Growing Tea?

I got a letter this morning from the County Council about my allotment application. I have been offered a lease on a 10m x 20m “transition” allotment.

The plan is keep it simple with carrots, spinach and maybe potatoes but for future years I have noted that there is nothing in the lease agreement that prevents me from starting a tiny tea plantation so I did some investigations. Most of us have heard of the decorative camellia plant but the tea variety (Camellia sinensis) is becoming popular for gardeners. Although it prefers subtropical climates the Camellia sinensis plant is both resilient and adaptable.It is an evergreen shrub but can grow up to 17 m high. In cultivation, it is usually kept below 2 m high by pruning. Its bright green leaves are shiny, and often have a hairy underside. Its fruits are brownish-green and contain one to four seeds.

The fragrant flower of Camellia sinensis

The fragrant flower of Camellia sinensis (Source)

There are three major varieties: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (Chinese tea),  Camellia sinensis var. assamica (Assam tea, Indian tea) and Camellia sinensis var. cambodi  (Java tea). It seems that Chinese camellia is the original tea plant and is hardier than the other varieties. It has relatively small and narrow leaves and produces fragrant white flowers in autumn. Given the right conditions, a tea plant can grow and produce for 50-100 years.

C. sinensis var. assamica is taller in its natural state and can grow into a loosely branched tree to a height of about 17 m. It is a less hardy variety with medium, droopy, leathery leaves. It needs well-drained soil and needs ample water but it is the most cold-sensitive camellia.

Camellia sinensis var. cambodi is used to create hybrids and not grown on its own so much but it can also grow quite tall and has the small white flowers when temperatures cool in autumn.

Tea can be propagated from cuttings or from seeds but the seeds take extra time. From seed, it will take 2-3 years to be ready to harvest. The plant likes regular harvesting and the new shoots can be used for tea. They need to be properly pruned back every four years to rejuvenate the bush and keep it at a convenient height.

Camillia sinensisFor planting, Camellia sinensis likes well-drained, sandy, acidic soil but will do well in other soil types too. They grow well in sunny areas but light shade develops the flavor of the leaves. They should be kept 1 meter apart to avoid competition. Camellia bushes are drought-tolerant and will survive dry summers. The problem for Irish weather conditions is that they need to be kept in a dry atmosphere to avoid mildew developing and the plant prefers “not very frosty dry winters”. Ideally, day temperatures of ~25 °C and night temperatures of >10 °C. Considering it is the end of March and there was snow on the ground here this morning, I’m guessing they would need to be kept in a greenhouse or indoors for most of winter and spring to survive.

I notice that there are a few tea plantations in the UK (Cornwall, Kent Pembrokeshire) so it seems that it is definitely possible to grow Camellia sinensis outside a subtropical climate. I might give it a shot at some stage but probably just as an experiment in a pot so I can move it indoors.

Afternoon Tea at Radisson St Helen’s, Dublin

Radisson SAS - Saint Helens (Source)

Radisson SAS – Saint Helens (Source)

I decided to have afternoon tea at the Radisson St Helen’s because I sometimes have meetings close-by and I’ve always admired the view of the hotel from the Stillorgan road when I’m passing. I went online to have a look but the menu that downloaded from their site was just the bar menu and didn’t cover afternoon tea. When I called, the barperson was helpful and friendly and went through the menu over the phone. He said there would be no problem just showing up but if I made a booking the table would be made up when I arrived which he said would be much nicer.

There was a funny glitch with the website: when I went to the Location page, and tried to get directions from “city centre” it gave me 472 steps of driving directions from the city centre of Kuala Lumpar, Malaysia. :-)!

Ballroom at St. Helen's

Ballroom at St. Helen’s (Source)

Anyway, nerdy entertainment aside, the hotel is very easy to get to on the Stillorgan dual carriageway and there is plenty of free parking inside. I arrived at about 3:30pm on a dreary Monday afternoon and the place was buzzing – some business meetings but mostly pairs of people just relaxing and chatting. My table was in the Ballroom Lounge with big sofas and soft lighting but I had a quick look into the much brighter conservatory. It seemed less formal and maybe not as fitting for afternoon tea.

I can’t remember all the tea options and I forgot to take a picture of the menu but I remember there being a lot of jasmine. There was a jasmine green tea, an assam with spices, a ceylon and a darjeeling with jasmine and maybe one or two more. I chose the assam with spices but think I got just a plain assam. It was a Ronnefeldt teabag. I do like some of the Ronnefeldt loose teas but this Assam teabag was definitely nothing special. It was brought in the pot with the hot water and judging from the lack of utensils, it was supposed to stay in there! This resulted in a very stewy pot of tea by the time 20 minutes had passed! In fairness, the staff had no problem topping it up with more hot water when I asked.

Afternoon tea laid out

Afternoon tea laid out


The food came on the usual three-tier cake stand. Sandwiches and crisps on the middle plate, two large raisin scones with butter, cream and jam on the top plate and four pastries on the bottom plate (brownie, lemon tart, profiterole and mille feuille). The scones were a little on the dry/chalky side and clotted cream would have been nice instead of regular cream but apart from that everything was fresh and tasty. It was a lot of food for one person and would serve as a very substantial late lunch.

Garden at St Helen's Radisson

The gardens at St. Helen’s

The tea was the most disappointing part of the whole experience but in terms of atmosphere, setting and food it was well worth the price of €21.50 excluding service.

Location on Google maps.

Free Book – A History of Ireland in 100 Objects

I came across this free book when I was looking for information on tea-drinking in Ireland for the last post. The History of Ireland in 100 Objects is a book by Fintan O’Toole that describes the history of Ireland through his choice of 100 objects. It includes objects from 5000BC right up to 2011 with items as diverse as Robert Emmet’s Ring (1790s), an Intel microprocessor (1994) and gold Torcs from Tara (c. 1200BC).

A hard copy of the book is on sale priced at ~€25 but the Royal Irish Academy, the National Museum of Ireland, and The Irish Times have collaborated with the EU Presidency, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Adobe to offer a soft copy of the book for free until the end of March. It is available from the EU presidency website here:

Emigrant's Teapot

Emigrant’s Teapot

Number 82 of the objects is an Emigrant’s Teapot from the late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century. It is a tin teapot that was made by travelling people.  The tinsmith soldered a spout and the internal wall of the cup was punctured with holes to make a strainer. The descriptions says that “Preparing for the long sea voyage to America, and unwilling to do without the tea for which the Irish had acquired an insatiable thirst, emigrants would buy these specially-designed pots”.

There is an accompanying video that show a tinsmith making a round tin box.


100 Objects - App for Android phone

100 Objects – App for Android phone

Now for the technical glitches that I encountered with the free book: I have a Mac computer with Adobe Digital Editions installed so I downloaded the eBook version. It downloaded fine but would not open with Adobe DE and kept crashing every time I tried.

I also have an Android phone so I tried downloading the eBook version using it. No joy. It wouldn’t even download. I transferred the eBook from my computer to the phone but it wouldn’t open with any of my eBook readers.

However, the Kindle Fire link will let you install the book as an app on your Android phone if you have Amazon Appstore installed. I haven’t used Amazon Appstore before but it was straightforward to install and a quick search for “Ireland in 100 Objects” allowed me to download the book for free. Be warned though, the app is 500MB so wireless network is definitely recommended (instead of mobile network).

Remember that the offer of a free soft copy is only until the end of March from the EU Presidency website.

Tea-drinking in Early Nineteenth Century Ireland

There is an interesting paper here by Dr Helen O’Connell, which discusses how tea-drinking in Ireland was viewed in the early nineteenth century.

Tea was first introduced to Ireland in the mid 18th century and at first its cost kept it a luxury that was confined to the upper class and aristocracy. The cost of tea fell significantly in the eighteenth century and the removal of tariffs in 1784, the price was halved again. Tea smuggling was widespread and it was the smuggled, cheaper tea that Irish peasants enjoyed. Its popularity grew quickly and by 1830s, tea was in staple in people’s diets and widespread amongst the poor. It seems that English reformers saw the pastime of tea-drinking as “reckless and uncontrollable” and something that could cause “addiction, illicit longing and revolutionary sympathies”.

The rural workers in Ireland were seen as decadent and lazy and tea-drinking promoted these flaws in the lower classes. It was deemed that the consumption of tea was something that would “deepen the social backwardness seen to be endemic and unmanageable in rural Ireland”. The practice was seen as particularly distracting for women and elimination was necessary so they could focus on their homely duties and the prospering of the economy.  Behind these objections seems to be a theory that tea drinking would make the Catholic Irish appear more Irish (and less English). In addition, the symbolic equality attained by tea-drinking “could only prepare the ground for the eventual attainment of actual equality” which might render the reform impossible.

Dr O’Connell says that “the prospect of poor peasant women squandering already scarce resources on fashionable commodities such as tea was a worry but it also implied that drinking tea could even express a form of revolutionary feminism for these women. If that wasn’t enough, there were also supposedly drug-like qualities of tea, an exotic substance from China, which was understood to become addictive over time.”

Cottage Dialogues (1811)

Cottage Dialogues (1811)

English reformers distributed pamphlets to peasant households that condemned the drink and highlighted its dangers.  They emphasized the frivolity of wasting money on a substance that had no nutritional or practical benefits.

Mary Leadbeater, Cottage Dialogues, 1811

“Now if you both take to drinking tea, (and sure you can’t sit down to one thing, and he to another,) you must have a quarter of an ounce of tea, that is three half pence at the lowest; and two ounces of sugar, that is three half pence more; a four- penny loaf will be tight enough; two ounces of butter two pence; all that comes to nine pence, and hardly enough; and weak food for a man.”

While economic historians interpret tea drinking as a sign of wealth, Leadbeater attempts to interpret the practice as a sign of backwardness and an inability to manage the domestic economy.

Reference: O’Connell H. ‘A Raking Pot of Tea': Consumption and Excess in Early Nineteenth-Century Ireland. Literature & History. October 2012;21(2):32-47

Fennel Tea – the Nausea Cure

Patrick’s weekend could be summed up in the word “overindulging”. Rich food, wine, chocolate, whiskey – you name it and I probably overindulged in it! So in the mornings I stayed away from traditional tea and went for the herbal tea or tisanes that are non-caffeinated. For nausea, some people recommend peppermint tea (particularly for seasickness) and I think it works well as a prevention but once I feel queasy, it doesn’t seem to help at all.

Fennel Seeds

Fennel Seeds


Instead, I go for fennel tea. If you don’t like liquorice, this isn’t the tea for you but otherwise drinking this can feel almost instantly soothing for the stomach. As a bonus, fennel seeds are rich in anti-oxidants and a concentrated source of minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc. Fennel tea can also be taken for other digestive ailments like indigestion and heartburn.


Bruised Fennel Seeds

Bruised Fennel Seeds

Fennel comes in the form of light brown/green seeds. To prepare I bruise about a tablespoon of seeds (5g) with a pestle and mortar (bruising between two spoons works too). Then I put the seeds in a brew basket, add 200ml of boiling water to the cup and infuse for about 5 minutes. The brown fluid looks a bit murky but smells of liquorice and aniseed and is pleasantly warming to drink. You can infuse a second time but it will be noticeably weaker.

[If you are wondering how all of this fits in with the steeping method that I talked about here, bear in mind that short steepings only apply to real tea (black, green, yellow, white, oolong and pu-erh), not to herbal teas/ tisanes. Tisanes have their own steeping guidelines depending on the herb but generally it is several minutes.]

Most tea houses and herbal shops will stock fennel seeds but because fennel seeds are used regularly in cooking, you can usually buy it in the spices section at the supermarket. I bought 100g for €3 which is excellent value as 100g would make at least 20 cups of tea.

I can confirm that fennel tea does not cure headaches but one thing at a time ;-)

Cat café

I’ve heard of these “cat cafés” in Japan and Korea. But it looks like they are in Europe now too. I’m not sure what the food safety authority would have to say about this.



I briefly mentioned oxidation in my getting sorted post when I was talking about the different categories of tea and thought it might be worth talking about a little more.

Oxidation is basically what causes the leaves of the tea plant (that are green when they grow) to turn brown. It is a biochemical reaction which involves the absorption of oxygen (like when an apple is cut). Black tea is generally close to fully oxidised, Green teas are usually non-oxidised and Oolongs tend to be partially oxidised to varying degrees. Oxidation is pivotal to the processing of tea and will change its colour, smell and flavour.

Oxidation Chart

Oxidation Chart (Source)

Oxidised teas, are bruised (from lightly to extensively)  to break the  cell walls and allow the enzymes in the leaves to cause natural oxidation reactions. Heating the leaves stops oxidation by deactivating the enzymes. In this way the tea producer can decide on the extent of oxidation by introducing heat. Green teas are non-oxidised and so are heated early in the production process so that the oxidation process is skipped.

Sometimes tea-oxidation is called fermentation but no microorganisms are used so this is a misnomer. Generally when people talk about tea-fermentation they are talking about oxidation.

However, just to complicate matters, the proper micororganism fermentation does take place with pu-erhs.

There are exceptions to this, but here are the usual oxidation and fermentation levels:

Black tea – almost fully oxidised

Oolong tea – partialy oxidised (ranging from 12% – 80%)

White tea – minimal oxidation

Green tea – No oxidation

Yellow tea – No oxidation

Pu-erh – fermented (sheng pu-erh is not oxidised but shou pu-erh is)

Corrib House Tea Rooms – Galway

This was my second lunch stop in Galway. It is situated overlooking the corrib river just a few minutes walk out of town. From the outside it looks like a regular residential house but inside it is a beautifully restored, high-ceilined, bright cafe that is split over two rooms.

Corrib House Tea Rooms

Corrib House Tea Rooms (Source)

The views over the weir and the lack of traffic make it very peaceful and just to add to the ambience, the fire was lighting the day that I was there. Most tables were taken at three o’clock and it seemed to be mostly locals having late lunches.

Corrib House Cake Selection

Corrib House Cake Selection

I had the tomato, roast mushroom, hummus and goats cheese on brown bread (they love their brown bread in Galway). The thick, heavy, homemade bread was tasty and went well with the toasted mushrooms, hummus and salad but I think it would have been a nicer lunch without the goats cheese on top of it all. I was too full to try the baked goods/scones but they looked delicious. If I had looked more carefully on the way in I might have skipped lunch and gone straight for desert.

The tea menu had nine choices of tea but the selection of teas was carefully thought out to accomodate all tastes so that it didn’t feel like a limiting menu. There were three black teas (two assam/darjeeling blends and an earl grey), a green tea, a jasmine, a rooibos chai, a peppermint, a fruit blend and a herbal relax tea (which was probably a chamomile though it didn’t say). I had  the “afternoon tea” which is a assam/darjeeling blend. The loose tea came in a large teapot and after a minute or so, gave a lovely crisp, light tea. Then I proceeded to tie myself up in the usual knot: I’ve waited a few minutes for the tea to steep, I’m enjoying my first cup of the lovely tea but all the while I’m drinking all I can think about is that the rest of the pot of tea is still steeping and starting to get bitter. I try to work out the volume per second that I’ll need to drink to get all the tea out of the pot in the next two minutes. It does not involve sipping lazily. My other option is to start fishing the tea leaves out of the pot but I probably won’t get half of them out and stirring and fishing isn’t going to help the situation. So I enjoy the first and second cup and add milk to the rest to mask the bitterness.

I went for a walk by the river after lunch and noticed that the departure point for the Galway river cruise is just one minute away which makes the Corrib House Tea Rooms  ideal  for a quick lunch or afternoon tea if you are taking a cruise. Even if you are not, this tea room is well worth a visit.

Location on Google maps.


Jimmy Choo Afternoon Tea

I thought Jimmy Choo made shoes but it turns out he does afternoon tea too. It was launched recently at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong. Prices start from €25. This could be something that would suit the well-heeled (really sorry – couldn’t resist!).

Jimmy Choo Aternoon Tea

Jimmy Choo Aternoon Tea (Source)

“Taking inspiration from Jimmy Choo’s Spring/Summer 2013 collections, which highlight the haute gypsy glamour of the late ’60 and early ‘70s, this fashion afternoon tea will feature tempting items such as edible miniature high heels and sandwiches made to resemble the design of the CAYLA clutch. Prices start from HKD 260 per person”