Thursday, January 19, 2017

Tea And The Presidency

Washington and Lafayette at Mt. Vernon, painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Since tomorrow is inauguration day I decided to take a look back at past US Presidents and their tea drinking habits. I'm going to try as hard as possible to keep my own political views out of the post. Let's just get into history and tea!

Awhile back I was perusing used books and found Tea With Presidential Families and couldn't resist it. I had no idea past Presidents drank enough tea to have a whole book dedicated to it. The book has loads of photos of presidential teaware and facts about the presidents and first ladies that enjoyed tea while in office. The book starts with George Washington and goes through Bill Clinton (it was published in 1999).

The book has many interesting facts but first, let's start with President Obama. Did you know he drinks tea instead of coffee? If you ever noticed photos of him holding a mug or hot cup, it was most likely tea he was sipping on. His preference for tea was mentioned in this article from the Boston Globe from 2014 which states,
"Scour through a series of photos of him — in the Oval Office, aboard Air Force One, inside the Situation Room — and he almost always has a cream-colored, gold-trimmed porcelain cup in front of him. We don’t know exactly what’s in those cups, but aides suggest they’re filled with tea."
The same article shows him in various coffee shops, drinking tea (in a couple shots you can see a teapot). He is also documented as drinking quite a lot of bottled iced tea. Our 44th president certainly has good taste in beverages.

Let's take a look back at US Presidents throughout history. I've mentioned colonial tea drinking in a previous article (tea water pumps!), and during the research I came across the above picture of George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette meeting at Mt. Vernon and having tea (you can see Martha Washington pouring tea in the background).  Young Lafayette, eager to fight the British met General George Washington when he was recruited to the continental army in 1777. The two bonded and the rest can be read in history books (Washington was sworn in as President in 1789). Washington was known for his love for tea. He drank tea every morning and records show that he frequently ordered teas such as bohea and hyson.

A modern example of bohea tea

Despite the aversion to taxed tea from England, tea was a part of how colonial Americans socialized, so it makes sense that early presidents frequently sipped it. John Adams drank tea before and during his presidency. He and Abigail were the first in the White House, and records show they brought teaware from China with them and hosted many tea parties. There is a recipe for Abigail's 'rose petal tea' that she'd serve to guests in the 1960s White House Cookbook which contains recipes from various first ladies.

Thomas Jefferson is documented to have enjoyed tea, so much so that he built a tea room at his home at  Monticello. It's reported that he drafted the Declaration of Independence in his tea room in 1776. When he became president, there were many recorded orders for tea. From Tea With Presidential Families, "Although his first recorded order was for Bohea, Jefferson's taste later changed to Hyson,  which became his favorite from 1809-1816".

I decided to pull a few more interesting tidbits throughout history from from Tea With Presidential Families:

--The Van Burens were of Dutch descent and as Dutch New Yorkers they added herbs and saffron to their tea. I found this very interesting and it may warrant further research and a blog post!

--President Andrew Johnson brewed tea every day in a teapot shaped like a steam train. Supposedly it was given to him because of his interest in the railroad. I think my son would be more interested in tea if we had a teapot shaped like a train!

--President Rutherford B. Hayes had a hand in developing US tea growing! When he was sworn in as president, he appointed William LeDuc as Commissioner of Agriculture. LeDuc was impressed by tea plants distributed by the patent office growing in the south, and ended up leasing two hundred acres in Charleston for his experimental US tea farm.

-- President Garfield was a tea lover, and had two favorite tea recipes. Spice tea that had mint, orange juice, lemon, allspice and black tea, and his own herbal tea blend that included catnip and pennyroyal.

--President Lyndon Johnson " Drank only tea and Fresca. Lady Bird Johnson remarked in her diary, and we agree, 'How many things are launched under the name of a tea!'"

--President George Bush (Sr.) was known to frequently drink green tea.

Photo from Tea With Presidential Families

--During the Clinton administration, " On a visit to Belfast, Ireland, Mrs. Clinton encouraged politicians to sort out their problems by getting together over many cups of tea".

Many first ladies were known to host social teas, which the book well documents. It became customary for the first lady to invite the incoming first lady to tea. I'm sure many of you read about the tea Michelle Obama hosted for Melania Trump.

This post may have contained more presidential tea info than you bargained for, but there you have it. I felt compelled to share since I was surprised at just how much tea was consumed by US presidents and first ladies. The phrase 'make tea not war' comes to mind. This is a phrase I will keep in mind in the months ahead.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Tasting: Origins Tea Oriental Beauty

Oriental Beauty is a well known Taiwanese oolong. One of my favorite versions is served iced at Té company. It has a sweet honey-like flavor and the nuances hold up to the icing. Oriental Beauty is highly oxidized which brings out the sweet and fruity notes. The oxidation process actually starts right before it is harvested, when munchy little critters feast on the leaves.

I recently received a few teas from Origins Tea, a company that specializes in high quality tea from Taiwan. I'm honestly not sure why I decided to try the Oriental Beauty first, but it is a tea appropriate for the chilly weather. This tea is grown in the Emei township of Hsinchu county, which is in northwestern Taiwan. It was harvested in Summer 2015. The dry leaves are sweet, quite fruity. The fruit reminds me of sticky dried fruits like cherries and apricots. The leaves are a striking mix of colors which you can see above. Note the presence of the fuzzy white buds- this tea is also referred to as bai hao, which I believe translates to 'white tip'. 

the infused leaves
After a quick rinse the leaves exhaled a woodsy aroma with bits of dried twigs and leaves, along with those dried fruits I mentioned earlier. The woodsy notes remind me of kicking through piles of dried fall leaves. I was presented with images of a chilly day fall day and a warming cup of tea. As I mentioned, quite appropriate for the time of year. Although these days we're getting falling snow instead of leaves.

some of the white tips of the infused leaves

The first infusion had a fruity aroma with a soothing flavor. It was super smooth and woody, with that dried fruit (more apricot than cherry this time) and some added honey notes. It made me crave dried apricots for a snack! Serving a bowl of dried fruits and nuts with this tea might be a nice compliment. Subsequent steeps highlighted the honey, and the apricot was still present but more muted. The woodsy flavors hang around as well.

I served this tea to our Office Tea Club and everyone enjoyed it. It's a sweet pleasing brew, easy to drink and is quite full-bodied. The flavor lingers on the palate for ages. I love drinking full-bodied teas in the office-when I enjoy the tea then run to a meeting, the flavor stays with me. Comforting me through the fluorescent haze.

Thank you to Origins Tea for the sample! We all enjoyed it. Stay tuned for more reviews of their teas.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Getting My Tea Groove Back

Happy New Year everyone! The last few months of 2016 set up obstacles I'm finally starting to stumble through and I've emerged with a more positive attitude. With this change I'm hoping to recharge the blog  a bit. The weather is getting colder and my body wants to hibernate, but my mind is ready for writing. I'm hoping give the blog more focus this year, and get back to a few of the things I started out to do. What are some of those things, you ask?

-I'd like to get back to discussing local tea spots. There are a few that I love but haven't written about. That needs to be fixed as quickly as possible!

-I want to resurrect the tea industry interviews, I think those are informative and helpful. Anyone you'd like to see featured?

-I'm working with two tea friends on a possible fun new blog feature, so you may see that in the coming months. I know it seems secretive to keep it so vague, but honestly we haven't ironed it out yet.

-I was asked to do an American tea history presentation to The Littlest Tea Critic's class later this year. Hopefully I'll be able to follow through and blog about what I'm learning. I'm not very good at public speaking, so this will be quite a challenge. Even to a room of 9 year olds! I find that children are more accepting, but they ask the toughest questions.

-There is a personal project in the works as well that is a bit tea-related. If I can manage to get it out of my head, I'll definitely share it. I know this also sounds mysterious and slightly irritating, but I hope that if I put it here in writing it means I'll make it happen!

-I also sorely need to catch up on tea reviews. So hopefully you'll start seeing a bunch of those. I think reviews are extremely subjective, but I enjoy writing about the flavors and stories I can tell through a tea. So expect to start seeing a few more.

Is there anything you'd like to see covered on the blog this year? I'm always open to suggestions! Happy New Year, and thank you for being a patient reader of the blog.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Tasting: Art of Tea Oolong Rose

I have quite the backlog of reviews to do, and I haven't had much time lately to do them. I've been sidetracked by a few things, but I'm trying to finally sit down and taste some teas. I like to taste a tea a number of times before I review it, to make sure I get a good feel for the leaves.

For this festive holiday week I bring you a review for Art of Tea's oolong rose. This isn't a tea I'd normally gravitate towards because I'm not a big fan of rose in any sort of food or drink preparation. But, I've been recovering from a medical procedure and the idea of soft, fragrant rose petals felt soothing and uplifting. It's also been very cold and grey outside so thinking of vibrant flowers helps warm the spirit. So, oolong rose went into the pot.

The tea leaves are tightly rolled and on the greener side of oolong. There are pretty pink petals laced throughout the tea. The dry leaves smell mostly of sweet rose, which is a scent that I enjoy but also find to dominate any situation.

The brewed tea smells fuzzy (I've decided that yes a tea can smell fuzzy), comforting, and warm. I'm getting a bit of vegetal flavor but not much else. Very smooth without any astringency. It's hard to tell if the floral flavor belongs to the tea leaves or is all coming from the rose petals. This is a very pleasant tea, even though it's not something I'd often choose for myself. It's a nice choice for an intimate gathering, and would make a nice hostess gift.

As I anticipated, this tea feels soft and gentle. It's a soothing sip that comforted my body. This is a delicate tea and really only for you if you love drinking the flavor of roses. The rose does get a bit overpowering for me, even though the aroma is quite alluring. I loved inhaling the lingering scent.

Thank you to Art of Tea for the sample. I have a few more to try, so stay tuned. I hope everyone is enjoying the holiday season! Best wishes to you all!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Tea Happiness 2016 Gift Guide

If you're still looking for gifts for the tea lover in your life, I've put together a few ideas to help you through the holiday gift-giving conundrum. 

For friends interested in learning more about tea, a tasting is always helpful. How about a gift of tea sent to their door each month? One of my favorite vendors Joseph Wesley Tea has a Year Of Tea which would be perfect for any tea lover. Joe's teas are top quality and carefully sourced. If you know someone looking for a unique tea experience, the White2Tea club is also a great monthly choice. There is a huge variety of surprising teas, and their packaging can't be beat.

Tea books are always a good idea. There are many I've recommended in the past, and this year Tea: A User's Guide tops the list. It's insanely informative and a great reference guide. A must for all tea lovers. There are dozens of tea books out there, one for every type of tea lover.

How about a special teapot? If you are able to find one from Petr Novak, grab it for your favorite tea lover. His pots are are cult favorite. Another one of my favorite artisans, The Jade Leaf just put a few new stunning pots up for sale. Get them while you can! They always sell out quickly. Lower priced options like nice glass teapots and gaiwans are always useful, and much easier to find. With just a little bit of research you can find one for every budget. I love using glass since you can enjoy the color of the liquor and watch the leaves unfurl. Even the most seasoned tea lover would appreciate a new glass teapot.

Decorative sugars are a lovely way to dress up a tea session. They also make great holiday or hostess gifts. My favorites are from Chambre de Sucre. They come in all sorts of fun shapes, colors, and styles. Fun for tea parties or an afternoon treat. They brighten up any holiday!

For something a little different, what about a tea pet? Tea pets can be found on many tea vendors sites, many are made of yixing or similar clay. They come in a variety of animals and objects and range from the adorable to the bizarre. There is definitely a tea pet to suit every person. This is a fun gift for the tea loving friend that has everything. I love these handmade tea pets from my friend Jo Johnson. They are beautiful and special. Jo also makes stunning jewelry, in fact her tea leaf jewelry is on the top of my own wish list.

If there are other gift ideas you're thinking about, feel free to ask questions. I'd love to help you out to make the gift giving process a little bit easier! Of course, you can't go wrong with just about any tea-themed gift. Enjoy the holidays!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Sipping Tea On The 35th Floor

Beautiful tea, a perfect view, and a trained staff do not always equal a good tea experience. This is what I learned at the second afternoon tea I had in London, at the Shangri-La hotel.

The hotel is in The Shard, which is an imposing glass building. It's a strange experience to be whisked up 35 floors to an immaculately decorated hotel. This isn't uncommon in NYC, but every time I do it, it feels a bit surreal. The hotel is lavish yet tasteful. Afternoon tea is served at Ting, the hotel lounge and restaurant. We were sat by the wall of windows with a dazzling view of London. Quite an impressive start.

There is a choice of two different types of afternoon tea. The Traditional, and South East Asian afternoon tea service (interesting- they just changed their online menu to be a Japanese afternoon tea which was not available when I went). I was wondering if there was a difference in serving method, and and asked our steward if there would be gaiwan service for the southeast Asian tea. My server had no idea what a gaiwan was. He looked at me and kept asking if that was a type of tea. Now I don't expect most places to know what a gaiwan is, but if you are a well known Asian hotel I'd hope you would at least be aware of what the vessel is for. Perhaps that is being too presumptuous? It was more surprising still when the 'amuse bouche' tea starter arrived on a gongfu bamboo tea tray with appropriately sized cups. But of course no gaiwan.

I have to admit the amuse bouche was the best part of the tea experience here. Creamy, velvety teh tarik was served in the small gongfu cups on the bamboo tray. The steward then poured water on what must have been dry ice embedded in the tray and the table was engulfed in misty wonder. It was a fun way to start, even if it was nonsensical and a bit too theatrical. I've only had teh tarik a couple of times before, and I must say I'm hooked. It was served warm, and just felt like a hug of pure cashmere.

We chose the Southeast Asian tea, which included various Vietnamese. Chinese, and Thai sweet and savory options. Unfortunately none of the food or pastry stood out for me. Everything was passably good, but not exactly outstanding. The memorable bite for me was the Chinese egg tart. I love Chinese custard tarts, and this one had the right amount of sweetness, crunch and flaky pastry. Many reviewers raved about the prawn dumplings which I found tasty, but far from memorable.

The tea menu here looked promising, and had a few nice choices in each category. I noticed single estate black teas, a sheng pu'erh, as well as two white teas and a longjing. Three oolongs are offered, and I decided on the Tie Guan Yin to see if it would hold up to some of the better versions I've had. 

The tea service started out well. The Tie Guan Yin was steeped for the right amount of time, using an appropriate amount of leaves if you were draining the entire pot at once. I enjoyed the fragrant sips while gazing out at the city of London. Things quickly went south however as the leaves were left in the teapot continuously steeping and producing a bitter, almost undrinkable brew. I asked for extra hot water but it couldn't save my pot of tea. Tea sadness. If this had been true gongfu style tea, all of the water would have been poured into our cups and nothing would have been left to steep. But since a traditional western teapot was used, each subsequent cup of tea was oversteeped. 

Even though the tea wasn't prepared properly, service in general was the right mix of attentive and unobtrusive. And of course, the view can't be beat. I don't think I'd be quick to recommend afternoon tea here, unless you're curious to try the East Asian afternoon tea experience. I'd rather seek out a place that specializes in gongfu tea service without the fancy bites of food. Given all of that, I'm grateful for the opportunity to gaze at such an impressive view in a luxe atmosphere while sipping tea. The teh tarik was delicious and I'm still wondering where I can get one of equal quality in NYC. 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A Sip Of Scandal Water

Earl grey/shortbread/teddy hook punch

One of my favorite things about London is the history infused in every brick of every building. During my time there in September, I found myself taking pictures on every street, and stopping to read historical facts posted on many of the buildings. I had an afternoon tea experience that combined history with tea, food, and booze. I can't think of a better way to spend an afternoon, can you?

A dear friend checked with a few co-workers in London to recommend an afternoon tea experience that was different from the rest. What they came back with was something called 'scandal water'. Tea was colloquially referred to as 'scandal water' in the 19th century. Back then the women who gathered for tea often gossiped about the goings on of the day, thus developing the phrase. The Scandal Water menu explains how they take this idea and create their own unique afternoon tea experience:

Walking through the airy Edition hotel towards the back leads you to the cozy Punch Room lined with rich wood panelling and hipster staff where beards and waxed mustaches seem to be the uniform. It feels intimate and exclusive and, well, hip. But the vibe here isn't the 'cooler than you' vibe I was expecting. The staff was quite cheerful and our server was extremely passionate about the afternoon tea menu and history behind the selections.

Our server, left, and the bartender, right. 
The afternoon tea experience here has been carefully crafted. As I mentioned it combines tea, small bites, carefully prepared cocktails, all with a nod to the origins of afternoon tea. The focus here is on the flavor experience, not on posh opulence like most modern versions. Scandal Water was created by Henrietta Lovell of Rare Tea Co and Phil Carmichael, executive chef of Berners Tavern. Add in the Punch Room's inventive cocktails and you have a unique experience. Punch Room's Davide Segat created cocktails based on the teas selected to be served. Our server was more than willing to explain the 5 courses available (you get to pick 3) and explain the preparation behind each selection. I was impressed with the depth of his knowledge.

Special brew tea/eccles cake/entoria punch and jasmine tea/chocolate/edition punch

My husband joined me for this outing, and we each chose our 3 courses. We ended up with a few of the same as the ingredients were just too good to pass up. We were also given warm, fluffy English muffins which were far and away better than any I've tried. It was as if I hadn't tasted one before.

Sencha tea/salmon/milk punch and jasmine tea/chocolate tart/edition punch
The teas were lovely and paired extremely well with the crafted bites of food. The most successful course was Sencha tea served with exquisite diced salmon topped with crisp pastry and caviar. The punch served was a milk punch, more on that one in a bit. The experience was vegetal, marine, salty, savory, silky, crispy, tangy.

My favorite tea was the 'special brew' a Chinese black tea blend that was smoky with a bit of citrus and dried fruit. It  paired well with an Eccles cake that had raisins, currants, nutmeg, and cinnamon flavors. The tea was featured in the punch which also included rum, lemon juice, and thyme. It sounds like a lot of complicated flavors but everything really did work. It was a course that felt warming, sweet, and comforting.

Jasmine tea/chocolate tart/Edition punch

The punch brought this experience to a different level. They take punch very seriously here (how could you be called the Punch Room if you didn't?), in fact some of the preparations take a day or more to complete. The milk punch was one of the most memorable cocktails I've ever had- it contains milk but it's crystal clear. The subtle milky flavor and mouthfeel is amazing. The milk is slowly clarified, taking out all the solids but leaving the flavor. It's a centuries-old recipe reimagined. This punch also contained cognac, rum, brandy, the sencha tea, lemon juice, and spices. It sounds insane but as with every punch we tried it was smooth, balanced, and complex. I have a few ideas on how to create my own version of milk punch (without any long and complicated procedures) which I'll be working on in the next few weeks.

How can you not love these guys?

I like that Scandal Water is a departure from the heavy, excessive afternoon tea experiences most people have come to expect. I'll usually need to skip dinner after an afternoon tea but Scandal Water is meant to be more like the afternoon refreshment it was historically created to be. Just something to tide you over. If you're looking for a unique take on afternoon tea, this is the place to go. It feels like a little secret nook far away from the tourists and tumult of London even though you are in a boutique hotel. I have a few more London adventures to recap, I hope to do so in the coming weeks!