Tea Talk Column
Tea Talk Column #1
Mother’s Day Tea
Tea has been around for centuries, but the
English tradition of afternoon tea is more recent. According to lore, Anna Russell, the 7th
Duchess of Bedford, introduced afternoon tea to high society in the early
1800’s. Initially, she partook of
the pleasure in secret, staving off her hunger between meals. Picture a pink-cheeked parlor maid
scurrying up the back stairs to Lady Anna’s boudoir, glancing surreptitiously
over her shoulder, laden with a tray swathed in linen, the aroma of fresh baked
goods wafting behind her. I love
this image. It is most fortunate
that after her tasty little secret was exposed her Ladyship chose to sweep down
the front mahogany staircase in her finest silk gown to host her upper-class
acquaintances with an openly indulgent afternoon tea. The tradition was born.
Well, I am no lady of the realm, but having an
afternoon cup of tea is something I relish daily. Whatever happens—and plenty does,
between grappling with writers deadlines, keeping house and juggling
after-school activities for my eight-year-old son—I stop like an automaton at
four o’clock and walk to the kettle.
First, the gas flame flares cobalt blue beneath the filled kettle. Then I select a pretty teacup, a vintage
napkin (I am the one under the stack at estate sales) and a silver spoon. Mostly, I wait until I hear the gentle,
then urgent whistle. I get R.J. his
snack while my tea brews, steam rising, color deepening. I often take afternoon tea with a splash
of whole milk and a sweet treat. My
indulgences are small.
Today, I bring out a cup and saucer my mother
gave me when I last visited her on the West Coast. The china is Noritake, with a green
bamboo pattern on the inside of the cup, sharing its beauty with the draining of
its contents. “What’s that?” asks
R.J., as I carefully set the teacup down on the granite countertop. “Your Mama gave it to me,” I reply. “It once belonged to her mother, my
Mama.” He pauses absorbing the
chronology and then says, “Mom, I have a great idea! Why don’t we have a tea party for you on
I cradle my grandmother’s teacup at the
computer, doing what teatime does for me.
I pause and reflect. I like
the idea: Why not a Mother’s Day tea, instead of a traditional brunch? Mother’s Day materializes before me in a
haze of steam, without overwhelming brunch crowds and feeling overly stuffed
afterward, without the unsavory whiff of commercialism. The tranquility of teatime makes much
more sense for frazzled mothers.
Fortunately, tea has quietly seeped into the mainstream creating many
So here is my thought. On Mother’s Day, invite mom to an
afternoon tea at a country inn, take her on an overnight getaway to a B & B
that features afternoon tea, or simply throw her the perfect tea party at
home. Polish the tarnished tea
service, which she probably gave you, and get out the heirloom linens and family
china (thanks Mom—and Mama.) If
short on accoutrements, go and shop for basics in antique stores or at yard
sales. Set a special table. Arrange fresh flowers. Either bake a family recipe, like a
lemon poppy seed loaf, or buy a favorite treat, maybe a seasonal berry
tart. Most important, appreciate
mom in a convivial teatime setting on her special day.
My Mother’s Day secret is out!
Tea Talk Column #2
When I first moved to America, I only bought Earl Grey tea at an
exclusive department store in England.
Not only did my habit cost far too much in airfares, the elegant tins of
loose-leaf tea never failed to raise eyebrows among airport customs
officials. More than twenty years
later, I am still particular about my Earl Grey tea, but I can now buy many
delectable blends without having to cross the pond. I choose from grocery store selections
of attractively boxed teabags to specialty teashop scoops of loose-leaf tea sold
by the ounce in seductive mesh bags.
Why all the fuss and bother? Well, there are blends—and there are
blends. Take Earl Grey tea, for
example, named for British Prime Minister Charles Grey (1830-1834) who allegedly
received the black tea flavored with oil of bergamot as a token gift for saving
the son of an Indian Raja; the story goes Lord Grey’s men rescued the beloved
prince from a ferocious tiger. Thus
a tea was born. The best Earl Grey
tea blends come from using medium-large black tea leaves, with the addition of
natural oil of bergamot. (Bergamot
is a citrus fruit whose rind holds the oil.) The character of the base black tea
combined with the quantity and quality of the bergamot oil all play their part
in determining the individual characteristics of the blend. Sometimes the bergamot is synthetic or
another type of flavoring is used.
The only way to know one blend from another is to sample a variety.
In the Far East, the art and practice of tea
tasting is comparable to that of wine tasting in the West. There is the accompanying education and
on-the-job training, wares and equipment, ceremony and etiquette. There are those with sensitive palates
and profound experience.
Professional tea tasters assess both the dry and infused/wet tealeaves,
as well as the tea liquor/liquid, for color, odor, flavor and appearance. All the senses are engaged. The sensory experience translates into
evocative words such as amber or mahogany to describe color; citrus or woodsy,
aroma; bitter or sweet, taste; dusty or supple, touch. Tannins are measured. Like professional wine tasting,
professional tea tasting is a serious and involved business: maintaining quality
control, introducing new blends, safeguarding old ones.
But tea tasting can also be fun. Instead of a wine tasting party, throw a
tea tasting party. Explore several
blends of the same tea, say of Earl Grey, or try a variety of different teas,
such as Jasmine, Gunpowder and Lapsang Souchong. I suggest using identical white
porcelain teacups or tasting bowls as receptacles for easy comparison, but a mix
of teabags and loose-leaf teas, just to get a sense of things. Have friends bring assorted teapots, yet
adhere to an individual blend’s steeping instructions. Set out both dry and infused/wet
tealeaves for further contemplation.
Sip cool water to cleanse the palate between tastes (spitting out is not
necessary, though a professional tea taster must to keep his bladder from
bursting!) and keep notebooks and pencils handy. Lastly, offer simple teacakes, breads
and biscuits, so that after the final tasting, guests can pick their favorite
blend and enjoy a cup, while they nibble on something light and compare their
To think, all this can happen without even
boarding a plane!
Tea Talk Column #3
A Jasmine scented tale
My parents are Persian.
For a while, when I was a child, we lived in
Iran where my
paternal grandmother had an elegant suite of rooms on the second storey of our
house. She drank tea every morning
out of a dainty hourglass-shaped tea glass with a gold rim and matching saucer,
the russet-orange liquid the same color as the oval of amber set in her gold
necklace. In the summer, free from
school, I often ate breakfast with her.
Each time, I gathered a handful of dewy jasmine from our lush garden,
carefully climbed the stairs cradling my offering, and let the weightless blooms
tumble onto a china plate at the breakfast table. The air suddenly filled with an abundant
sweetness, and my grandmother sipped tea and told me long, leisurely
stories. No wonder I have a soft
spot for jasmine scented tea.
The jasmine bushes in China—whose flowers scent
its namesake tea—allegedly first came from Persia. As I open a packet of Chinese jasmine
tea and inhale the heady fragrance, I believe it to be true. The aroma is unmistakably that of my
childhood. Jasmine tea became
popular in China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and remains a favorite of
tea connoisseurs worldwide.
Historically, the best jasmine teas are from the Fujian Province. Though jasmine tea carries the smell and
taste of the summer months, the freshest batches of jasmine tea usually becomes
available in the fall. This is due
to the lifecycle of jasmine. The
plant’s generous and fragrant flowering begins in the summer.
The process of making traditional jasmine tea starts with
picking the tealeaves in the spring.
These receive just enough oxidization to maximize the absorption of the
floral aroma added later. The
tealeaves are set aside. Now the
wait begins for the jasmine bushes to enter their blooming season. Once this starts, workers harvest the
flower buds throughout the summer and encourage them to bloom in
Then they rake the jasmine into the piles of tealeaves whereby the
blossoms impart their odor, scenting the tea. Later an industrial-sized fan blows away
the spent flowers. Leaving dried
flowers in jasmine tea is purely aesthetic and mostly for the western
Premium jasmine teas are made of the highest
quality tealeaves that have undergone traditional scenting multiple times. Standard jasmine teas are scented only
once or twice with fresh blooms—or may simply have extract sprayed on them or
have dried flowers added. In some
cases, the tealeaves of premium jasmine teas are hand-rolled into attractive
shapes that preserve the aroma better.
They carry evocative names like Jade Pearl or Jasmine Dragon Pearls. The enchantment of watching pearls of
tea unfurl while steeping is worth the extra cost alone.
So in early fall, I sit with my teacup brimming
with the essence of summer and escape to childhood summers. One of the best stories my grandmother
told me was about my prettiest aunt and her ‘unsuitable’ suitor. A hopeless romantic, he sent her love
letters filled with her favorite flower, pressed jasmine. But he was also a hopeless flirt, and
she ended up marrying another.
Years later, my aunt attended a party at his house. True to his nature, he was on his third
marriage…yet his garden overflowed with jasmine. My aunt plucked a few blooms for old
time’s sake, smelled them and then said, “Very pretty but they have no
Clearly, he was no longer her cup of tea!