Sucking on camelliasI'm a tea enthusiast. Camellia sinensis, the particular camellia whose leaves are used to make tea, is a stellar plant in a plant family I have always been very fond of.
Yet, I've always been rather skeptical about one of the main tea-origin myths: that a few camellia leaves fell into someone's hot cup of water, and they were immediately inspired to make a habit of drinking their hot water in this fashion. It just didn't make much sense: it takes a lot of (processed) tea leaves to make a good cup of tea, and if multiple handfuls of a random plant fell into MY cup of boiling water, I doubt I'd drink it. (If you're someone who is undeterred by random objects falling into YOUR beverage, just bear with me.)
I was able to put this to the test. Steven is a gardener, and he had occasion to prune a Camellia sinensis and bring some leafy branches over to taste.
We tried treating the fresh leaves like they were treated in the story: I put about half a cup of them into a tea basket, poured boiling water over them, and let them steep for several minutes.
The resulting drink barely tasted like anything. It was definitely hot water with a hint of... green. Not like clipped grass. Not like citrus. Not especially like tea. Just... green.
I let the remaining leaves sit on my counter for several weeks to dry out. For the next effort, I decided to boil them for about 5 minutes, and to use twice as many leaves (which was hard to estimate, because they were small and dried up this time, but when they rehydrated, it looked close). This time around it tasted like... something green, with a hint of weak green tea. But just a hint! Perhaps even just a rumor. A rumor of tea. Also, this time, the water turned more yellow-green. It did not become as yellow-green as processed tea would have under the same circumstances.
So my evaluation of the myth: perhaps the myth has been altered. Perhaps someone was cooking outdoors, an entire branch of a tea bush fell into their pot of boiling water, they permitted it to boil there for some length of time, and THEN they tasted it and found it pleasant.
Maybe. But I'm sticking to roasted, dried tea leaves.
posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM
Monday, March 03, 2008
Pomegranate White Tea. Trader Joe's sells many flavored white teas under their own label. One of them involves pomegranates, hibiscus flowers, and lemongrass.
If I could taste things today, which I cannot, I would enjoy a cup of this fruity red tea. It is ideal for hibiscus lovers: it is red, floral, and the white tea flavor is subsumed in the hibiscus-y goodness.
As with most TJ products, it is over-packaged: each tea bag is wrapped in a clear plastic outer wrapper, put in a cardboard box, and that is also wrapped in plastic. So they lose a point for one excess plastic layer.
I will buy this tea again, and perhaps again after that. When I can taste and smell things like tea. Which makes experiences such as tea drinking worthwhile.
I'll go back to wallowing in self-pity quietly now.
posted by Arlene (Beth)9:33 PM
Friday, February 15, 2008
Gunpowder Green Tea.Long ago, my dear friend Helen gave me a tin of Dean & Deluca's Gunpowder Imperial Green Tea. She was having a tea surplus at her house, and my fanaticism about tea was known to her, so she plied me with this and several other delicious varieties. The tin was sealed, and I only opened it recently.
This is a really excellent tea.
It is lovely to look at before it is brewed: each leaf has been rolled into a perfect, shiny little oblong pellet. The color is very good - pleasantly deep - and the scent is very strong, green, and fresh. It brews quickly (2 - 3 minutes, as with most green teas) into a bright yellow-green tea with a bright, pleasant flavor. It goes well with anything and everything that green tea complements. It's flavor is bold enough to stand up well to just about any dish.
Steven recently gave me a Japanese-style iron teapot in a pale green color, with two tiny matching cups, and it is perfect for steeping this tea. (The pot looks old fashioned, but it enameled inside, and comes with a little stainless steel steeping basket.)
This is a wonderful gift, and I'll have to thank Helen again for giving this tin to me.
posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM
Monday, January 14, 2008
Teaism? Yes, teaism.As you've gathered, I drink a lot of tea, both "real" tea (from the special camellia plant that all true tea comes from) and herbal infusions. I drink green tea most often. I drink it for many reasons: I like the taste, I like to drink something warm, I like the fact that it's good for me... But I also have a sort of ideal of the idea of drinking tea. It is something that I like to do slowly, methodically, and thoughtfully. It can be very meditative to do. Really, as an independent Zen Buddhist, many ordinary things should be meditative for me to do, if I am living correctly, and my enjoyment of acting mindfully is part of what made me realize that I should identify myself as philosophically Buddhist.
I am a detail-oriented person who is usually wholly engaged in what I am doing, especially in my job(s). I have landed in a stressful profession (law), where every ounce of my attention, a great deal of patience, and continuous persistence are required for even mundane legal projects. I am often expected to do dozens of things at once, each of which is on an urgent deadline and composed of many smaller parts, some of which are quite complex, others of which are quite tedious. There is an urgency, often false, about nearly everything, and I pick it up and flow with it.
I am also the sort of person that takes inordinate pleasure in being completely absorbed in one activity: taking a hot, scented bath; feeling the texture of clean sheets against my skin; walking quietly through a forest; studying and drawing the lines on a leaf; or sitting on a beach with my bare feet in the sand and my eyes closed, listening to waves. Of course I like to really sit and wholly, completely enjoy a cup of tea. It's a relief from all of the unnecessary multi-tasking of life, a mental spa vacation in a small cup.
I realized today that Google likely has some of the classics written about tea on line. Of course they do. The Book of Tea, by Okakura-Kakuzo (from Google Book Search) (books.google.com) is from 1906, and it is the perfect thing for me to read right now. It has some great quotes. On the very first page is this:Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence.This is clearly my kind of book. Here is another good one:Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others.And it uses the word "fain" several times. When was the last time you read a book that used the word "fain?" I bet it's been too long.
P.S. Oooh! Oooh! "...the simpering innocence of cocoa." (That may make up for a few missing pages and the scan of the thumb on page 101 of the PDF.) Oh, and there's a fabulous tirade against cutting flowers for arrangements. I enjoyed this very much.
posted by Arlene (Beth)7:31 PM
Friday, January 11, 2008
I [heart] genmaichaThis evening we went out with my favorite cousin for a meal at Samovar Tea Lounge (samovartea.com), which is a vegetarian-friendly place for Asian-inspired, very tasty, creative, light meals and absolutely marvelous tea. There are two locations of Samovar now (one in the Castro on 18th, the other in Yerba Buena Gardens near SFMoMA), and we went to the original, Castro location.
I was able to try a new tea with dinner, largely because it was paired with the dinner of my choice automatically. I ordered the "Japanese Tonsu Box & Ryokucha," with poached tofu. The ryokucha was automatically paired with it, which made sense: it is the same tea that they pour over 'tea soup' (ochazuke) when that is on the menu, and the tonsu box was basically the same delicious ingredients usually found in ochazuke (plus salad) without tea in it.
Samovar's ryokucha is a mix of matcha and sencha with rice - a lovely blended genmaicha, which is my favorite breakfast green tea. It has a bright green color, and a very smooth flavor - not too dominant, but very pleasant. I think it would go well with just about anything I would be inclined to eat.
I'm glad the ryokucha came with my dinner, because I might otherwise stick to my usual favorites - Monkey Picked Iron Goddess of Mercy (hot) or the lychee black (chilled) - and miss out on this uplifting genmaicha that was disguised with a simple name.
posted by Arlene (Beth)10:20 PM
White Tea Variations.I was first introduced to white tea by a great foodie friend of mine, who loves the tea for its anti-oxidant properties - something she could use more of, since her Type I diabetes prevents her from getting anti-oxidants as I do from fruit. White tea is made from the same plant as all true teas, the camellia sinensis (which comes in thousands of varieties), but it is picked very early and only includes remarkably new growth. It is lower in caffeine than my beloved green teas, and milder in flavor. (You can learn more than you've planned at Wikipedia - White Tea, of course.) It is subtle.
I haven't had any in a while, and noticed that the Republic of Tea now carries a collection of ten white teas, all but one of which is flavored with fruit, or at least 'natural fruit flavor.' I picked up a can of persimmon white tea, which comes in a special tin (which may be a hint that it's priced differently than the other tins on the shelf). I rushed home and prepared some for myself and Steven.
Steven's review: "This is wrong."
I'm the big tea drinker here, so I should be able to articulate the strange novelty of this tea more specifically. When they say it is flavored with natural persimmon flavor, they really mean it is flavored with natural persimmon flavor. This tea is brewed very quickly - from thirty to sixty seconds - and you taste persimmons. If you brew it any longer than 60 seconds, or perhaps even fifty if you're using boiling water, which you really shouldn't do, but which I did on the first try, persimmons are just about all you taste. The instructions on the label, which insist on not-quite-boiling water and fast steeping times, really must be followed for this to taste like the makers intend. When brewed as carefully as directed, it still tastes primarily of persimmons, but in a nice, light way.
I'm not sure I recommend this drink for fans of other types of tea, because the tea flavor is so very delicate and the caffeine content is too low for the addicts in my social circle. (You know who you are. Stop twitching. If you can.) It is novel. It is healthy. I will drink it and get my $12+ worth. But it hasn't yet grown on me, or inspired the level of passion that a cup of Monkey Picked Iron Goddess of Mercy from Samovar Tea can.
I've eaten quite a few persimmons recently, thanks to my friends who got all 'persimmoned out' during the holidays. I've received two types of fresh, tomato-shaped (fuyu-type) persimmons and one kind of dried, sliced persimmons. I ate them all (except for one mushy soft one that I must have dropped, and one that I coerced Steven into eating, so he could say he'd had one), including the yellow persimmons that I was convinced would never turn that lovely, unique shade of orange-vermilion that I like, but they did. The friend who brought the second batch over apologized that they were "tree persimmons," by which he meant that a colleague was growing them in their yard, and so they weren't one of the commercial varieties - all persimmons grow on trees, and they're quite lovely in winter with just the bright fruit hanging there. They're also surprisingly pretty in cross section, which I hadn't realized until another friend brought me the dried slices.
They don't really taste like any other fruit to me, so it is difficult to compare them to anything else. (Water chestnuts and lychee also fall into this category with me.) They are sweet, more mild in flavor than their color suggests, and almost imply... what brown sugar would taste like if it was extracted from baked sweet potatoes. (Does that even make sense?)
My favorite 'suggested use' for persimmons comes from Larry, who learned from his parents to arrange persimmons in a decorative bowl until they begin to break down, at which time they should be thrown out. (Modern update: they should now be composted.)
I think I will soon be 'persimmoned out' also, but that's alright: it's now peak orange, mandarin orange, tangerine, and other citrus fruit season, and so there are other auspiciously colored fruits around for me to enjoy.
posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Tea: a film.We recently went out to see All In This Tea (allinthistea.com) at the fabulous Roxie Theater (roxie.com), which is a digitally filmed documentary about an SF Bay Area man who turned his passion for artisan green teas into a business. The film follows David Hoffman as explores China in person, seeking small farmers whose traditional, small scale farms produce very high quality tea, around which he created a business to import and sell in the U.S.
Most of the film involves Hoffman struggling against Chinese government bureaucracy. which is pro-mass production and uniformity, as he tries to win the right to purchase the unique, usually organic teas he wants directly from farmers, rather than the teas that the factories wish to sell him.
The countryside looks stark. The lives of small farmers look hard. And the job of working in a factory, manually removing stems from tiny tea leaves looks maddening, even though one of the factories shown looked like it was well ventilated and well lit, and the women looked more sane than I do on the average day. (Which isn't saying much, admittedly.)
It's a good documentary, and the audience reacted well to some of the wilder characters who appeared to speak about tea. (There's one whose drama is about on par with Liberace.) It also had a familiar feeling, in that it was a documentary about SF Bay Area culture in many ways as well. You see the Berkeley Himalayan Festival, visit a few of our local tea specialists, and express no surprise that the main character in the documentary lives in Marin and grows artisan wheat. (Wouldn't we all if our yards were larger? :-))
posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM
Saturday, September 08, 2007
Self-portrait on Saturday with tea.It's a cool, gray Saturday morning, and I'm at home waiting for my tea to steep. I'm out of genmaicha (you may cry for me now), and so I'm drinking one of two new teas I picked up from the The Republic of Tea's line: Cranberry Blood Orange Fair Trade Certified Tea, "Fine black tea with cranberries and natural blood orange flavor." It's black tea with cranberries and orange peel in it, basically, and it's pleasantly fruity, but still clearly a black tea.
I also have their Pomegranate Green Tea ("Superfruit Tea"), which is a combination of green tea, hibiscus (which I love in just about anything), currants, rosehips, blackberry leaves, and both pomegranate "flavoring" and juice. That one tastes more like a juice than a tea, but has no calories naturally.
[Insert: a comic book representation of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, in which the matcha ordinarily used has been replaced with either of these two, fruity teas. Scenario one: all goes well until the tea is served, at which point the honorable guest asks the honarable hostess what kind of sh*t she is trying to pull, and if she thinks this is a funny joke. The honorable guest slams her cup down on the tatami without remarking on its fine craftsmanship, and gracefully storms out. Scenario two: the tea is spilled on Ranma, who turns into a boy; Akane kicks his butt. Scenario three: the honorable guests say that the tea is a nice change, express surprise over the absence of calories, and then the Republic of Tea mascot walks into the frame with a big smile on his pot head and bows to the tea ceremony participants to end the commercial.]
Tea is my favorite drink, along with "herb teas" which don't contain the particular camellia that is tea (by definition), so they are really herbal infusions. Tea is inexpensive, usually calorie-free, often caffeinated (insert hyperactive smiley-face here), and really, really tasty. My mother let me drink tea sometimes when I was a kid: the tea I remember most was "Constant Comment" (a tea for those of us who simply cannot shut up), though I also liked "Bengal Spice" [growling sound].
Right now, the following teas are on my tea shelf:
-the Green Tea that Cannot Be Named, mostly because I can't read kanji to save my life, and the characters aren't listed on Wikipedia's fabulous green tea page, probably because I'm trying to translate the locality or the company name rather than the type of tea
-Jasmine Tea, made by the unfortunately named "China National Native Produce and Animal By-Products I/E Corp., Fujian Tea Branch."
-Dean & Deluca's Gumpowder Imperial Green Tea, which I haven't yet opened to try. All three of the teas so far on the list were a gift from my friend Helen, who received more tea in gifts recently than she could safely consume, and so elected to share with very very lucky me
-the two fruity Republic of Tea teas listed above
-Choice Organic Pepperment "herb tea," whose sole ingredient is organic peppermint leaf.
This is the smallest strategic tea stockpile I have had in the house for some time, and may induce a tea-buying panic the next time I am in Peet's. (Mmmm. Peet's.)
posted by Arlene (Beth)2:00 PM