- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

LOS ANGELES

I’ve been drinking tea all my life, but never like this. In front of me is a black lacquer tray with five white porcelain cups, one of them with a lid and curious indentations in the rim. I am about to join a cupping, a tasting of eight different leaf teas from Camellia sinensis, the tea bush that supplies almost all the classic teas we drink. Our guide, Gail Baral, has traveled throughout the major tea producing countries - Japan, China, Taiwan (often called Formosa in tea terms), Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka (home of Ceylon teas), and India. All tea starts with the same leaves - we’re not talking here about herbal and flavored teas. “Growing tea is like growing wine grapes,” Miss Baral declares, “it varies with temperature, altitude and humidity and picks up the flavor of the earth, the terroir.”

Like wine, teas from different places taste totally different, and Miss Baral imports more than 70 types for her store, Algabar Home and Life. “Tea can be picked simply as leaves, or as buds, or as a bud and a couple of leaves with stem,” she says. “The leaves may be hand rolled after picking. This one from Japan for instance, I call Samurai Sword - it’s steamed to develop the color before drying.” She passes around a bowl of dark green spikes resembling pine needles.

Time to taste. We tip a half-teaspoon of leaves into our tasting cups (one teaspoon is the correct amount for a full cup of tea). Water heated to 175 degrees is poured in, topped with a lid to retain heat and the timer set for 3 minutes. Meanwhile, Miss Baral demonstrates how to use the tasting cup: “Lift it with your thumb holding on the lid. With your other hand, hold the tasting bowl against the cup. Wait for the beep … there we go!” She tips the cup and lid sideways over the bowl so the brewed tea strains into it, while the rim indentations catch the leaves. Simple after the first try.

We lift a spoonful of warm infusion to our mouths and swish it across our tongues, very like tasting wine. This is a delicate white tea with refreshing, slightly floral perfume. The leaves become silver needles that unfurl in the water, and we all peer at the drained leaves on our upturned cup lids. I nibble a leaf, which tastes fragrant and quite tender (white or young green tea leaves are excellent in chicken broth).

Next comes Jade Dragon, a green tea from China that is picked only from mid-March to mid-April, on days with no rain or frost. This rare tea must be carefully selected by a tea master, then wok-roasted so the finished flavor is crisp with a slightly sweet finish. Such teas are expensive, but tea is brewed from several batches of water, with each infusion developing different characteristics. Five batches is a norm, but hand-crafted black teas can run to 10 infusions or more.

We continue tasting teas of increasing intensity, moving to oolong that is picked green, then left to partially oxidize (sometimes, incorrectly, called fermentation) so the flavor deepens. Wild Goddess, for instance, is grown on rocky elevations at 4,500 feet, which develops its heady floral aroma with a subtle honey sweetness. Not all teas are for everyone. An organic oolong is too much for me, rich in minerals and with a roasted raisin aroma that I find slightly bitter.

Last come the more oxidized, black teas familiar from my English childhood. Like green teas and oolongs, these can range from large-scale, commercial productions, usually with small shreds of leaf and a flat taste, to artisan teas that can be compared to rare vintage wines.

The best Darjeeling, for example, must be grown only in the province of Darjeeling in the Himalayan foothills of northern India. We savor a unique organic Darjeeling, a Fair Trade tea that was biodynamically grown and processed. The aroma is of Muscat grapes, with a mellow astringency and brilliant mahogany golden color.

Four elements affect a cup of tea, says Miss Baral: the amount of tea, length of infusion time, water temperature, and the water itself. Hard water containing calcium will produce scum, but soft water is not good either, as some mineral content is needed to develop the flavor of the tea leaves. She advises first choosing your tea, then experimenting with bottled waters to find which suits the particular tea. “Never use boiling water,” she cautions. “Fresher green and oolong teas should be brewed at 175 degrees (water boils at 212 degrees). Listen for bumping noises as water comes to a boil, that’s around 175 degrees. For black tea, the water should be almost but not quite boiling.”

Tea leaves can be stored a year or more, needing only an airtight container (the Victorians used purpose-made tin boxes called tea caddies) and a cool temperature, about 60 degrees, like wine.

For information, visit www.algabar.com.

TIPS FOR COOKING WITH TEA

• When baking kidney beans, push half a dozen bags of black tea down into the beans and liquid. The tea not only colors and flavors the beans, it tenderizes them too. Discard bags when beans are done.

• As an intriguing condiment for fish, mix a tablespoon of powdered green tea with a tablespoon of fine sea salt. The mix will keep up to a month in an airtight container.

• Tea can be ground in a grinder just like pepper. Try Indian tea on beef carpaccio or lamb chops, or jasmine tea on duck. Grind smoky lapsang black tea and mix it with yogurt as a simple sauce for smoked salmon. Flavor cookies and chocolate mousse with powdered green tea.

Tea-leaf chicken broth

This is a quick pick-me-up for a busy day. The tea leaves are eaten in with the broth. Makes 2 servings.

3 to 4 tablespoons (about 1/4 ounces) large-leaf green tea

1 boneless, skinless large chicken breast

4 cups chicken broth (2 16-ounce cans)

Grated zest 1 lemon

Salt and pepper

1 medium carrot, thinly sliced

1 medium parsnip or turnip, halved and thinly sliced

2 small potatoes, halved and thinly sliced

8 to 10 snow peas

Pour 1 cup boiling water over tea leaves and leave until tepid, about 15 minutes. Cut chicken breast in julienne strips.

Bring broth to a boil in soup pot with lemon zest and a little salt and pepper. Add carrot, parsnip, and potatoes and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in chicken and snow peas and continue simmering until chicken and vegetables are just tender, 2 to 3 minutes more. Stir in tea leaves and liquid, taste and adjust seasoning.

• Anne Willan’s latest book is “Quick Fixes and Kitchen Tips” (Wiley). To learn more about her and her books, visit www.lavarenne.com.

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