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April 19, 2011 / joyful plate

Time for Tea

Since starting my new blog earlier in the year, I have wanted to write about tea.  My curiosity for tea stems from my love of wine. I see it as a cycle of connoisseurship -an appreciation for one subject, wine or whisky for example, can often lead to interest in others like tea, coffee, olive oil, or balsamic vinegar. For me, tea and wine share a similar language. And it’s one I look forward to learning for the rest of my life.

In the past few years I have been getting more engaged with tea. People who know me well may be surprised by this and might assume that my life revolves around wine! That may be true in my outer life. In my inner life, tea has become my beverage of choice, as it offers “the cup that cheers but not inebriates” (William Cowper’s The Task, 1785). And, unlike wine, drinking herbal tea in the evening prepares me for the best night’s sleep I can dream of.

I must credit my boyfriend for sparking my interest in tea. He is a proud Irishman who brings a package back from every trip to Europe, a tea fanatic who is meticulous about expiry dates and making sure there is fresh milk in the fridge.  The brewing of a pot is a ritual we enjoy several times a day.  Boiling the kettle, warming the pot, and then brewing the tea until it’s sufficiently strong (under a very tired tea cozy). We like to play a game that involves me guessing what brand of tea we’re drinking. “Yorkshire”? “Bewleys?”. The difference is subtle, but like comparing wines from two different vineyards in Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine, there is a difference. (The technique in brewing a pot has been discussed at length by writers such as James Joyce and George Orwell. See my references below for a modern take on it by Christopher Hitchens in slate).

I’ve started to explore beyond the black breakfast and afternoon teas that I tasted initially. In fact, the joy I get from taking in the fragrance of different teas is similar to that of nosing wines. When I wake in the morning I get excited at the prospect of which tea to taste . . . Ginger Peach for bright fruit, Jasmine Green for delicate perfumes or Shangai Rose for sweet florals.  Lately, I’ve been sipping a licorice, fennel and basil blend after lunch, which satisfies my sweet tooth and cleans my palate. By late night it’s time for caffeine-free herbal teas like lavender or Italian chamomile.  To avoid clashing flavors, I now have a collection of teapots for different kinds of tea, which is a challenge in the confines of a Manhattan apartment!

As I drink more tea, I am thirsty for more knowledge. I received a precious gift this year, The Book of Tea. It’s beautifully designed, filled with gorgeous photographs printed on Italian paper, and it also serves as an excellent reference source on the culture of tea. The English writer Anthony Burgess wrote the preface: “More tea is drunk worldwide than any other beverage except water…leaving its mark on every civilization. Perhaps no other beverage has been the object of such sanctification and ceremony…”.  There are also excerpts by wine expert Hugh Johnson.

Terroir

The French concept of terrior (sense of place) applies to tea just as much as it does to wine. Hugh Johnson points out that just as the Romans brought vineyards to the countries they conquered, so the English planted tea in India, Ceylon and Africa. “ Wherever it is cultivated, tea will impart its highly sought, subtle fragrances only if grown in a wet and temperate climate –long sunny days, followed by rainy nights and pure mountain breezes”. For example, in the Northeast Indian region of Darjeeling there are sixty-one gardens that produce the highly prized “champagne” of black teas on grand estates perched at altitudes of over five thousand feet.

Classifications

Wine enthusiast Tomás Clancy paralleled wine and tea classifications this year on RTE (Irish National Radio). He likened bulk black powder tea to “vin de table” (table wine) and first flush tea (which is hand picked for freshness and delicacy at the beginning of the season)
to the quality of a first growth wine. Like wine, there is a whole maceration and fermentation process to learn about, if you enjoy the technical side of things.

Taking time for Tea

Given the crazy world we live in, I have found that tea is becoming important for reflection, health and enjoyment. “To savor tea fully, one must know how to take the time to relax, how to leave daily cares behind and appreciate the simple pleasures of the moment. It is thus associated with luxury, whatever the circumstances, and is often conducive to good humor, particularly among the English”. (Anthony Burgess).

I understand now why “tea time” in my house is sacred…as an extreme multitasker; I can easily get distracted when it’s time for a brew. I often hear yelling from the other room, “Where are you going?! We’re having tea!”.  Like wine, taking time out to enjoy a cup is all about claiming a moment — and connecting with whomever you’re lucky enough to be sharing it with.

Written by Michelle Lawton. Stay tuned for Part 2 discussing tea trends in food, spirits, and more.

Sources

The Book of Tea, Flammarion, Paris. Preface by Anthony Burgess.

http://www.amazon.com/Book-Tea/dp/2080135333

Raidió Teilifís Éireann (Interview with Tomas Clancy, wine enthusiast)

Tea Association of the U.S.A.

www.slate.com/id/2279601/

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2 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. james lawton / Apr 20 2011 1:28 am

    Excellent info on the ‘drug of choice’.love,jim.

  2. Mary Lawton / Apr 21 2011 4:04 pm

    Very inspiring and educational. Makes me want to drink more tea.

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