Flasks

There is probably no nicer cup of tea than the one that comes after a 10 mile hike. Over the next few weeks we plan to visit lots of national parks in the US so I thought it was high time to replace our current model which has been nicknamed the “radiator” because of the way it makes everything inside our rucksack nice and toasty!

Of course the most important flask feature was how well it keeps the heat but the other criteria were lightweight, with a capacity of at least 1.2l and a simple cap system that is easy to keep clean.

I looked at lots of reviews online but the gadget show has a good review video that involves measuring the temperature after the flask is left out in the cold for overnight (video here).

Thermos King Flask 1.2L

Thermos King Flask 1.2L (Source)

From their top 5, I like the look of the Thermos Everyday 100 but didn’t like the stopper system. The Thermos Floating flask would be good for sailing, fishing etc but I didn’t like the plastic outside. I really like the Stanley bolt couldn’t find it online to buy.  Their top choice, the Aladdin Challenger looked perfect with its double cup system but it only had a 1L capacity which, for two people, for a full day’s walking seems a little small.

After reading plenty of good reviews, I finally settled on the Thermos King 1.2L and snapped it up when it was on sale on Amazon for £15. So far it has been excellent and my only (very minor) quibble is the that the loose handle on the side is all metal and clangs against the side of the flask (also metal) everytime I touch it. It seems to retain the heat really well but a proper hike will be a better test than sitting on my desk! I’ll be back with a flask and travel report in 3 weeks!

 

 

Tea Makers

I’ve been struggling for a while to make up my mind if I like the idea of electric tea makers (such as the Sage by Heston Blumenthal) or not. On the pro side, tea makers are usually designed around temperature and steep-times and so promote the importance of these factors (which are overlooked by so many). On the other side, I believe that preparing tea is more than just the end result and that the process of making it is part of its lure. This lure is diminished by a machine that does it all for me.

As an analogy, I have a bread-maker that is timed to rest, knead, rise and bake bread throughout the night. I love that it sends the aroma of fresh baked bread through the house in the morning but as with the tea-maker, you could say that I’m missing out on all the fun by using a bread-maker. That argument doesn’t fly with me because I find no joy in kneading and punching and waiting. For me bread-making is all about the end result and in contrast to tea-making, the more the machine can do the happier I am.

So for anyone considering buying a tea-maker I think the key question is; are they interested only in the end result or do they like the ritual of making tea. Mrs Doyle explains this concept better than me:

 

The Art of Tea

The Art of Tea collectionNormally, I’m all about quality of product rather than appearances but every so often that gets turned on its head. Take this set called “The Art of Tea” which was bought in South Africa. I’ve been reluctant to actually use any of the product inside but the primary motivation for buying this set was the attractive packaging.

Having said that tea degrades over time. Even though I didn’t buy it for the tea, it makes no sense to search high and low for the freshest first flush Darjeeling with the quickest shipping time and yet keep all of these (including one Darjeeling!) for over two years. It’s getting opened today, starting with the rooibos.

 Here’s what’s inside:AofT collection

  • Kenya Malaika (black)
  • Darjeeling (Indian black)
  • Genmaicha (Japanese green)
  • Jade Mountain (Chinese green)
  • Snow buds (Chinese white)
  • Jasmine pearls (Chinese flavoured green)
  • Earl Grey (Indian flavoured black)
  • Sakura (Chinese flavoured green)
  • Chai (flavoured black)
  • Sweet dreams (herbal)
  • Rooibos vanilla
  • Forest berries (fruit infusion)

It can be difficult to get tea gifts that are well packaged but this one certainly stands out. I think I paid around 200 ZAR (around €20 at the time) for the box. Good value considering anything similar that I’ve seen here costs double that.

Painting with tea (and coffee)

Using tea to create works of art is not a new concept but Gerard Tonti’s work with tea and coffee is extraordinary.

 

The painting below used espresso, rooibos, butterfly pea tea, matcha and chrysanthemum tea. More of his paintings can be seen on the Almart website.

MorningCup - Gerard Tonti

Gerard Tonti Tea Art [Image Source – Almart Fine Art Publishing]

Book Review: Teatime for the Firefly

Teatime Book CoverTeatime for the Firefly is a debut novel from Shona Patel that was published last year by Harlequin. It is set in 1940’s Assam and described as historical fiction. The author stresses that while the book contains actual historical facts and references to real places that it is purely a work of fiction.

Layla, the main character, witnessed her mother’s suicide as a young child and describes herself as “astrologically doomed and fated never to marry”. She lives with her grandfather, who is a retired district judge and is brought up with a liberal education. The first half of the book is set in a traditional village where the Layla contends with the local traditions and expectations. The second half of the book is based on her life after she moves to the Assamese tea gardens. In this setting traditional Indian customs are replaced with the unique rules and customs of the tea-plantations. Throughout the book we get glimpses of Indian life after the Second World War, the effect of British colonialism,  Hindu-Muslim tension and of course, day-to-day life in the tea plantations.

It’s a fascinating read but it’s also an enjoyable story. The author credits a number of other books and websites for vivid backdrops that she created. These have been added to my reading-list and I hope they are as enjoyable as “Teatime for the Firefly”.

Here is the book’s official description:

Layla Roy has defied the fates.

Despite being born under an inauspicious horoscope, she is raised to be educated and independent by her eccentric grandfather, Dadamoshai. And, by cleverly manipulating the hand fortune has dealt her, she has even found love with Manik Deb—a man betrothed to another. All were minor miracles in India that spring of 1943, when young women’s lives were predetermined—if not by the stars, then by centuries of family tradition and social order.

Layla’s life as a newly married woman takes her away from home and into the jungles of Assam, where the world’s finest tea thrives on plantations run by native labor and British efficiency. Fascinated by this culture of whiskey-soaked expats who seem fazed by neither earthquakes nor man-eating leopards, she struggles to find her place among the prickly English wives with whom she is expected to socialize, and the peculiar servants she now finds under her charge.

But navigating the tea-garden set will hardly be her biggest challenge. Layla’s remote home is not safe from the powerful changes sweeping India on the heels of the Second World War. Their colonial society is at a tipping point, and Layla and Manik find themselves caught in a perilous racial divide that threatens their very lives.

 

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.

Morphy Richards Brita Filter Kettle

Last year I wrote a fairly lengthy article on the different types of water. I concluded that the optimum water for tea-making had a neutral pH6-8, no chlorine and had total dissolved solids (TDS) of ~100mg/L. Distilled water is too flat for tea because it has no minerals at all but spring water tends to have a high TDS which isn’t good either.

water-hardness mapThe main issue that I have with our own tap water is the smell of chlorine and the scale that it leaves on the inside of kettles and clay teapots. As an alternative, the best I found was Tesco Ashbeck Mineral Water. It has a TDS of 80mg/L and a pH of 6.2 and is not bad value at €1.36 for 5 litres. But bottled water does have environmental concerns and it seems very wasteful to buy a large plastic container of water every week when I have safe water at home.

Enter the Morphy Richards Brita kettle (bought on Amazon for £20). This is an integrated filter-kettle so the water goes through the Brita filter before it is boiled. Brita filters only partially remove minerals from the water. Ion exchange resins are used to reduce the concentration of calcium bicarbonate and magnesium bicarbonate (temporary hardness) and carbon is used to reduce chlorine. Permanent hardness, in the form of chlorides and sulphates of calcium and magnesium is not removed.

Kettles Morphy and PhilipsIt’s a bit chunkier than other 1.6L kettles and takes longer to fill (the filter part only takes 0.5L at a time). It can obviously act just as a water filter so I regularly use it with a glass kettle (like the Breville) to judge the temperature better. When I use it to boil water, I notice that it stays at a rolling boil for a long time before cutting out. Overall though, it works well and I only notice limescale starting to appear towards the end of week three. I filter about 3-4L of water per day with it so with the filters costing about €3.25 each, it works out at ~5c per litre of water (excluding the imminent controversial water charges!).

Yixing stoneware

I mentioned Yixing in this post on ceramics but these stoneware teapots warrant their own post. Yixing teapots (zisha) are unglazed porous stoneware teapots made from clay that comes from the region of Yixing in Southern China. The Yixing clay has a very unique, iron-rich composition and the resultant stoneware is durable and a good insulator. More importantly, Yixing clay absorbs the flavour of its contents and over time develops a lining of tea deposits that enriches the flavour of tea.  Over years of use, the teapot changes in colour and flavour and these teapots are valued because of the fine teas they have brewed. Each Yixing teapot can only be used for one type of tea and it needs to be seasoned before it is used to clean it and to remove any firing/baking smells.

Yixing teapot

Yixing teapots date back to the 11th century but became popular in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) when tea leaves instead of powder become popular. Today they are mostly used for pu-ehr and oolong tea and there is no doubt that tea from these teapots is noticeably richer and more interesting. Making pu-ehr in a Yixing teapot is a little bit like serving white wine (or champagne ;-) ). Of course you can serve white wine warm in a plastic cup but if you have spent good money on a nice bottle, you will want to put in an effort to chill it and serve it in a proper wine glass to bring out the flavour.

 

Judging the authenticity of a Yixing teapot can be difficult. For this reason, I tend not to buy expensive Yixing (especially online). The tell-tale signs of real Yixing are solid dull colour but with sparkling flecks throughout. It has a rough surface (not smooth or shiny) and the inside should smell of earth rather than chemicals.

 

There are a huge variety of shapes and sizes but generally speaking they fit into three categories.

  1. Geometric forms – this is the most popular category and cubes and spheres are the most popular geometric forms
  2. Natural – these teapots incorporate elements of nature either by sculpting the teapot based on a natural element or by decoration
  3. Striated – usually the body resembles a flower by building symmetrical segments (petals) into a unit

Decoration (if used) usually takes the form of engraving, inlaying or slip painting.

The price depends on the quality of the clay (zisha or mixed), manufacturing (handmade or moulded), age, size and shape. It will range from €20 for a basic moulded teapot to hundreds of thousands for antique artisan teapots.

The video below shows Chinese yixing artist, Zhou Guizhen, creating a teapot:

 

 

Review of the Breville Puratea VKJ436*

Coming home after time away is always a mixed bag of emotions. I’m happy to be back by the sea, glad to return to our weekend breakfast ritual, eager to see what weeds are thriving in the allotment and relieved to have a decent cup of pu-ehr. At the same time I’m usually sad that the break is over and right now coming home for me means figuring out career changes and deciding on next steps.

I have a few tricks up my sleeve to cheer myself up. Booking the next holiday usually works ;-) but so does new tea or new tea accessories. This time I had the Breville tea maker kettle waiting for me.

In short, this is a cordless kettle that has a removable carriage to hold loose leaf tea so it doubles as a kettle and a teapot. The tea is placed in a central tea carriage inside the kettle but the tea is suspended above the water while it is heating. Once the water is hot enough, turning the tea carriage knob, lowers the tea into the water. After brewing, the leaves can be separated from the water by raising the tea carriage again. They say that you can use a tea bag instead of loose tea in the tea carriage but what would be the point of that?! There are four pre-set temperature settings: low, medium, high and boil. There is also a keep warm feature that keeps the tea at 75°C for one hour. It automatically switches off after one hour but can be manually reset if you want to keep it warm for longer. The glass kettle means you can visually assess the strength of the tea and it looks good with the brushed steel base. Unfortunately the tea carriage is made from plastic instead of glass and this takes a little from the look and feel.

 

Reviews that I found online complained about the maximum capacity of 1 litre. I understand this complaint if it is being used just as a kettle (it comes with a lid that can replace the inner tea carriage) but this is a tea maker and the standard kettle size of 1.7 litres would just be ridiculous. If anything, the minimum quantity of 500ml is too much. 500ml is fine for teas that only need a single-steeping but for teas that are steeped three or four times, you are talking quantities that are not practical for one person. Last night I made rooibos which is good for single-steeping so after the water had boiled and the carriage was lowered, I just left it lowered in the water and used the keep warm function and went back for top ups throughout the evening. Perfect.

 

A small issue I found is that it is not designed for rinsing the leaves. The first steeping of tea should really be a rapid steeping and the liquid discarded and not drank. Lowering the leaves into the water means that you would need to discard the contents of the first kettle and start all over again with a second kettle of water. You could get around this by briefly rinsing the leaves before brewing in the tea maker but that gets fiddly and so far has involved me removing the carriage and using a second kettle of boiling water for the rinse.

 

I found that lowering the tea into water is not quite the same as pouring water on tea. The dry leaf tends to sit on top of the water for a little while before it starts to sink. This just means that a longer infusion time is needed and I’m still experimenting with what works well for timings. On that note, while I like the sleek and simple design, it is a shame that there isn’t a simple timer on it to allow the steepings to be timed.

In terms of speed, it took just under 3 minutes to bring 1 litre of water to boil, which is about the same as the Philips kettle that I use. For some reason the cord is much shorter (~40cm) than the standard kettle cord. It doesn’t bother me at all but some people seem to be annoyed by it.

The bottom line is that I really like the design and I think it works well without being overly complicated. I can see myself using it for herbal infusions more than real tea. If I could change one thing, I would make the tea carriage glass instead of plastic but at £29 (approx. €34), I consider this tea maker a steal and it cheered me up no-end while I was plotting my next holiday.

 

* Note: this is NOT a sponsored post or a paid review. Just some of my thoughts on a recent purchase.

Ceramics

Bone Ash

Ingredients for Bone China (Source)

Someone told me during the week that some vegetarians and vegans don’t use bone china teacups. I wasn’t aware of this but it made for some interesting reading about the differences between bone china, porcelain and stoneware. I found out that bone china is made from a translucent white ceramic clay but it is set apart from fine china by containing a minimum of 25% bone ash. The animal bones are burned and ground before it is added to the clay. Bone China tends to be slightly translucent in nature. It is easier to manufacture than fine china, is strong, does not chip easily, and has an ivory-white appearance.

Porcelain - Sue Paraskeva

Porcelain Sue Paraskeva (Source)

Porcelain is a type of ceramic that is made from kaolin clay. It is also referred to as china or fine china. Kaolin is white clay that retains its white color when fired. It is usually covered with a clear glaze. Porcelain becomes vitrified (glass-like) during the second firing of a two-fire process at temperatures of over 1,300 degrees Celsius. It is considered “vitrified” if it absorbs less than 0.2 percent of its own weight. Porcelain tends to be finer quality than stoneware.

Yixing Clay Teapot

Yixing teapot (Source)

Stoneware is also a type of ceramic but differs in color and also in the way it is fired. Porcelain is fired twice but stoneware is vitrified during a single firing and the temperature is a little lower than used for Porcelain. The finish is warmer in color than Porcelain. An easy way to tell porcelain from stoneware is to look at the bottom rim, porcelain will be white whereas stoneware will be a natural color with a colored glaze on top. Yixing teapots (the famous unglazed porous teapots) are a type of stoneware that is made from clay from the region of Yixing in Southern China.

Finally, earthenware, again a type of ceramic, is made from white porous clay that is fired at a low temperature. It cannot hold water and is more chalky and easier to chip than stoneware. Terracotta is a type of earthenware. It is usually more suited to decorative use rather than household use.