Honeybush

Honeybush packetI’m a long time fan of rooibos but hadn’t tasted its honey-flavoured relative, honeybush, until I was in South Africa two years ago. Even in South Africa, honeybush is the underdog to rooibos but I happened across this packet from the Langkloof mountain and ended up regretting that I hadn’t bought more. A lot more!

The honeybush plant grows naturally in the mountains of the Eastern Cape and spreads down along the Langeberg and Swartberg mountains into the Western Cape towards the coast as far as Bredasdorp. It comes from the same Fabaceae family as rooibos and is similarly low in tannins and caffeine-free. There are ~24 known species of honeybush in the genus Cyclopia but only a few have been successfully cultivated. As a result, most of our honeybush is harvested in the wild (70%) and the remaining 30% is produced from the 230 hetares of cultivated honeybush. A recent report from the South African Broadcasting Corp. (SABC) warned about this unsustainable harvest putting honeybush at risk of extinction.

Honeybush loose teaIt’s not surprising that demand for honeybush far outweighs supply. Honeybush is consumed worldwide but Germany accounts for over half of the 220 tons of exported Honeybush. Together with the US and the Netherlands these three countries buy nearly 90% of all the Honeybush that leaves SA.

In terms of taste, it is sweet and has less of that distinctive malty rooibos taste, which some people dislike. It is soothing but the bright honeyed flavour makes it less of an after-dinner tea. Because of the natural sweet flavour, I think it works best as an afternoon tea.

To prepare, 250-300ml of freshly boiled water (100° C) is added to 5g of loose leaf tea. I leave it for several minutes for a deeper taste because unlike real tea it doesn’t get bitter when steeped for a long time.

For more information on honeybush there is an good profile report available from the South African Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

 

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.

 

Matcha muffins

When-life-gives-you3

I agree it’s not as catchy as the lemons and lemonade but I’m trying to make the best of a bad situation here (i.e. 100g of bad matcha). These muffins are easy to make and taste great but they are not the bright green I was hoping for. To fit the part for this weekend I’ll try making them again with maybe 3 tbsp of matcha.

This recipe is adapted from a breakfast muffin recipe that a friend gave me but these muffins could not be considered healthy. To gain the benefits of matcha it probably needs to be taken withouth sugar and white flour. ;-)

Matcha muffins:

  • 2 eggsmatcha muffins
  • 100g sugar
  • 100ml rapeseed oil
  • 200ml plain low-fat yoghurt
  • 220g self-raising flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp matcha
  • 1 tsp ginger
  • 100g chopped hazelnut

Whisk eggs, sugar and oil together in a bowl. Then add the yoghurt.

Sift flour, salt, matcha and ginger together and stir into egg mixture.

Add hazelnuts and then spoon into muffin cases.

Bake for 20 minutes at 175°C.

High Mountain Oolong

This is a light Oolong from the Taiwanese mountains. High mountain teas mostly come from central Taiwan and the particular growing environment at high elevation gives these “Gaoshan” teas a distinctly rich sweetness. It is semiball-rolled with the attached stems and was harvested in Spring 2013.

High Mountain Oolong

Preparation: To prepare this tea, I put 4g of the tea in a warmed porcelain teapot. I add a little water at 85 °C (when medium bubbles appear in the water). This water is discarded as a rinse and then I add about 175ml of water and let the leaves unfurl for 30 seconds. The steeping time increases for each subsequent steeping and I find that I can get at least 5 steepings from this tea. The liquor is pale yellow in colour but the sweet floral aroma is magnificent. To taste, this tea is subtle, creamy and gentle and has a long aftertaste. Overall, I think that the price of £9.95 for 50g is worth it for this level of quality.

High Mountain Oolong is available from Postcard teas.

Note: As with all reviews on this site, I purchased this tea and have no affiliation with the sellers or the tea estate.

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.

Matévana herbal tea

MatevanaThere’s been a lot of talk about Teavana over the past year as they became part of Starbucks and then opened the first Teavana tea bar in New York. I’ve never tasted any  tea from this brand so I was delighted when my husband picked some up on a stateside visit.

There were definite grumblings when I saw that Matévana was a flavoured blend and I very nearly gave up altogether when I saw it had artificial flavouring. Look at this for a list of ingredients: Mate, cocoa kernels, red rooibos, chocolate chips (sugar, cocoa mass, cocoa powder), artificial flavouring, almond pieces, marigold petals. There is no real tea in the mix but part of me still wants to complain about the contamination of maté and rooibos, their intermingling, the use of artificial flavouring and the addition of sugar and cocoa mass.

Truth be told though, I surprised myself by liking this tea. The taste of cocoa matches the maté well. I don’t agree that it is dark, rich or robust as its description claims but it does have a smooth sweetness and a gentle flavour of roasted nuts.

Preparation: I used 3g with 200ml of water just below boiling and left it for several minutes. This tea was $6 for a 2oz pack but it looks it’s on sale at the moment on the Teavana site for $1.50 (for 2oz).