Thursday, October 10, 2019

How To Grow Tea Pt. 3- Getting Camellia Sinensis Ready For Winter

One Of My Happy Tea Plants

It's been over a year since I've started my tea seeds and they are growing quite happily! I started them indoors, and once the summer hit I brought most of them outside for the season. They really shot up during the summer, and grew lots of hardy green leaves. The crisp autumn weather is starting to creep in, so it's time to start thinking about how to care for the plants during winter.

I decided to put several of my plants directly in the ground on my Brooklyn patio, but a few are outside in pots. It gets quite cold in NYC, and the Farmers' Almanac apparently is predicting a tough winter. I need to ready the tea plants!

Getting Tea Plants Ready For Winter
To figure out how to get the tea plants ready for the winter, I contacted Jason McDonald, co-founder of The Great Mississippi Tea Company, and founding member of the United States League of Tea Growers. He and his partner Timmy sent me my tea seeds, and he's been super patient with all of my tea growing questions.

Jason recommended letting the tea plants adapt to the weather. He said that even though NYC gets very cold, it should be fine for the plants, and it's important for them to adjust to the climate they are living in. If it gets cold and stays that way, the plants will adapt. But, the one thing he said I needed to worry about was a sudden drop in extreme temperature, and freezing winds.

The plant in the large pot grew much bigger than the one in the small pot!

Getting Tea Plants Ready For Winter- What To Do Outside
To combat an extreme temperature change and also frigid winds, Jason suggested I use horticultural fleece. Horticultural fleece is lightweight material used to cover the plants. It's basically a plant blanket to keep out the extreme wind. The wind is the real problem, as combined with frigid weather it can cause the leaves to freezer burn, which in turn can kill the plants.

Getting Tea Plants Ready For Winter- What To Do Inside
For my potted tea plants, I had to decide if I would bring them inside or leave them out for the season. I decided to bring two large and one small pot indoors, to compare the indoor and outdoor plant progress. I may bring one large more pot inside if I can find a good spot for it. I have huge radiators right by my best windows, so there isn't much prime plant space. I want to make sure the plants are as far away from the radiators as possible so they don't get too dry and overheated.

When I first sprouted my seedlings I kept them in a little greenhouse to trap in some humidity. But I'm not going to seek out a larger greenhouse for the indoor plants this time. Hopefully they'll adapt to the slightly dryer environment and I'll just give them an occasional misting (but I won't keep them too wet as that can lead to fungus gnats). It will be interesting to compare the progress of the indoor and outdoor plants. I'll post an update sometime midwinter.

A quick note on the potted plants- if you look at the above photo, you'll see the plant in the larger pot grew much taller than the one in the little pot! Something to keep in mind if you're thinking of growing tea for yourself.



If you keep tea plants, let me know what you do over the winter. Do you protect them outside? If they are inside, do you do anything special? For more tips on growing your own tea, check out my original post and my follow-up post!

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Teaware History: The Mote Spoon

(not a mote spoon)

I love sharing the random tidbits of teaware history that I pick up in my reading, and today's post is on the mote spoon. The mote spoon is a tea accessory with an influential history. In fact, authentic mote spoons are so coveted that it's tough to find a real one.

not a mote spoon- but used like one

History Of The Mote Spoon
This little spoon was actually a very handy tool! Originally called a 'tea strainer spoon', mote spoons were used in the 17th and 18th centuries.  A 'mote' is a speck or tiny piece of something, and in this case a bit of tea leaf. As with many tea accessories, there is a bit of a debate on how it was originally used. 

Mote spoons were in use before tea-caddy spoons were created. They may have been used to lift the tea leaves out of the canister and into the pot. This would sift the tea dust away from the leaves, keeping the tiniest bits out of the teapot. The mote spoon had another important feature, a tapered pointy end, which was used to dislodge leaves from the teapot's spout. 

The second reported use was to scoop out errant tea leaves floating in the cup (the 'motes', if you will). In the 17th century, tea leaves were added to the pot and the brew poured directly into cups. Leaves were always escaping into the tea cups, causing the tea to continue steeping and taste bitter. The pierced mote spoons could easily scoop up the little rogue floaters, saving that delicious cup of tea. The tea was 'demoted', but in the best way possible.

It's tough to say if mote spoons were used to sift the dry tea leaves from the caddy, as the piercings could be quite small and wouldn't sift much of the tiny leaves out. But it would have been well suited to skim the leaves off of the poured tea.

How The Mote Spoon Evolved
According to master teaware historian Bruce Richardson, the mote spoon paved the way for the victorian tea strainer, which we still use today. In an interesting video, Mr. Richardson mentions:
...and they did away with the mote spoon because as you know you just put the strainer on top of your teacup and then pour your tea through the strainer and all those wonderful holes catch the any errant tea leaves or motes and demote your tea easily and then you place it back into this wonderful little catch basin that catches any errant drips and keeps your table nice and tidy

possibly a tea strainer

Collecting Mote Spoons- Beware Of Fakes!
Mote spoons can be difficult to find if you're interested in collecting them. Because of this, they have a high price attached and are often faked. Real mote spoons start at well over $100, and can be quite a bit more depending on rarity and decoration.

Looking through online auctions and antique sites, I found many mote spoons that ranged from possibly real, to definitely not. There are a few important things to look for if you are interested in collecting them.

(from top to bottom) spoon, fake mote spoon, genuine mote spoon (photo from ASCAS online)

Fakes are easily made by taking an 18th century silver spoon and piercing decorations into the bowl and re-shaping the handle to a point. The photo above gives a good example of a spoon, a faked spoon, and a real mote spoon. Faked spoons are (obviously) the size and length of a teaspoon. Mote spoons are generally longer, and the bowl of the spoon is also longer and more narrow than a typical teaspoon. The piercing on the spoon can also sometimes help determine if it's fake or not. But again, all of this is very difficult to authenticate.

I'm not sure if the spoon I have (and use in all the photos) is a tea strainer (it doesn't really fit over the cup at all), or more likely a fruit or bonbon spoon. It's definitely not a mote spoon as the bowl is rounded, and the end is flat, not tapered to fit into a teapot's spout. Whatever it is, I enjoy the way it looks.

So if you see something you like, just go for it. You should enjoy your collection, not just stress about authenticity. But if you're looking for the real thing, now you know what to look out for. Do you have an authentic mote spoon? I'd love to hear more about them!

Thursday, September 19, 2019

History Of The Teapot


It may seem as if teapots have been around as long as tea itself, but that's not actually the case.  We all use them, but do you know when they originated? Let's get a little deeper into the history of teapots.

Teapot History- Song Dynasty to Ming Dynasty
Teapots may not have been around as long as the tea steeped in them, but the design is still quite ancient.  We need to look to Chinese tea history to learn more about teapots, as the leaves themselves shaped the need for a steeping vessel.

During the Song dynasty (960-1279) tea leaves were not processed they way they are today. Leaves were steamed, ground, and molded into brick forms. In order to prepare the tea, pieces of the brick were broken off and boiled in cooking vessels.

A little later during this time period tea was pulverized into powder form and whisked, just like matcha. Since the leaves were either boiled or whisked, a teapot-like vessel wasn't needed. Porcelain was invented in the Tang dynasty (618-907) and was largely the material used for tea cups and bowls used for tea, but teapots hadn't been in use yet.

You may be thinking you've seen teapots from this time period in books or museums, but these were most likely ewers used for water or wine. The shape of these vessels will play an important role, however.

It appears that the teapot was created during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) when changes in tea processing style led to steeping loose leaf tea. From the book The True History Of Tea:

Instead of the age-old custom of steaming the leaves, the monks on Songluo Mountain in Anhui province discovered that stir-roasting them in a dry hot wok improved the color, fragrance, and flavor of the finished tea. 

Tea production in the Wuyi mountains used the new method the Songluo monks created, and after much trial and error semi-oxidized oolong teas were born. The loose leaves needed a vessel for delicate brewing, in order to extract the right body and flavor of the tea. Through this necessity, the teapot was born.

Teapot History- Yixing 
Small teapots resembling the ewers I mentioned earlier were developed in the city of Yixing, in Jiangsu province of China around 1500. It seems likely that the water and wine vessels were used as a model for tea.

If you're a Yixing pot collector you know the vessels are made from reddish or purple 'zisha' clay (zisha translates to 'purple sand pot'). The clay has a special mineral composition that makes it ideal for brewing tea, and creates a porous material perfect for capturing the essence of the tea. The teapots were very small (and still are today), made for personal use. Small porcelain cups were used to sip with, but I've also seen mention of people drinking directly from the teapot's spout. I need to give this a try! Maybe at home when no one is looking...

It's actually tough to say for certain if teapots were really created in 1500, as the great James Norwood Pratt argues in the New Tea Lover's Treasury:

It strains credulity to believe so inventive a people as the Chinese never thought to brew tea in their so-called wine ewers.
That makes sense, doesn't it? Since teapots look so much like an ewer, wouldn't someone have thought to use one for tea before 1500? But, I'll leave that for Norwood to debate.

Chinese Ewer, image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Teapot History- Western Europe and Beyond
Once Chinese porcelain started making its way to European countries (to learn more about the history of European porcelain you can check out my previous post), Europeans couldn't get enough of the beautiful porcelain. They raced to figure out how to create their own porcelain, which eventually led to designing teapots and other teaware.


The pots originally exported to Europe were small with straight spouts, similar to the Yixing styles. The large porcelain and silver styles seen today came much later, when tea drinking became part of  the European lifestyle.

There is so much more to learn and discuss about teapot history and design, but it'll need to be saved for later posts. Next time you use a teapot think about how it evolved and where it came from. Maybe even have a sip from the spout!

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Matcha Watermelon Cocktail


It feels like the summer is officially over, but you can keep the warm-weather feelings alive with a Matcha Watermelon cocktail. Freshly blended watermelon juice is combined with a boozy, matcha-y, citrusy elixir that is delicious and refreshing. The additions of basil and a touch of salt make this more than just your average matcha cocktail.

I was recently sent a can of a bright and vegetal organic Yabukita Matcha Sesui from Nio Teas, and decided to use it in a cocktail. After a few recent family gatherings I noticed we had an abundance of watermelon in the refrigerator, and the lightbulb went off. I knew I had to pull out my cocktail shaker and start recipe testing.


Matcha Watermelon Cocktail- The Backstory
I wanted to make a matcha cocktail that was naturally sweet, and watermelon juice is sweet enough without the addition of any other sweeteners. The recipe took a bit of time to refine, however, because I just wasn't getting the right balance of sweet, tart, and smooth.

My husband helped me taste each concoction I made, through all sorts of ingredient combinations. I decided to use vodka as the spirit, as it has a clean flavor. Eventually we hit upon the perfect additions- watermelon, matcha, lemon, lime, fresh basil, and a very important pinch of salt. Without the basil, the drink just wasn't smooth and soft enough, and the pinch of salt really brightened the whole thing up.



Matcha Watermelon Cocktail- The Pour
It also took me a few tries to figure out how to add each ingredient in, so the whole thing doesn't look like a foamy mess. After some trial and error, I discovered the right sequence to give it the most pizzaz. 

Matcha Watermelon Cocktail- Tips
Be sure to use cold watermelon for this recipe for maximum flavor and refreshment. No need to freeze the watermelon though, as that will change the texture.

When adding the basil, make sure it's a little bashed up- I like to knead it a little with my fingers, to bruise it and allow the flavors to be released.

As you can see from the photos I didn't get too fancy with my pouring skills, but if you're up for it you can get some interesting swirly designs if you pour the matcha elixir slowly and carefully. Don't try to stir everything together, or you'll lose the nicely defined colors.


Tea Happiness' Matcha Watermelon Cocktail
Makes 1 cocktail

2 cups cold watermelon, cubed and seeded

1 oz. Vodka
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
2-3 fresh basil leaves bruised up a bit with your fingers
1/2 tsp. matcha
pinch of salt

Tools you'll need: Cocktail glasses, a cocktail shaker, a blender.

First, take the two cups of cubed watermelon and blend it until smooth and frothy. It doesn't take very long and you'll get something a bit thicker than watermelon juice, with a nice liquid consistency.

Pour about 3/4 cup of the watermelon juice in your cocktail glass, and set it aside.

In the cocktail shaker combine the remaining ingredients: vodka, lemon juice, lime juice,basil leaves, matcha, and salt. Shake vigorously. The more you shake it, the more incorporated your matcha will be.

Gently pour the mixture into the watermelon juice but do not stir. Serve as is, or garnish with a few basil leaves, or fresh watermelon.


There you have it! The watermelon juice naturally sweetens the drink, and the matcha, citrus, and basil really come through. A sip of summertime any time of year. Cheers!

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Interview: The Renegade Tea Estate


Georgian white teas, photo courtesy of Renegade Tea Estate

I love learning about the many passionate tea growers and producers around the world, and today I'm excited to present an interview with a fairly new tea company, Renegade Tea Estate. Western Georgia (the country, not the state) used to be a large tea producing region before the industry collapsed in the 1990s. But the passionate young tea growers of Renegade Tea Estate are trying to rehabilitate Georgian tea. Read all about this new tea venture, the challenges they faced in rehabilitating a tea farm while learning how to grow and process tea in our interview below.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

The Depths of Infusion at Camellia Sinensis Montreal


Saying you're taking a 'tea class' at Camellia Sinensis really isn't the right turn of phrase. It's really more of a 'tea experience'. Yes, there is learning (quite a bit), and yes there is note taking (at least for me, the obsessive note taker). But this comes wrapped a relaxing sensory experience, getting lost in the leaf. Hours fly by unnoticed while you smell, taste, and feel the tea.

This is an intensive tea class, and I mean intense. As a group of 10 people we tasted nearly 60 teas over the course of two days, and some had multiple infusions. I was surprised that the amount of tea never became overwhelming, nor did it make me too caffeinated or tea drunk. This probably speaks to the calm atmosphere of the class, and the quality of the teas (and the tasty snacks).

I'm not going to get into the specifics of all the teas we had or curriculum we discussed, that would just be too much for anyone to read. But if you follow my Instagram page, I pinned a 'TeaSummerSchool' highlight, and I'll also be posting photos of many of the teas over the next week or so with a bit more information. I honestly didn't get that many photos (at least for a photo-obsessive like me), I wanted to try and focus on the experience
.
Kevin Gascoyne making the tea

The Class
Over two days, the class was led by three of Camellia Sinensis' best: Kevin, Sebastien, and Alexis. Each instructor brought their unique knowledge and perspective, and had their own teaching style. I love that everyone was laid back, focused on the flavors and feeling of the teas while still conveying history, culture, terroir and processing (among other important tidbits). They gave a good foundation on each tea, and I enjoyed all the tasting notes everyone in the class shared.

The Tastings- Day 1
The class consisted of different types of tastings. We did group cuppings of multiple teas side by side, we sampled teas poured for us into small cups, and we infused others ourselves in gaiwans and gongfu pots.

We started the first day with a short group tasting of teas ranging from light to darker in flavor and color. The teas had a natural progression from delicate to dark and full bodied (they consisted of white, green, oolong, and black teas). When I asked Kevin why he put this varied group together, he said he chose them for the diversity of flavor and texture, but also as teas that weren't featured in the main part of the class. I appreciated the opportunity to taste these teas which, as Kevin mentioned, had a had a natural progression; similar to listening to songs carefully compiled onto a 'mix tape' (yes, I'm old enough to have made mix tapes. Many, many of them). They were very different, but worked well as a whole.

Darjeelings

We then had a presentation on Darjeeling teas, Kevin's specialty.  We tasted a bunch of teas from different gardens and flushes, young gardens vs. old, seeds vs. clonal. One of my favorites from the group was a first flush from Singell, a garden planted from seed in the 1860s. It's an open, Chinese style garden with leaves manufactured from each separate patch grown, to keep the flavor profile intact. This tea was surprisingly complex, energetic, and vibrant.

From Darjeeling we went to Japan, and Alexis guided us through an immense amount of information with ease. We talked about cultivars, culture, serving styles, growing, plucking, and processing. One interesting tidbit I learned was that gyokuro and matcha are 'aged' for a minimum of 3 months before finishing. We tasted some memorable teas, with the Gyokuro Shuin being the standout for me. It reminded me of slow-cooked kale, collards, and mustard greens, without any bitterness but all the deep green flavor and umami.

The Tastings- Day 2
We started the day examining Taiwanese and Chinese oolongs. We slurped down a line from light to more oxidized and roasted. I usually find myself gravitating towards darker oolongs, and that day was no exception. I appreciated the greener oolongs but found myself in love with a mucha tie guan yin that was roasted for 60 hours (slowly and carefully of course). My love for Wuyi yancha continued to be fueled by Bai Rui Xiang and Rou Gui Ma Tou. The Rou Gui stopped me in my tracks with its complexity. Spicy, sweet, floral, so many different things to feel. 'Ma Tou' refers to the specific rock formation where this tea is grown- it looks like a horse's head.

dark teas

After the in-depth oolong discussion we went to black teas. We had a chance to get hands on with brewing and also did a side by side cupping for a few of the teas. My favorites were a super floral Chuan Hong that tasted as if it was scented with roses and peonies. It was sweet and delicate. I also loved the Mei Zhan Zhen, which was complex and surprising. I kept tasting all sorts of things, from lemon to lavender, to chocolate. I brought some of this tea home and I hope I can replicate the experience.

We finished the day with many steepings of dark teas. Pu'er, Liu Bao, and other dark teas are the ones I have the least experience with. I was happy to sample so many teas, and taste all the complexities. By this point in the day, my notes are super spotty, as I  became more and more relaxed with each sip of pu'er. We discussed where you feel the tea as you drink it depending on the age of the plant (mouth feel, vs throat) and I was really able to notice the difference. And of course, that lingering kick of sweetness after the tea is gone.

Xiaguan 1986

We delved into teas with different storage, various ages, and of course different processing styles. There were many memorable teas but as I mentioned, I didn't note much with my pen. I do remember the Xiaguan 1986 as a standout, and it's a tea we were given to brew ourselves with a yixing pot. A 1994 7542 was also pulled out for us, and we all got lost in multiple infusions, taking us to new levels of flavor.


Overall
Having the opportunity to get deeply into these teas was quite a treat. The three instructors all used a good mix of fun, education, and flavor. They each had unique perspectives and the teaching was relaxed but very clear. I liked the balance of different ways of tasting the teas, from quick cuppings to more in-depth infusions. My one criticism would be to have more time with some of the teas. Since the class is only two days long, there is so much to get through. If it was possible to add a half-day to the class, I think it may allow for a bit more breathing room. But that also isn't easy for people to schedule.

A quick note on Montreal- it's a beautiful city that's very walkable, and super approachable. Everyone is friendly and most people speak both English and French. The food is also not to be missed.

Our tea group of 10 was a perfect size, we were able to get to know one another. I'm looking forward to staying in contact with many of my new tea friends. If you are curious about this program, feel free to send me a note and I'd be happy to talk more about it. I'm already wondering when I can go back!

Thursday, June 27, 2019

History of Tiny Tea Sets


I was recently gifted a vintage tiny tea set. The amazing attention to detail on the set had me wondering when these little sets became popular, and how I could start collecting more. As I learned about these beautiful little tea sets, I realized there was an interesting history to share.

History Of Tiny Tea Sets- The Dollhouse 
Miniature tea sets are too small for traditional dolls, but the perfect size for a beautiful dollhouse. So to learn more about them, I started looking at the history of dollhouses. Sure enough, these sets were made for tiny houses. I was lucky enough to have a dollhouse growing up, and my daughter now has the grand Victorian house, hand build by my artistic father. Dollhouses can be little slices of history, and can take dozens of years to build and furnish.

Miniature Dragonware Tea set and photo provided by Jo-Ani Johnson
I've written about the history of children's tea sets before, but these sets are much smaller. The first dollhouse tea sets weren't actually meant for children at all, but for adults. The history goes back to the 16th century, where Dockenhaus (small houses) or 'baby houses' were collected to display wealth. Just like early porcelain teaware, dollhouses were created to flaunt the riches of the owner. They could be replicas of the owner's home, or just beautiful houses in their own right. The rooms were furnished with painstaking attention to detail. Tea sets weren't a part of dollhouse collecting until tea became popular in Western Europe. From Forbes magazine:
Tiny tea sets or pieces of furniture weren't originally made as children's playthings, even though their small scale shares a natural affinity with the proportions of childhood. Miniatures have been made and collected in Europe since the 17th century, when miniature pieces of silver became one of the first great collecting crazes.
In Holland and other European countries these dollhouses looked more like grand cabinets, with rooms to display the treasures and trinkets acquired by their owner. Up until the mid 19th century, these 'baby houses' were costly as they were custom made for each owner. The tiny houses were also used for young women to learn how to manage the household.

miniature tea pots and photo provided by Jo-Ani Johnson

Miniature tea sets for dollhouses were created for grand collectors in silver and fine porcelain, but they start to pop up more frequently in the Victorian era, where they can be found in brass, porcelain, clay, and wood. Mini tea sets were mass produced in the 19th century which made them more affordable.

Once industrialization began, dollhouses became less expensive and were considered toys for children. At the time, if a child owned a dollhouse, they were encouraged to create the miniatures to furnish them instead of just purchasing premade pieces. Later, mass-produced furniture and houses became the norm.

Frans Hals Museum dollhouse. Credit Sailko, website
If you're interested in viewing doll houses from the past, there are many museums that have them on display. Next time I'm in London I may need to see Queen Mary's Doll House from the 1920s. It was commissioned to have every detail of the royal home, including running water and flushing toilets! And my favorite part, from this Medium article:
The Strong Room contains a complete set of miniature crown jewels; a flowery trellis on the ceiling of the King’s Bedroom includes the opening bars of the National Anthem in its design; and the Saloon holds a pair of miniature throne chairs. The Queen added her own items to the House, too, including a miniature dolls’ tea service in copper (presented to Queen Mary by her mother) and a small model of a mouse made by the firm of Faberge.
Collecting Miniature Tea Sets
So, where to start collecting your own miniature tea sets? First you'll want to focus on a time period. This will also determine the quality you'll find. Pieces from the Victorian era and earlier are more likely to be handmade and have fine details. Anything post war through the end of the 20th century will more likely be mass-produced. But there are still hand made pieces to be found in all time periods, and really you should collect what speaks to you. It doesn't matter if it's mass-produced or hand made, look for things you enjoy. If you're purchasing online, you'll find sets of all sorts of quality on etsy, ebay, and ruby lane. Sets can run a few dollars for a 20th century set made in Japan, up to the thousands for an antique French porcelain set. You can peruse antiques stores and local auctions to find miniature sets as well, but they may be a bit difficult to find. Dollhouse stores sell new sets, and there's no reason why you can't start there. New sets such as these are lovely to look at, and aren't a huge investment.

Mini yixing and mamma pot, photo provided by Jo-Ani Johnson
I'll definitely be keeping my eyes open for more vintage miniature tea sets in the future. Just like standard-sized teaware, once you're bitten by the collecting bug, it's tough to stop! If you have your own special miniature tea sets, I'd love to hear about them.