Tag Archives: Tea

Tales of Tea

“Fight your shame.
Throw out your pride and learn all you can from others.
This is the basis of a successful life.”
Sen no Ryku, Grand Master, The Way of Tea

Tea pot, tea cozy, tea cup
Tea pot, tea cozy, tea cup at home, in the early morning

 

 

I attended a tea tasting a couple of Saturdays ago…

 

 

… a members’ event for Les Dames D’Escoffier International (LDEI) held at the Tea Gallerie in Mira Mesa.

And, although I have been drinking tea for a good 30 years, I still loved it. I learned even more from the Tea Gallerie’s owner, Maria, who talked us through tastings of 10 different teas, many with names new to me: Golden Monkey, Garden of Eden, Scottish Caramel Pu-erh.

LDEI provided scrumptious egg salad and cucumber sandwiches, buttery shortbread,  delicious scones and cream – all hardly bigger than a bite (so easy to lose count of how many I ate): the best English tea I’ve had since I left the UK.

The term “tea” covers such a range of beverages – from white to green to black (all from the same tree, but aged and processed differently) to others more properly called infusions, like peppermint.

The tastings that day changed my morning tea. Instead of English tea with milk, I’m now drinking a black tea (Scottish Caramel Pu-erh) black, with nothing added. I use less than a teaspoon of the long leaves, let the water cool down a little from boiling, and steep for only a couple of minutes. It’s clearing and calming, an anchor to sitting down each morning to write. Besides, the testimonial of one advocate said that after drinking this tea for three months, his cholesterol count had dropped 100 points.

Even my doctor has suggested I stay with drinking a cup or two a day for the antioxidant benefits. But, like with everything else, I have to like the taste, too.

Chai Spices Almond Cookies

I’m hooked on the complex flavor range of Indian spices used in chai tea latté. Last March, I developed a recipe for cookies flavored with chai spices, made with gram (chickpea flour) and almond meal, to serve at a public meeting of the Culinary Historians of San Diego (CHSD). The speaker, Prem Souri Kishore, is the author of India, A Culinary Journey, and she had wonderful tales and photographs about the food and customs of her native India.

I wanted to serve something that reflected this heritage, but was closer to a Western cookie than some of the more traditional Indian sweets. My husband Mark claims Chai Spices Almond Cookies as his favorite now. And, they are even gluten-free.

Other Tea Tales

For other tales of tea, see:

Two for Tea – 1 Intro
Two for Tea – 2 Japanese Tea
Two for Tea – 3 The Way of Tea
Two for Tea – 4 English Tea
Two for Tea – 5 Tea at the Ritz

Questions? Contact barbara@CulinaryOracle.com
©2017 Barbara Newton-Holmes
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Two for Tea – 5 Tea at the Ritz

Tea at the Ritz (continued from Two for Tea – 4 English Tea)

A few months after I arrived in England in 1983, my expatriate American friend Mari Taber suggested we go to the Ritz Hotel near Piccadilly Circus for afternoon tea one Saturday. It was reputed to be the best in London and had become a popular item on the tourist checklist, especially with Americans.

Dressed in our best business suits and high heels, we were escorted to our table by a tuxedoed maitre d’ who handed us a menu specifically for Afternoon Tea. The table was covered with thick layers of pink linen, including napkins folded into fans. Soon the waiter appeared: tall, slender, with a thin dark mustache.

“Good afternoon, Ladies. Would you prefer Chinese or Indian?” a discreet voice asked. (Had his lips actually moved?)

(What did I know about it!) “Indian, please.” (Was Darjeeling Indian? I’d had that before and liked it.) Mari ordered Chinese. We also ordered a plate of sandwiches, petit fours, and scones.

The waiter soon delivered tea in a scalding hot silver pot to each of us, accompanied by a silver tea strainer in its own little cup and a second pot with just hot water in it. A pitcher of milk and a bowl of sugar cubes were also on the silver tray. I poured milk into my cup, then added tea. Mari explained to me that the pot of water was for topping up the teapot.

A small mountain of sandwiches arrived. Each was cut in a triangle, without crusts, large enough for about two polite bites. Inside was a layer of butter along with a thin filling of cucumber, ham, watercress, smoked salmon, or egg salad. They were delicious. I was instantly seized with an embarrassing urge to gobble them all down at once but restrained myself, especially since the roomful of guests was so quiet and the waiter so attentive.

The petit fours were served. Lovely pastel confections with sugared violets, but too sweet for my taste. I encouraged Mari to have several, as I swiped some more sandwiches.

Finally, the waiter brought the scones, clotted cream, and strawberry jam. The table was now completely covered and I was getting full. The scones looked like the baking powder biscuits my grade school cafeteria used to serve with beef stew, but I soldiered on (in true British tradition). I cut the top off one, picked out a golden raisin for a preview (hmm, nice), and (ignoring the name), spread on some pale yellow clotted cream. A little topping of red strawberry jam seemed just the touch, then I took a bite. I was surprised at how pleasing the combination was, despite my lack of appetite. The scone was light and flaky, not dry or too sweet. The clotted cream seemed better than butter or cream. The strawberry jam just tart enough.

We finished our tea, but not the petit fours or the scones, and paid the bill. A charming way to spend a leisurely afternoon with a friend.

I never got back to the Ritz Hotel for afternoon tea again, although I often enjoyed stopping in teashops, especially when we were driving in the countryside. I later heard that the Hotel restricted service of afternoon tea to hotel guests only, presumably because of its overwhelming popularity.

Back in America

So now my English husband and I live in California. We get back to England to visit family and to bring back our favorite tea from the supermarket: Waitrose’s Premium Gold. We serve as an outpost to English visitors as a place they can get a “proper cup of tea”, especially if they have brought new supplies of Premium Gold.

But English guests or not, the day always starts with a cup of English tea. I like to get up early before everyone else, have a cup before meditation, then bring one up to my husband. On weekends, he’s the tea service.

Ah, yes, there’s nothing like a “nice cuppa tea”.

Questions? Contact barbara@CulinaryOracle.com
©2017 Barbara Newton-Holmes
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Two for Tea – 4 English Tea

English Tea (Continued from Two for Tea – 3 The Way of Tea)

After two years in Japan, I was transferred to the office in England. Although I brought with me cups and equipment from the tea ceremony, they soon became only decorative. I was back drinking the English tea I’d so enjoyed a few years before. I learned the importance of heating the pot and using boiling water, having milk (cold or at room temperature) in the cup when I poured in the tea. It made me less jittery than coffee and seemed less acidic.

Tea found its way to England via Dutch trading ships during the 17th century, along with Chinese porcelain teapots and cups. Its popularity grew rapidly. By the 18th century, tea-drinking was a common practice in every aristocratic and middle class household. As any regular viewer of PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow” can tell you, China began making tea ware specifically for export, and European potteries imitated Chinese styles. Despite being taxed heavily by the British government (a move literally rejected by more revolutionary-minded tea drinkers in Boston), tea continued to grow in popularity in England.  It later found its way into the working class as a means of fueling the workforce in the emerging industries. With milk and sugar, it was a sobering and sustaining way of keeping workers productive and on the job at relatively low cost.

By the 19th century, the imbalance of trade from tea between China and England was used by the East India Company to justify the smuggling of opium from India into China. The majestic clipper ships were modified to smuggle opium. When the Opium Wars of 1839-42 curtailed trade with China, it was transferred to India where a native tea tree had been discovered in Assam. British colonials developed huge plantations in Sri Lanka and Kenya. Blending tea from various sources to balance seasonal and geographic variations lent distinction to particular brands.

Ironically, it was in 1840 (in the midst of the Opium Wars) that a lady-in-waiting at Queen Victoria’s court began having bread and butter and little cakes with her afternoon tea to tide her over until dinner at 8. This sparked even greater popularity for tea-drinking as a gentile and elaborate event. Tea shops, tea dances, and tea gardens provided socially-acceptable places for proper Victorian ladies to mix with friends and potential suitors.

Continued in Two for Tea – 5 Tea at the Ritz

Questions? Contact barbara@CulinaryOracle.com
©2017 Barbara Newton-Holmes
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Two for Tea – 3 The Way of Tea

The Way of Tea (Continued from Two for Tea  – 2 Japanese Tea)

After I had been in Japan about a year, and could sit on my shins and feet for more than five minutes without their falling asleep, I decided I would take some lessons in the formal tea ceremony. The mother of a Japanese friend of mine had been practicing since she was a child and spoke a little English. Kobayashi-sensei would be my teacher. On most Fridays, I would leave the office in Roppongi and take the train to her apartment in Hiroo.

Each week I arrived and took off my shoes at the door, as is customary in all Japanese houses. Kobayashi-sensei’s greeting was calm and welcoming. Her kimono and white linen socks (the big toe fitted like the thumb of a mitten) swished as we made our way down a hallway to a room that had been transformed from a Western-style bedroom into a tea room.

We crawled through a low, short doorway, traditionally too narrow for swords or swaggering entry, an equalizer of those from various social standing. Each bowed in respect as we sat on our folded legs, feet tucked under, hands flat in front. A grassy, sweet fragrance wafted up from the tatami mats that lined the floor. We slid on our knees over to the tokonoma, the alcove holding a calligraphic scroll, a brush painting, or a flower arrangement, bowing again and pausing for a brief conversation.

From there, we slid to the center of the room to a brazier of coals, a kettle of boiling water, the tea bowls, the caddy of powdered tea, the bamboo whisk and tea scoop, the silk cloth used to polish the various implements. I can still hear the sound of her dry fingertips catching on the silk as they traced the edge of the golden silk cloth to the four corners, each a different direction of the compass, out into the universe. This movement carries humble thanks to parents, teachers, spouse, friends, the bounty of the earth, one’s own very existence.

Every movement, each placement of an object, the questions asked, even the tiny tap of the tea scoop on the mat and the sound of the whisk frothing the thick bright green tea, is prescribed by the practice. Each week, Kobayashi-sensei prompted me with further refinements of movements and explanations. With her tranquility, she melted away my frequent ruefulness at my own forgetfulness and clumsiness. Sen no Rikyu, the original grand master of the Way of Tea, wrote in the 16th century this advice to the student of tea:

“Fight your shame.
Throw out your pride and learn all you can from others.
This is the basis of a successful life.”

The strict practice brings attention to detail, ever-increasing awareness of the moment within the context of nature. The choice of wall hanging reflects the season, perhaps showing cool blue morning glories in summer, the harvest moon in autumn. The flowers are not arranged formally as in the West, but rather ‘artlessly’, as they might naturally grow. The formulaic conversation requires the guest to ask the name of the tea implements. Each week, Kobayashi-sensei would reply with a new and poetic name appropriate for the season, even if it was the exact same bowl or tea caddy used the week before.

Tea is made, served, drunk. The implements are cleaned and put away. All performed with exacting attention within the strictest guidelines. The goal is harmony of host and guest, equality within natural tranquility and humility, far from the push and shove of politics and commerce.

Continued in  Two for Tea – 4 English Tea.

Questions? Contact barbara@CulinaryOracle.com
©2017 Barbara Newton-Holmes
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Two for Tea – 2 Japanese Tea

Japanese Tea (Continued from Two for Tea – 1 Intro)

As well as a taste for tea, I acquired a taste for travel on that first trip to England. When the company I worked for in New York opened offices in London and Rotterdam, I accepted a job in the San Francisco office that seemed good preparation for the International Division. After a couple of years in the Bay Area, I applied to go abroad.

When the International Vice President called to say I’d been accepted, he asked, “And have you been watching “Shogun” on the television? We’d like to send you as part of the team to Japan.” Although I had expected to be heading to England, I was excited at the prospect of Japan, a culture that had fascinated me since I was a child.

At the time, I didn’t give it much thought, but I came to realize several parallels between Japan and England, despite obvious and distinct differences. Both are island nations, rich with culture and long histories of feudalism, conquest, and colonialism. And, both acquired from China the national habit of drinking tea, both as a beverage throughout the day as well as the focus in more elaborate ceremonies.   

Priests studying in China brought back tea seeds and Chinese etiquette to 12th century Japan, although it is thought drinking it began by the fifth century. Adachi-sensei, my language teacher in Japan, told me that tea had been discovered to be helpful for keeping priests awake during meditation. Part of the pictographic character for tea includes the meaning “medicine” since it was also thought to have curative powers and to promote long life.

Recent studies at universities around the world have been highlighting these properties, indicating tea as a boost to the immune system, a cancer retardant, even playing a role in the improvement of hearing, the reduction of cataracts, and inflammation. Both green (unfermented) and black (fermented) tea, are from the same tree (Camellia sinensis) but are processed differently after harvest. Both are credited with having these properties.

Over the centuries, green tea has become both the everyday social drink at home and in the office, as well as the focus of a ritualized ceremony that epitomizes Japanese culture and Zen practice. Although the form of green tea, the way it is made, and the equipment is different between the two, they both evolved from the idea of making a delicious beverage and serving it graciously. I learned a little about each type of service during my brief stay in Tokyo.

Yuko-san, the receptionist at the office, was the chief tea maker. She was about 5 feet tall with long black hair and fluent in English, having studied English one summer at UC Northridge and worked for British Leyland for five years. She served tea at the start of each day, after lunch, or when we returned from outside meetings, and whenever there were visitors.

She filled a large thermos with a spout like an elephant’s trunk with hot water that had just come to a boil in the kitchen. First rinsing the blue and white striped porcelain teapot with some of the hot water, she would pour it out into the round, handless tea cups, balancing the pot by its bamboo handle. Next a small scoopful of green tea leaves for each cup would go into the pot, followed by water from the thermos.

After a couple of minutes, the cups were emptied of water and filled in steps with tea. Yuko poured the tea in measured turns, explaining to me that this was to ensure it was of equal strength. The first half was poured for each of the cups, then filled up in reverse, the first getting the last in the pot. Each cup was filled with the fragrant pale yellow tea only to about an inch below the top edge so that it could be lifted and drunk without burning fingers. A few fragments of green leaves might float in the bottom of the cup.

“Dozo!” Yuko said as she placed a cup in front of each of us. “Domo Arigato!” each would answer in gratitude. Then, on with the day’s work.

Continued in Two for Tea – 3 The Way of Tea.

Questions? Contact barbara@CulinaryOracle.com
©2017 Barbara Newton-Holmes
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Two for Tea – 1 Intro

Two for Tea

I didn’t really drink tea at all until I took my first trip abroad to England in August of 1978. It was more of a retreat than a sightseeing trip: two weeks at Water Perry House, a former residential horticultural school in Oxfordshire where 20 of us from the School of Philosophy in New York City would meditate, work in the fields, and attend classes given by teachers from the London (original) branch of the school. As a group, we would prepare our own meals and breaks.

We arrived mid-afternoon, stiff and tired after the seven-hour flight from New York City and the two-hour bus ride from Gatwick Airport through green rolling hills, under overcast skies. We were assigned our rooms and told that tea would be served in the dining room in half an hour.

Blue Willow cups and saucers were laid out in orderly lines on the refectory table, set off by a dark blue cotton tablecloth. Each cup had a dollop of milk in it, a small spoon on the saucer. Two women were serving. One reached for the next cup and saucer, put a small strainer over the cup, and moved it into place where the other woman, holding with two hands an enormous enamel pot covered in a knitted tea cozy, would pour the tea. It came out steamy and golden brown, filling the strainer with a little mound of black tea, mixing with the milk to make a drink that looked as substantial as coffee, only slightly paler in color.

When the cup was filled, the first woman removed the tea strainer (placing it in an empty saucer), and, with a quiet smile, handed the drink to the next person in line. Sugar and honey were on the corner of the table. A plate that matched the cups held plain cookies they called “biscuits” or “bickies”.

The tea was delicious, amazingly thirst quenching, soothing and revitalizing. It was totally unrelated to the drink of the same name made by waving around a limp Lipton’s tea bag in lukewarm water, then squirting in some lemon. I was hooked on the real thing.

Over the next couple of weeks, I looked forward to the tea breaks whether it was at dawn before meditation or late afternoon when my eyes were drooping. When I got back to the States, I tried making it myself, but it didn’t come close. I learned that it wasn’t only how it was made. The actual teas were different in America.

Continued in Two for Tea – 2 Japanese Tea.

Questions? Contact barbara@CulinaryOracle.com
©2017 Barbara Newton-Holmes
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