Some bitterness

chamomile group shotLast year I wrote about Chamomile and there is no doubt that growing it was easy and very rewarding. I am, however, having a problem with the taste of the infusion. After picking the flowers, I dried them immediately in the hot-press and then transferred them to a jam jar for storage in a dark cupboard. I infuse around five flowers in hot water and leave for two to three minutes but the taste is incredibly bitter, almost to the point of being undrinkable. I’ve tried different brewing techniques: cooler water, less infusion time, fewer flowers but there is no getting away from it!

German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) is said to be a little sharp but less so than Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile). My herb-growing friends say that theirs has an edge but nothing that a little honey can’t solve. I know that I didn’t pick the blossoms on the day that they opened and maybe the drying or storage conditions weren’t ideal but the bitterness seems disproportional to these lapses.

I’ll try to do better this year but in the mean time, I will console myself with the knowledge that herbalists associate bitterness with joy and energy. It is said that some bitter foods in our diet can support healthy digestion by stimulating saliva and other enzymes, promoting bile production for the digestion of fat and regulating blood sugar levels.

Jim McDonald goes into some detail in a chapter called “Blessed Bitters” (download pdf) and concludes by saying:

We avoid bitterness because its taste seems uncomfortable; it challenges us. And yet when embraced, we find what it offers us is an abundance of medicine, which allows us to escape from a state of stagnation and release those things, both physiological and emotional, that hinder the blossoming of our wellness.”

I will continue to drink my challenging chamomile and await freedom from stagnation ;-)

chamomile up close

Moleskine Tea Journal

Moleskine Tea Journal C

Moleskine Tea Journal (Source)

Not only is my tea fixation well-tolerated around here, sometimes it is actively encouraged. Last week I received a gift of this lovely Moleskine Tea Journal. This is just one of the Themed Notebooks which also includes journals for coffee, gardening, cats, beer etc.

With a hardback black cover and high quality paper, the look and feel of the journal is tasteful and elegant. It starts off with a basic explanation of tea processing, grading and types of tea. Anyone interested enough to buy a tea journal won’t learn anything new but it does include an interesting fold out tea-timeline. Then there are a few pages for a wish list before it gets into the Tastings section. The tea tasting is well thought-out with a vocabulary listing first and then blank tasting templates. The templates are fairly complete and although they are laid out with just one steeping in mind, there is probably enough room for notes on 2/3 steepings, if you have small writing. Sadly there are less than 40 templates for tea tasting before it moves on to a section called Teatime.

Tastings Section - Tea Journal

Tasting Section (Source)

Teatime starts off with instructions on how to make tea and then has some pages on tea etiquette. The templates that follow are peculiar. They seem to be about the preparation of tea (water temperature, steeping time, preparation notes) but there is no room for tasting notes. I’m not too sure how I’ll use these. They are followed by over 40 recipe templates and I would happily swap 39 of these for tasting templates if I could. To be fair, it is possible to download and print extra blank templates for each section but loose pages and pasting would start to get messy.

The next section is Places, for reminders about tea-rooms and cafés and then a section for Websites of note. The last section then is called My Collection for listing when and where teas were bought. There are some blank pages in the back and then a pouch with stickers on the back cover, which are a bit gimmicky.

Overall this is a lovely present for a tea enthusiast and it was very well received last week. My only suggestion for improvement would be to cut out the Teatime section and to have far more of the Tasting templates. Another, more personal problem, is the feeling that I’m going to ruin its sophistication with my scrawly hand-writing.

Sick Scoby

I’ve got a sick SCOBY on my hands. Things had been going well with the Kombucha brewing (see part I and part II of the experiment). I generally start off each batch and then forget about it until I get a reminder on my phone telling me that it should be nearly ready. Unfortunately, when I checked on the last batch, I found a sick SCOBY.

Scoby with grey edgeThis is definitely not mould but the SCOBY has a grey colour along the edges that doesn’t look good. There has always been brown stringy substances floating in the container and attached to the SCOBY. These are not a problem – it is just a by-product of the yeast culture. This greyness is different though and seems to be changing the colour of the SCOBY itself. The Kombucha from this batch is very cloudy and doesn’t taste good so I’m throwing it out.

From reading, it seems that the grey colour could be a sign that the SCOBY is worn out but apparently SCOBY exhaustion doesn’t happen very often and wearing out a SCOBY should take a long time. I suspect emotional contagion might be at play!

Sick scoby - side viewAnother (more realistic) possibility is that something contaminated my brew. I notice that the covering cloth is now discoloured so I think that maybe the SCOBY tried to climb out of the jar (yes it happens when there is too much CO2). If this was the case then the SCOBY would have been touching the cloth for some time and this might have caused the problem.

In any case, this is all part of the fun of home-brewing. There was a second SCOBY that had detached from the others and was sitting at the bottom of the jar. It doesn’t have any signs of greyness so I’ve added it to a new jar of tea. I didn’t think it was safe to use the Kombucha from the grey batch but had some left over from a previous batch so I used it instead. Now I just have to wait. Fingers crossed for no more exhausted SCOBYs.

If you are running into any Kombucha problems, I recommend these websites for troubleshooting:

 

The Tea Trail

After reading my post about how I missed “The Tea Trail”, the BBC very kindly broadcasted a repeat! The programme looked at tea production in East Africa. Although tea was only introduced to Kenya in 1903, it is now third in the world in terms of production. The vast majority of Kenya’s tea is manufactured into CTC tea and most supermarket tea here and in the UK would use Kenyan teas in their blends. It wasn’t surprising then that this documentary focussed exclusively on East African CTC black teas.

BBC The Tea Trail

Image Source: BBC (link)

Reeve starts off in Mombasa where tea from 9 East African countries is sold at auction. From there he goes east to the central province near Nairobi through the Great Rift Valley to Kericho and on to Toro in Uganda.

Mostly looking at the social aspects of tea-growing, the documentary touched on the brutalities of colonisation, Kenya’s independence in 1963 and the current difficulties with tea production. Those difficulties include transport problems, poverty, prostitution, bandits, HIV, unemployment, working conditions, climate change and child labour. It sounds pretty grim and it was. There was no clear conclusion about what we as consumers should do in this over-commoditised situation. It seemed that supporting trans-national corporations would preserve the current work-practices but abandoning them would inflict even more poverty on the 5 million Kenyans that are employed in the tea industry. Fairtrade is offered as a possible hopeful route for Kenya and Uganda with the example of a school at Mabale Tea Factory.

But 90% of UK tea is not Fairtrade and when I hear now that the price of tea at the Mombasa auction dropped to a five-year low in December 2013 (a drop of 30% since July), it makes me worry about the knock-on effect to those involved as workers in the tea industry.