Plucking Tea

When tea is harvested, different parts of the plant are plucked, depending on the quality of the tea to be produced, the type of tea, the country etc. Tea picking is an important stage in tea processing and historically much has been written about the activity and the women who carried it out. Chatterjee (reference below) for example, mentions one account of labour management in the Tang Dynasty where tea pickers were required to abstain from eathing fish and certain kinds of meat so that their breath might not affect the bouquet of the leaves. He also talks about how women’s hands and fingernails were inspected to ensure body oils and perspiration would not contaminate the leaves.

Today, it is generally accepted that for high quality orthodox tea, the leaves at the tip of the stem are hand-picked. Plucking the bud and adjacent leaves  encourages new shoots to grow. Dexterity and speed are required, as the pickers snap the top, tender stems using the index finger and thumb and breaking the leaves off with a quick snap although many farmers have adopted the time-saving method of attaching a blade to the index finger for snipping the stem.


tea pluck types: imerial, fine, average

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The tender leaves at the top of the plant are the freshest growth and the most tender and are the richest in catechins and theanine. Imperial plucking involves just the bud and one leaf. Fine plucking takes the bud and the two adjacent leaves at the top of the plant stem. Average plucking takes the bud and three leaves.



Below are two photos of a jasmine pearl tea. The photo on the left is before steeping and the one on the right is the unfurled leaf after steeping. The beauty and perfection of the unfurled bud with its adjacent leaf or two leaves strikes me every time I make this tea.

Jasmine pearls before and after steeping


A Time for Tea: Women, Labor, and Post/Colonial Politics on an Indian Plantation  By Piya Chatterje, Duke University Press Books, 2001

Book Review: Put the Kettle On – The Irish Love Affair with Tea

Put the Kettle On - Book“Put the Kettle On” is a book around tea rather than a book about tea. It is a gathering of memories and associations, an acknowledgement of rituals and an insight into a particular method of communication. Throughout the book, the author (Juanita Browne) steps back to allow these themes to emerge naturally without commentary, influence or analysis. The result is open, unspoilt recollections and thoughts from 65 people who are diverse in age and backgrounds but united in their love of tea.


“I can still recall the refreshing taste of tea during those times of heavy work” Peter Brady

“The tea on the bog was the best of the lot” Declan Egan

Nostalgia features heavily in the book and tea is an interesting vehicle for evoking memories. The sound of kettles, the smell of the brew, the sight of a cups or teapots and taste all contribute to a powerful force of nostalgia where memories come flooding back and loved ones are remembered. Tea breaks in hayfields and bogs are featured throughout the book and so too are glass bottles of tea in the classroom and tea rations during the war. Through the memories that are associated with tea in those situations, we get interesting insights into people’s lives.


 “we don’t have many rituals any more…now the only welcoming ritual we have is to make a cup of tea for someone” Mary McEvoy

Ritual is a word that is mentioned by many in the book but is alluded to even more often. I believe that people need rituals to help us cope with fear, anxiousness, loneliness and frustration. They offer relaxation and respite from busy lifestyles and allow our minds a little freedom while we carry out a small task. In the past we spent a large portion of our time engaging in daily rituals like writing letters, feeding chickens, mending clothes and of course harvesting and preparing food. We have mostly retained the rituals that mark life events (birthdays, funerals, Christmas) but many of our daily, soul-nurturing rituals have been replaced with more convenient and efficient habits. In a fast-paced world of pre-cooked meals, taking time to prepare a hot cup of tea can be a brief connection with something that nurtures. The ritual of making tea can be needed more than the caffeine or the heat and this was evident in many of the narratives.


“It is so packed with meaning: a sense of comfort and care and a salve to a body unable to help itself” Maria Dowling

The theme of communication is another one that runs through the book. It seems that the offering of tea is a medium through which we can express our love and empathy without having to directly address the emotions at play. The act of serving someone tea  symbolises an offer of help and is universally understood.

The other side of communication is a humorous one. For all that Irish people are an easy-going, laid-back lot, there is extraordinary sensitivity around the timing of the first offer of tea, the pace of the second proposal, the manner of acceptance and the timing of refills. Most of these “rules” are mentioned in the book but the author has the good sense to resist any search for logic!


Put the Kettle On is available from The Collins Press


“Put the Kettle On” is light, enjoyable read that explores our deep attachment to a beverage that is relatively new to the country (~250 years). I enjoyed reading about the social aspects of tea that go beyond the leaf and was surprised how many memories it brought back of my own tea-drinking childhood.

Put the Kettle On – The Irish Love Affair with Tea (Juanita Browne) is available now from The Collins Press


Afternoon tea in the Four Seasons, Dublin

“Although tea for one is certainly a fine thing, the addition of a circle of dear friends to share it with ensures the whole is larger than its parts”


champagneWith this quote in mind, I was delighted to arrange afternoon tea with two of my favourite people a few weeks ago. The pretext was one person moving abroad, the setting was the Lobby Lounge in the Four Seasons, Dublin and the occasion was champagne tea on a Saturday afternoon.

The Four Seasons pride themselves on attention to detail so I wasn’t surprised when they asked if there were any dietary requirements at the time of booking. I was, however, impressed that they remembered the vegetarian request when we arrived. There was a mix-up after that, which involved some very non-vegetarian chicken and salmon but the error was quickly corrected.


tea strainer abstract The highlight for me was infinite tea. It is possible to order as many pots of each type of tea on the menu and fresh tea is offered on a regular basis. This avoids the dilemma of choosing a tea that will go with both sweet and savoury. It also avoids drinking cold tea. Every afternoon tea service should offer this as standard but my experience in other venues is that one tea is included and there is a charge for each additional selection. Unrestricted tea – I was as happy as a clam at high tide but I was also in company so refrained from working my way through the entire menu. In fact, I only ordered two teas: the organic hoji-cha and the rooibos/hibiscus blend.  Most teas on the menu are floral or fruit blends but other teas that caught my eye were a silver needle white tea (Baihao Yinzhen) and an infusion called Ginger Twist that had a long list of ingredients (ginger, orange, lemongrass, mint, apple, ginseng, papaya and liquorice).


strawberries & pastriesThe Lobby Lounge is a bright, spacious rooms with large windows looking out over the courtyard garden and was bustling on that Saturday afternoon. The food is served in two courses. The savoury sandwiches are served first and then followed by the scones, preserves and pastries on the tiered platters. The scones were hot and fresh but the addition of clotted cream instead of regular would have been ideal. The profiteroles and hazelnut/chocolate pastry were also delicious but the chocolate dipped strawberries and raspberries on shortbread stole the show as a perfect, light way to finish the meal.

The champagne afternoon tea is comparatively expensive (€45) but with excellent service, good food, unconstrained tea and good company it makes for a very pleasurable afternoon. Silver teapot

Yerba Mate

gourd bombilla and mateWhen my sister told me she was going to South America, I had two words for her: “yerba mate”. Not only did she bring back a big bag of yerba mate but she also brought back the gourd (vessel) and bombilla (filter tipped metal straw). Happiness :-)

Yerba mate or maté comes from a species of holly called lIex paraguariensis and so it’s a herbal infusion rather than tea. The plant is native to the subtropical regions of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina and is sometimes called “Jesuits’ tea” or “Paraguay tea”. Harvesting of cultivated plants starts at about 5 years and takes place after winter every 2-4 years. Harvesting looks a lot like tree-pruning but only the smaller branches and leaves are kept. After harvesting, the leaves and small stems are heated, dehydrated, cut, sifted and finally packaged.

brewed mate in gourdYerba mate is unusual in that it is a herbal drink but it has the same stimulating effect as tea and coffee due to the presence of mateine (i.e. caffeine). Historically in Europe it was considered a poor substitute for other caffeinated luxury goods such as tea, coffee and chocolate. It is only since the twentieth century that it has been recognised as a unique beverage and marketed as having “the strength of coffee, the health benefits of tea, and the euphoria of chocolate”. For more historical and cultural information, see this paper: “Stimulating Consumption: Yerba Mate Myths, Markets, and Meanings from Conquest to Present“.

As with tea, the flavour of yerba mate is influenced by the soil in which the plant grows but in general, it is light in colour and the taste is a distinctive combination of tree-bark and tobacco. Mate has a high tannin content but it has a lasting flavour that is very pleasant.

To prepare, the gourd is filled with yerba mate until it is three quarters full. After shaking (to ensure the smaller pieces are at the top), the gourd is tilted to one side and the bombilla placed inside. A small amount of warm water is added that is just enough to wet the leaves. The gourd is then filled with hot, not boiling water. The leaves are re-soaked several times by refilling the gourd with water.

Tea tasting on the radio

Last week I received an invitation from Louise Walsh at LMFM to come into their studio and do some tea tasting with presenter, Deirdre Hurly on the radio. It sounded like a great idea but I’ve never done tea tasting on the radio. What could possibly go wrong (apart from drawing a blank on a really obvious question or scalding the presenter with a pot of tea)?

Selecting teas was a challenge though. I didn’t want to start messing with different temperatures so I chose only teas that would need boiling water (i.e. no green or white tea). Myself and a friend spent an afternoon drinking 20 teas and debating the merits of each. We both got jittery from caffeine but decided on one tea and one herbal infusion that the presenter would probably know (earl grey and rooibos) and two teas that she probably wouldn’t (Taiwanese oolong and a pu-ehr).

During the interview I more or less forgot I was on radio, which was great but it also meant that I kept forgetting to describe the various leaves and liquid. Tea tasting involves smell, sight, taste and touch much more so than hearing so I was handing the cups and dried leaves and wet leaves to Deirdre (as I would in a tea tasting) and she described it to the listeners. She was very patient!

I tried to have all the teas brewed beforehand to avoid spillages and calamities but trying to unpack all my equipment and prepare the teas in 80 seconds before the show was a lot of pressure. Next time I’ll brew as I go.

The 20 minute clip (below) can also be downloaded here or the full show from Friday is on the Late Lunch podcast page.

My thanks to Louise Walsh and Deirdre Hurley of the Late Lunch for being so welcoming and fun. No presenters were scalded during the making of this interview ;-).