting city, full of vitality and passion, and now well on its way to shaking off the financial woes it experienced during the past decade, but even in the heavily traveled tourist areas, no outward signs of “tea” existed.  What was I looking for?  Perhaps a retail store, tea room, even a tea display or sign … something that beckoned the tea drinker.  Nothing.

We then traveled south into the magnificent area of Andalusia with its vast savannahs filled with olive groves and vineyards, surrounded by the majestic Sierra mountain ranges.  Our visits to the white-washed villages of Cordoba, Toledo, and Ronda were breathtaking … but no ‘tea’.

We marveled at the Roman ruins in Merida, the medieval walled city of Carceres, and hoped to see a bullfight in Seville, but didn’t.  We climbed the narrow stone steps into the cathedral towers, got lost in the maze of winding alleyways, clapped to the beat of the flamenco guitar, and ate tapas, authentic tapas, some spicy, a few not, some raw, others fried … but no ‘tea’.

We strolled through the lively gypsy neighborhoods, wondered at the priceless art collections, and indulged in an occasional afternoon siesta.  We attended the prestigious annual patios festival, took photographs of the vibrantly festooned balconies, and dunked our churros into hot, thick dark chocolate.  We drank red wines and white wines from the local vineyards; rich, red, fruity sangria, and syrupy sweet sherry over ice … but we didn’t drink ‘tea’.

Until we came to Granada.

Granada is one of the most important cities in Spain’s rich history.  Settled by the Phoenicians until the Romans overtook it in the 3rd century; by the 5th century Rome had fallen and Granada was then ruled by the Visigoths.  The Visigoths held this area for a few hundred years until Muslim forces coming from Morocco across the Strait of Gibralta, conquered it around 1010.  The Muslims remained in power, living side-by-side with Christians and Jews, until 1492 (hmmmm, that date sounds familiar), when Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand took control.  Why is any of this important?  Because during the Muslim rule, the city became one of the richest cities in medieval  Europe.  Trade routes from Morocco were open and the artistic and scientific communities flourished.  With these trade routes came silk, cotton, paper and … ‘tea’.

Yes, “TEA” is alive and well in Granada!   Although the Muslims were forced out of the city by the 15th century, their influence has remained.  Within the old Moorish district of Granada, known as the Albayzin, there are Arabic tea houses or teterias.   A narrow, cobblestone paved street called “Calle Caldereria Nueva” is as close to a Moroccan souk as you can find, crammed full of trinkets, rugs, lanterns and it is dotted with tea houses!  No, you will not find bone china cups and saucers.  There’s not a scone or tea cake anywhere around.  But what you will find are lavishly decorated, intimate cafes serving loose leaf tea.

Calle Caldereria Nueva

So while sitting on a long, pillow-topped divan, with heavy drapery covered walls, in a Moroccan-inspired tearoom, sipping a hot steaming cup of mint tea, what I learned was, in Spain, unless you are visiting Granada, it is “coffee country”.

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References:  Wikipedia, Andalucia, Love Granada, Trip Savvy,
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CHAI … it’s sordid beginnings

In many languages “cha” or “chai” is the word for tea.  Chai, or Masala tea as it is called in India, is that milky, spicy, sweet, hot beverage we’ve all come to love.  Knowing the humble origins of chai, I’m amazed when I go to stores like Home Goods or TJ Maxx or even Ocean State Job Lot to see ‘chai‘ in shelf-stable packages, pre-made and ready to drink.  Actually I shouldn’t be surprised at all.  As much as we might love this spicy beverage, we’ve become a country in which we are so busy, we don’t have time to sit, relax and enjoy the process of … making chai, baking bread, growing herbs .  I’m one of those people, however, who tries to make time for it all.

I find the story of how Chai began quite fascinating, because it tells the story of tea … with all its grit, espionage, smuggling and deceit.  Chai has one of those sordid origins where it was bred out of necessity, much like soul food.  People had to eat (or in this case, drink) what was available.  If they didn’t they went hungry, and in most cases, they would die.

Let’s start at the very beginning.  It was 1848 and the East India Company had lost its monopoly on the China tea trade.  The Chinese were resentful that Britain attempted to addict their entire nation to opium and refused to do business with them.  The whole of Great Britain was now demanding “tea” and It was imperative that the British government establish its own independent tea supply.  But where and how?

Among botanist Robert Fortune’s tasks in China was to learn the procedure for manufacturing tea, as shown in this 18th century tea plantation. (The Granger Collection, New York)

A Scotsman by the name of Robert Fortune, curator and botanist of the Royal Horticultural Society, was asked by the East India Company to go on a “tea-discovery” mission to China.  Little did Fortune know that he was about to become an international man of espionage.  For three years, disguised as a Mandarin, Fortune visited the most famous tea districts, kept meticulous notes on the soil, the pruning, plucking and manufacturing process, and systematically collected seeds and plants.  By 1851, Fortune had amassed such knowledge, and plants, that he filled four vessels sailing from Hong Kong to Calcutta with thousands of plants, seedlings and had hired a team of experienced Chinese tea workers.

While Robert Fortune was busy collecting specimens, Robert Bruce, a fellow Scotsman, was meeting with one of the chiefs of the Singpho tribe in Assam, India.  The Singpho tribe, as the Chinese and other tribes in Southeast Asia, had also been making tea for centuries.   A tea committee was immediately formed to explore the possibilities of growing tea in this Assam region, which lies just to the west of China.

And then the takeover began.  Britain appeared to align themselves with the tribes, but their intent was to take over this territory.  They began by moving into this area and stripping the tribal people of their land, and then increasing the land tax to the point where the Assamese were unable to pay it.  This forced the Assamese to work clearing their own swampy, mosquito-laden land for the future tea gardens of their new British land “lords”.

These indigenous people had no experience laboring in this manner, and under deplorable working conditions.  The  British viewed them as “lazy, indolent and miserable”.  As a result, the British began “importing” labor from other parts of India. This “importing” of labor was, in fact, slavery.  Recruiting agents were sent into rural areas and promised a good wage and better life to men, women and children … ‘recruits’ who willing to immigrate to Assam.  When they had enough ‘recruits’ from one area, they loaded them onto overcrowded boats with appalling conditions for the six- to eight-week trip up the Brahmaputra River.  Many of the men, women and children, or ‘coolies’ as they were called (the term ‘coolie’ is believed to originate from the Tamil word for wages, ‘kuli’), died from cholera, dysentery, malaria or typhoid fever.  The ones who did survive were put to work no matter how sick, hungry or tired.  They were managed with whips, lived in pitiful huts, were chronically ill and malnourished, and unable to escape.

Most often the only source of nourishment for the ‘coolies’ was rice and tea.  No, not a good quality tea, but tea made from the dregs of the pluckings, infused with some milk for nourishment, sugar for energy, and spices to cover up the bad taste.   As a result, coolies suffered a very high mortality rate.  Between 1863 and 1866 half of the 84,000 laborers brought into this area died.  As I said, the history of “tea” and this now-beloved drink isn’t the sweetest tale.  Many thousands upon thousands of people died from malnourishment, disease and mistreatment.

Born out of necessity, today “chai” is the national drink of India. From sipping chai in someone’s home, while making a purchase in a shop, at a train station, or on a street corner, you can’t visit India without experiencing this unique culture.   Chaiwallahs are on every street corner in every village and town, ready to serve you a small cup or glass of this wonderful beverage.  Each may have their own special recipe or preparation style, but rest assured, each is as delicious as the next.

Everywhere in India there are chaiwallahs on the street with large kettles selling their spicy tea steeped with boiled milk and sugar. Because of the stiff competition between chaiwallahs, each tries to develop a unique style.

While specific recipes can vary, the black tea is always brewed with a blend of spices, generally cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, ginger, and cloves, with the addition of milk and sugar or honey.  In the U.S., some folks steep their tea together with milk, spices and sweetener. Others steep the tea and spices together, then add the milk and sweetener. A third group steeps the tea, stirs in the sweetener, and enjoys it without milk. It’s your choice.

We enjoy ours best steeped in a saucepan for 10 minutes or more with equal parts water and milk and one teaspoon of tea, spices and sugar for every 8 ounces of liquid.  Milk may burn if the heat is too high, so steep the heat at a medium temperature for about 10 to 15 minutes. After steeping, strain into a pot, and enjoy.

Yes, making it yourself does take about 15 minutes or more, and you can certainly buy prepared chai in bottles or packages, or even dry chai mixes, but taking those 15 minutes is so worthwhile.  And, if you make too much, just put it into the refrigerator and enjoy it cold the next day, over ice, or reheat it.  In the summertime, I love to make chai shakes … with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the blender.  Try it.  It’s absolutely delicious!!

I may occasionally order a chai (notice I didn’t say “chai latté”), in a café, but I really enjoy making it at home.  The aroma of those comforting spices steeping in that dark, rich tea just relaxes the senses and puts me in that “happy” place.

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References:  TEA by Roy Moxham, The Heritage of Indian Tea by D.K. Taknet, For All The Tea in China by Sarah Rose, Academia, Teatulia, Smithsonian

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MACARONS or MACAROONS?

This is the trendiest dessert/cookie to hit the food industry since probably Baked Alaska.  No, not the coconut “macaroon” you see in the grocery stores at Passover, I’m talking about the classic, tiny, ganache-filled French Macaron … pronounced with a short “O” like “on” not a looong “O” as in “une” … and made with ground almonds, not shredded coconut.

I first discovered this little, crunchy, chewy, filled confection quite a few years ago at a patisserie in London.  There were trays and trays of the pastel-colored cookies lined up in the window.  The colorful display and the exactness of each cookie was eye-catching to say the least.  The next time I saw them was a few years later at a wholesale food show in New York City, and buyers were standing in line to place their orders.  I stood in line too (not to place an order, but just to sample one).  A delicate, light, crunchy exterior with a soft and gooey interior … maybe one of the best little mouthfuls of sweetness I’ve ever had.  Fast forward to today and now these little confections are everywhere!!!  Not only on bakery shelves, but packaged macarons can even be found at Home Goods and Marshalls!  Really??

The Middle East should really be credited with giving us the origins of the macaron.  By the 1st century, they were exploring the culinary possibilities of adding honey, fruit and nuts to food, which resulted with almonds becoming their biggest export.  By the 7th century Persians were indulging in rich, luxurious cakes and pastries, made from these ground almonds called “marzipan”.  These treats reached Europe by the 14th century and it is actually Italians who created this little marzipan nugget.  The name “macaron” comes from the Italian word for paste which is “macaroni” (pasta is a paste made from flour, water and eggs).  I grew up calling pasta macaroni, didn’t you?

The cookies were produced in Venetian monasteries for centuries.  They were referred to simply  as “priest’s bellybuttons” because of the round shape.  You have to know that these cookies were rather plain in color and not sandwiched together as they are today.  In fact, the Italian amaretti cookie is also a ‘macaron’.  The differences are the amaretti is still not sandwiched together with a filling and is flavored with an almond liqueur.

The cookies remained an Italian treat until the Italian princess, Catherine de’ Medici, requested her pastry chefs travel with her to France to make these little delicacies which were to be served at her wedding to the future king of France, Henri II.  This all occurred in the 16th century, but the almond meringue cookies didn’t become popular until the 18th century when, during the French Revolution, two Benedictine nuns began making and selling the cookies in order to support themselves.  Sister Marguerite Gaillot and Sister Marie-Elisabeth Morlot became so popular they were referred to as the “Macaron Sisters” and the  village of Nancy in France has now dedicated a square to them.

The delicate, yet crisp meringue cookie stayed very traditional until 1930.  It was the brilliant idea of chef Pierre Desfontaines, grandson of the founder of the famous French Ladurée Tea Rooms, to elevate the cookie from its humble beginnings to what we know today.  Desfontaines quite simply decided to take the two cookies and sandwich them together with a ganache filling.  The tea rooms became the fashionable spot for London’s grand dames to gather, enjoying not only a pot of tea, but macarons as well.  Today Ladurée claims to sell over fifteen thousand cookies every day!

Have you ever been to Ladurée?  I have not (but I adore PAUL, their smaller venue).
Ladurée is definitely on my bucket list!!

The myriad of colors and flavors, shapes and sizes, available in shops today are never ending — from mint to chocolate chip, peanut butter and jelly, to lemon or peach, pistachio or strawberry cheesecake, salted pretzel, maple and, of course, pumpkin.  On and on it goes.  Every cafe in Europe has macarons on their menu, including McDonald’s in France and Australia.  If McDonald’s here in the U.S. sold macarons, I might even consider going.

Baking shows on the Food Network use the macaron as one of the ultimate baking challenges.  They can’t be that difficult to make, can they?  After watching an episode of Jacques Pepin’s cooking show, he made it appear so simple, using prepared marzipan (almond paste), beaten egg whites and sugar.  Mix it all together and pipe onto parchment paper, let rest and then bake.  Well, if Jacques Pepin says they are easy to make, then I’m going to give it a try.  And I have the perfect party coming up this weekend.  So here goes ….

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References:  The Nibble, The Daily Meal, Culture Trip, WikipediaBon Jour Paris

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BREAKFAST TEAS

Have you ever had one of those nights when you’re laying in bed and your head becomes full of the most bizarre, unrelated thoughts.  As hard as you try to toss them aside, you can’t.  Those thoughts just keep coming back into your consciousness … rolling around and around and around.  Well, that’s exactly what happened to me last night.  And, for some reason, the subject was breakfast teas.  Yes, I know … bizarre!   English Breakfast and Scottish Breakfast to be exact.

What kept occurring to me was, “why do they exist?”  Although I’ve traveled through all the wonderful countries of Great Britain, never have I seen (except in grocery stores), been offered or served a “breakfast tea”.  I’ve been served PG Tips, Yorkshire Gold, Barry’s, Twining’s, A&P, Tetley and a variety of unknown bagged teas.  I’ve also been served, on one occasion, a very nice Ceylon.  But never anything for breakfast called “breakfast tea” whether it’s from England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist or aren’t being sold in grocery stores.  Barry’s now has an English Breakfast and Taylor’s even has a Scottish Breakfast.

Here in the States, however, many tea drinkers think you need to start the day with a breakfast tea … most often, English Breakfast, but, of course, if you are a “real tea drinker” then it’s Irish Breakfast.  Why would all of this be running around in my head at 3am?  I don’t know.  But the more I tried to put it away, the more I tried to understand it.

As a tea retailer, my English Breakfast tea … a bright blend of assertive Ceylon and hearty Assam with a burgundy-like Keemun … was by far my most popular seller until that is, customers started asking for something stronger.  They needed a tea that packed the punch of a cuppa coffee … something that would stand up better to milk and sugar.   Knowing that Barry’s packed a punch, I created a tea much like it … a rich, dark blend of high-quality CTC (cut, torn and curled) malty Assams … Irish Breakfast it was!  And it was a huge hit.  But now other customers said it was too assertive, too rich, too dark.  You cannot please everyone, I guess, so back to the blending table.

I felt like Goldilocks and the Three Bears … if the Daddy Bear Irish Breakfast was too strong, and the Baby Bear English Breakfast was too weak, then we needed a Momma Bear.  How about … Scottish Breakfast!

Scottish Breakfast became an even bigger success than English or Irish.  Every customer loved it.  A blend of orthodox full-bodied Assams with just a hint of Ceylons, it struck the right balance between the two.  It held its own with milk and sugar, or dark right from the pot.  It was such a success that orders for 2, 3 and 5 lbs. were coming in continuously.  Customers didn’t want to run out.  Even today, although I’ve closed up shop, I still get requests for “Scottish Breakfast” tea.

But the question still remains unanswered.  With more than 3500 varieties of teas available including Assams, Keemuns, Ceylons, Yunnans, Darjeelings, white teas, green teas, pu-erhs and oolongs, teas from countries all over the world, China, India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Nepal, Kenya, Japan, then why are breakfast teas still so much in demand here in the States?

And as I sit here this morning enjoying a delicate cup of fragrant, light  Silver Needles with its hint of sweetness, this question remains unanswered and still continues to run through my head.

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