Tea Talk Column

Inns, 2008-2009


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 Mother’s Day?”

 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 sipping possibilities. 

 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

Gourmet Issue


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 tasting notes.

 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 temperature-controlled environments.  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 market. 

 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 scent.”

 Clearly, he was no longer her cup of tea!