Tea with food

food and teaThere will be plenty of eating going on over the next week or two and there are bound to be a few times when wine will need a substitute. Here are some of the basic guidlines on combining tea with food.

As a general rule, green tea is the savoury tea. Salt will bring out its flavour and crispness while sweet foods will bring out the astringency and bitterness. So vegetal green teas will go well with prawns, anchovies, other seafood and olives. It is better with light meats and snacks rather than greasy foods. Light salty crackers like water biscuits work well and especially crackers with thyme. Light rice-based dishes are also complemented by green tea.

Strong black tea (from Africa, India and Sri Lanka) goes very well with red meat and spicy dishes (especially peppers) but goes equally well with rich creamy deserts, cream cheeses, dark chocolate and nuts such as pecans. Tea with desert is quite common and black tea is ideal for deserts such as rich chocolate cake or pecan pie.

It seems a shame to eat food with oolong but if you must then lighter oolongs go well with seafood, salty crackers and walnuts. Salty crackers with rosemary go particularly well. Similar to green tea, lighter oolongs do not combine will with heavy foods that contain butter and fat. Dark roasted oolongs go well with rosemary, honey, pecan, almonds and cashew nuts.

In my opinion pu-ehr should not be drank with food but shou pu-ehr is very soothing after a heavy meal.

White tea doesn’t blend well with food but I’ve heard it can be used as a palate cleanser between courses instead of sorbet (I’ve never tried this).

For the tisanes, rooibos and honeybush have a natural hint of sweetness so they go well with pastries and chocolate. Christmas rooibos usually has cinnamon, spices and orange that complement fruit cake, pudding and mince pies.

Finally, fennel, peppermint, ginger and anise are all excellent for aiding digestion. Anise is sweet and spicy and calming for digestion at night time while fennel is particularly good after a heavy meals and for helping with heartburn. Fennel and ginger are also excellent for nausea.

Stale tea

Last weekend we spring-cleaned the kitchen (we are late for 2013 spring cleaning not early for 2014!). In the process, I found some very old matcha, which makes for an interesting comparison with the fresh matcha that I bought last week.

Matcha - Fresh and StaleHere are the photos. You can see that the fresh matcha is striking bright green but the old one is a dull, grey-green. Tea doesn’t spoil with time but it does loose its flavour and colour especially if exposed to air. Matcha is one of the brisker tea on the fading process. Ideally it should be used within a few weeks of opening but keeping it in an airtight container in the fridge can extend this a little. I’m ashamed to say that the old matcha was not in an airtight container, not in the fridge and has probably been on the shelf for well over a year. In other words, a perfect storm of matcha degradation!

 

The old matcha still has a strong vegetal aroma but it doesn’t form the nice froth and the taste is unpleasant and slightly sour.

Brewed Matcha - Fresh and Stale

Not all the examples of stale tea are as obvious as matcha and of course it varies with vacuum sealing, conditions etc. but here are the general rules that I use:  greens: within 4/5 months (of the harvest date), light oolongs and early Darjeeling: within 6/7 months, black tea (apart from Darjeeling) within 12-18 months, pu-ehr and heavily roasted oolongs: whenever they’re ready – both improve with age.

For the teas that don’t age, I have a terrible habit of not drinking them quickly enough. When I find a tea that I love, I sometimes wait until I can make enough time to really enjoy it, or the right occasion, or someone to share it with. Some fine teas have been lost in this way and the matcha was a good reminder. From now on, I am going to be dedicated in keeping my tea list updated with the date of purchase/harvest. That might sound nerdy but it’s nothing compared to the plans I have for rules in excel and automatic colour coding depending on the best time to drink ;-).

The Kombucha experiment – Part I

As usual, I’m a couple of years behind the trend. Kombucha is a drink that was extremely fashionable a few years ago but it still has a solid following. It is a tea drink that is made by fermenting sweetened black tea with a culture of yeasts and bacteria. It is also known as Tea Kvass (Russia), Hongchajun (China) and Kocha Kinoko (Japan). Confusingly, in Japan, Kombucha refers to seaweed that is powdered to produce kelp-tea. The two “kombucha” are very different.

Many websites talk about  probiotics and the detoxification and immune boosting properties of Kombucha (see notes on health at the end of article) but it also happens to be a very tasty drink that is naturally carbonated.

DBKB KombuchaWe are lucky in Dublin to have a local, organic, non-flavoured, Kombucha “brewery”. This is a very convenient option especially if you are short on time but I’ve never been one to take the easy route so I decided to experiment and try brewing my own.

A SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) is needed to prepare Kombucha.  The SCOBY is sometimes called a mushroom but it’s just a colony of bacteria and yeast – no fungus. I’ve looked at lots of websites with instructions on how to brew Kombucha and almost all of them say that you start with a SCOBY. I was having some trouble locating a SCOBY but then I came across an article that said you could grow your own SCOBY so I decided to try that. I don’t know how this is going to turn out- we have to wait for two weeks to see if it works or not but here were my steps for preparation.

Kombucha IngredientsI brewed 500ml of tea. I would have preferred to use an organic black tea but I had none so I used a regular Panyong Golden Needle. I left it to steep for 10 mins and then removed the tea leaves, added 1 tsp. of sugar and allowed it to cool for 30 mins. I have since read that heat can be very destructive to the whole scoby-growing process and at 30 minutes it was still warm so this could be a problem. Leaving it for an hour would be a safer bet.

After 30 minutes I added 330ml of raw Kombucha (I used DBKB).   After adding the Kombucha I covered the bowl with a tea towel and put it in a warm dry place. I used a glass bowl because apparantly the acidity of the tea can cause it to absorb harmful elements from containers that are painted, ceramic etc (there has been two reported incidences of lead poisoning where Kombucha tea was brewed in a ceramic pot).

And now I have to wait for 2-3 weeks….

Health Note: Since the early 19th century, Kombucha tea has been promoted as an immunity-boosting tea that can strengthen the body and prevent many ailments. There is no solid scientific evidence to support the health claims of Kombucha tea.  In addition, there are potential health risks from Kombucha (source) but these equally, are not backed by solid scientific research. Because of the potential health risks, people with an immune deficiency or any other medical condition should seek medical advice before drinking the tea. Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should not use this tea.

Matcha

Matcha (or maccha) is a uniquely Japanese tea that comes as a finely ground powder. It is a green tea, but unlike most teas where the liquid is poured off the leaves, with matcha the powder is whisked into the liquid and ingested whole.

Matcha and chasen (bamboo whisk)

Matcha is made from the tips of budding tea-bushes that have been shaded with bamboo mats (or black tarp) for approximately three weeks of their spring growth. Less sunlight means less photosynthesis, which is how the plant generates energy and grows. Under the shade, the tea plants spread out and become thin and tender. They compensate for the lack of sunlight by increasing the amount of chlorophyll. Chorloryphyll is a pigment that absorbs red and blue light but reflects green (hence the green colour) so increasing the chlorophyll gives the leaves a bright green colour. After picking, the leaves are steamed, air dried and the main part of the leaf are separated from the stems and veins to produce tencha. The tencha is then ground using granite wheels to make the bright green, fine, matcha powder.

The video from o-cha.com shows the covering of the tea plants with bamboo and straw, the shaded hand-plucking and then the processing that takes place afterwards to make both gyokuro and matcha.

Matcha generally comes in three grades. The highest grade is Koicha (thick tea) and this is used in Japanese tea ceremonies to make a dense, viscous tea. Usucha (thin tea) is the second grade and it is used in Japanese tea ceremonies to make a more diluted thin tea with frothy foam. Finally, cooking matcha is used as an ingredient to make food like matcha ice-cream, cakes etc.

Matcha has the reputation of going stale quickly so if you are making the investment (matcha is a comparatively expensive green tea), it is worthwhile paying a little extra for a good quality matcha that is fresh. Matcha is not something that I will always have in the house. I’ll generally buy about 35g and then drink it every day until it’s gone (known in my house as the matcha-spree!).

To prepare matcha you will need a bamboo tea whisk (chasen). It is also helpful to have a tea bowl (chawan) and a tea ladel (chashaku) but these can be substituted with a flat bottomed bowl and a teaspoon. The bowl is pre-heated, then dried and about 2g of matcha powder is added with the ladel. Some people sieve the matcha to break the small lumps but I just break them up with the tip of the whisk. Water at approx 80°C is added and then the mixture is whisked until smooth with a back and forth motion (like writing a “W”) rather than a circular motion. The matcha is suspended in the hot water during whisking (not dissolved) which means that matcha particles will settle to the bottom of the bowl if it is left to stand so enjoy immediately.

I bought my current batch of matcha (Ishikawa Matcha) in Postcard Teas, London and it cost £20 for a 40g refill pack.

Masala Chai

Spices for Masala ChaiMasala Chai is spiced and sweetened milk tea. It is mostly associated with India but until the 1900s the spicy mix generally did not contain black tea. In India it is available at every market all year round but for me Chai is a seasonal drink that starts in late October and continues through winter. Its spicy malty heat is perfect for cold winter days.
There are several ways to brew chai – milk only, milk and water, ground spices, whole spices etc. The list of spices varies greatly but black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves seem to always form the foundation. Below is the recipe that I use with some of the health benefits of the spices. This is customised to my own preference for spiciness/sweetness – experimentation is needed to make your own version of Masala Chai.

Masala Chai

  • ½ cinnamon stick [warms the body and enhances digestion, especially the metabolism of fats]
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 7 whole cardamom pods bruised with pestle and mortar [stimulates digestion]
  • 7 whole cloves [antiseptic and anti-parasitic properties and digestive aid]
  • 7 thin slices of fresh ginger [colon cleansing, stimulates circulation, protects the liver and stomach]
  • 10 black peppercorns, ground
  • ½ tsp. grated nutmeg
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tbsp. honey [natural antiseptic, promotes energy and healing]
  • 1 tbsp. assam (or other strong black tea)
  • 1 cup low-fat milk

Put spices and water into a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside for a further 5-10 minutes. Add honey and return to the heat again to bring to a boil.

Add tea leaves, remove from heat and set aside for 3 to 5 minutes. Strain through a sieve and then add milk. Heat the full mixture over low heat then serve immediately and enjoy!

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

Image Source

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

 

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

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 ;-).

7 types of Earl Grey

Earl Grey is a black tea that is flavoured with oil from the rind of bergamot orange, a fruit grown in Italy, France and South East Asia. Variations on the traditional blend include Lady Grey (a blend of earl grey with blue cornflower blossoms), Russian Earl Grey (Earl Grey with pieces of citrus peel and lemongrass) and Red Earl Grey (rooibos and bergamot).

Charles Grey - 2nd Earl Grey

Charles Grey – 2nd Earl Grey (Source)

Responsible for the name of the tea is Charles Grey. Charles was an English aristocrat who was educated in Eton and Cambridge and elected to Parliament at the age of 22. He married Mary Elizabeth Ponsonby (daughter of Baron Ponsonby of Imokilly, Co. Cork) and had six daughter and ten sons. Before he was married he had an illegitimate daughter with the Duchess of Devonshire, which is the subject of the movie “The Duchess”. He was prime minister of England from November 1830 to July 1834 and inherited the title of Earl from his father. Charles Grey was noted for advocating Parliamentary reform and Catholic Emancipation. Two of his most notable reforms were the Reform Act of 1832 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 but interestingly the monopoly of the East India Company in Britain’s trade with China ended while he was prime minister.

 

1928 Advertisement for Earl Grey

1928 Advertisement for Earl Grey (Source)

How he became associated with the tea is unclear. There are stories of good deeds in China that resulted in the recipe for the tea coming to his ownership. Another version tells how the blend was created by accident when a gift of tea and bergamot oranges were shipped together from diplomats in China and the fruit flavour was absorbed by the tea during shipping. Yet another version of the story involves a Chinese mandarin friend of the Earl blending this tea to offset the taste of limescale in the water at his home (at Howick Hall). In reality, it is not absolutely clear why the tea was named after Charles. However, the tea was served by the Greys when they hosted gatherings and Jackson’s of Piccadilly say that they introduced the blend in 1836 to “meet the wishes of a former Earl Grey”.

As a person who claims to not like flavoured tea, I currently have seven different varieties of Earl Grey on my shelf. Last Saturday I brewed all seven to compare and contrast. Among them were four loose leaf teas, one whole-leaf tea bag and two CTC tea bags. Historically, Earl Grey has a reputation for involving low quality teas that are masked by the bergamot  but each of these was absolutely drinkable and most of them were very pleasant. Going through the distinctions of each would get tedious so I’ve shortlisted the best of the crop.

3 of the 7 earl greys

The nicest tea was a blend of Chinese black tea from Tea Palace. It was a beautiful earthy tea that was balanced with a gentle bergamot flavour. Second place went to a blend from Damman Frères. The presence of blue cornflower blossoms and sunflower petals means that technically this is a Lady Grey but it was sold as Earl Grey so we included it. The Chinese black tea in this blend stood up well with the bright citrus flavour and again gave a harmonious flavour. Of the two CTC teabags, the Marks and Spencer brand was the more interesting of the two. It used a Sri Lankan black tea that gave their blend a rich, powerful base.

The most interesting conclusion from tasting all these teas is that aroma of the loose leaf gives very little indication of the taste. The strong perfume smell of the Dammann Frères was off-putting but that overpowering fragrance did not translate to the taste. Similarly, one of the teas was an earl grey lavender and the aroma was distinctly soap-like. But again, that soapiness did not translate to taste.

Some notes on preparing earl grey tea: Freshly boiled water should be used. A steep time of 1.5 minutes is good for the loose leaf teas (3g tea and 150 ml water). The CTC tea bags steep in 40 – 45 seconds (200 ml water). All the teas were drank black.

Too much tea

Tea is a natural source of fluoride and at moderate levels is regarded as good for teeth. This article from the New England Journal of Medicine describes a 47-year-old woman who used 100 to 150 tea bags every day for over 17 years. The woman was ingesting ~20mg of fluoride every day which resulted in complete tooth loss and bones that were seven times denser than normal. Aside from tooth-loss, the fluorosis led to severe brittle bones and pain.

Everything in moderation….

Common Questions

My friends and family know that I like tea but the extent of that affection becomes apparent when they come to my home. At first, there are usually a few side glances which I assume are furtive searches for other signs of hoarding (hundreds of cats etc.). When their worries around pathological collecting subside, guests usually start to get curious and ask questions. I love this part so I thought it might be fun to put some of the most common questions together:

 

What tea would you recommend to someone who only drinks ordinary tea bags?

3 teas line-upWithout a doubt, this is the most common question. The answer to this question depends on what you mean by “ordinary tea bag” but here in Ireland it means blended CTC black tea. I like to think I can match people with tea (like Vianne in the book Chocolat!!) but don’t want to be too dictatorial about it so I let people smell different types of tea while I secretly guess what they will choose. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I don’t (when I get it wrong the explanation is that smelling dry leaf isn’t a good way to choose tea).

 

 

What is your favourite tea?

My choice of tea changes with the season, the weather and my mood (all very variable). Some teas are seasonal for me: Rooibos with orange and cardamom (Christmas), Chai (Autumn), Darjeeling (late Spring). Throughout the year, my every-day tea is ripe pu-ehr (shou). This is closely followed by dark oolongs. For tisanes, the number one slot goes to rooibos with chamomile and mint probably tying for second.

 

Does tea really have less caffeine than coffee?

Vital TeaI wrote a full article on caffeine content but the short story is that instant coffee, Chinese white tea and loose leaf Assam are all comparable in terms of caffeine. Indian green and Darjeeling black have a little less. Tea doesn’t give a jittery affect because of the L-theanine that it contains. The affect of tea is alert calmness rather than edgy agitation. Having said that, alert calmness does not translate to restful sleep for me so I drink all my tea in the morning and switch to herbal tisanes (zero caffeine) in the afternoon and evening.

 

Why is green tea so bitter? How can I make it taste better?

Green tea is bitter when it is oversteeped. This is a common mistake for Irish people (see article on steeping). They love strong black tea and get into the habit of steeping tea for long periods of time in boiling water. That doesn’t work for green tea. Loose leaf needs a gentler temperature (80°C) and a steeping time of just 1-2 minutes if made in a teapot (less for a cup).

Sometimes people are tempted to sweeten over-steeped green tea in the hope of cutting that bitterness. Adding sugar to green tea will make it taste even more bitter. Green tea is best taken with salty food to bring out the floral sweetness. An interesting experiment is to eat a pinch of sugar before drinking green tea and notice the taste of the tea. Then do the same with a pinch of salt instead. The difference in taste is incredible.

 

Do your teas not go off? Is there a best before date for tea?

Bancha Close-upUnder proper storage, most tea can stay fresh for about a year. Black tea and darker oolongs last longer than green or white.  Pu-ehr is the exception and in the correct conditions (temperature, humidity, air flow etc.) can be aged to improve the flavour. My travelling teapot friend wrote an excellent article on expired tea.

In order to keep tea fresh, it needs to be stored in an environment that is protected from strong smells, light moisture, air and heat. For this reason teas that are kept in a kitchen will deteriorate quickly. I have open tea shelves in my kitchen but luckily there’s a high turnover 😉

 

I’ll try to remember some of the other questions for future posts or if readers have any questions…