Thursday, December 12, 2019

Interview: Zhao and Ronald of Tea.L

Zhao and Ron (photo courtesy of Tea.L)

As I've gotten older, I've become picky about my skincare. I'm always looking for natural products that don't have any harsh ingredients. Recently the folks from Tea.L reached out to see if I'd like to try their tea-based skincare products. A company that sells natural products made with tea? And we're talking, real, loose leaf tea with minimal processing? I was all-in.

I've been using the eye cream, face lotion, and body lotion for a few weeks, and I've really enjoyed them. I love the texture and scent (they really smell like tea!), and my skin feels super-soft. Over these last few weeks questions about the products have popped into my head, so I thought it would be fun to do an interview with founders Zhao and Ron. Below you'll find out all about why they made tea-based skincare products, the importance of using real tea, and the beauty of tea and self care.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

A Tea Blogger In Korea- The People Of Korean Tea

Tea field in Boseong

As many of you know, I went on an incredible trip to South Korea led by Yoon Hee Kim, where I had the opportunity to meet tea farmers, spend time in tea fields, and even make my own tea! As an American tea blogger that has never traveled to Asia before, it was a life-changing trip.

After this 8-day tea and culinary tour, I have so much to share but it's been tough to get my feelings into words. I've decided to break it down into a few posts. I recently read an article about Mr. Rogers, and in it he was quoted saying 'Point out the beauty when you can'. So I decided this first article will be about the beauty in everyone we met. The people that create Korean tea. I hope you can get a glimpse of what it felt like to meet such caring, dedicated tea people.

The Korean Tea Farmers and Producers
The people we met have a humble sense of pride. They all have a deep respect for tea, and take great pleasure in sharing what they do with others. Tea tastings that should have lasted for 30 minutes ended up going for multiple hours, as there was so much to tell us, and everyone wanted to share their beautiful teas. Here are just a few of the people we met:

I loved meeting the many people at the Borim Tea farm and research center in Boesong. A beautiful facility where we felt right at home, I had my first experience here walking through tea fields, and plucking leaves and flowers. We were given a lesson in the history of Korean tea, and I learned so much! I laughed when we learned about the 'bromance' between two ancient Korean tea scholars (more on that soon!).

steamed leaves ready to be pounded for ddoek cha

One of my favorite activities at Borim was learning how to make our own ddoek cha (cake style tea), where we pounded steamed leaves in a huge vessel that looked like an over-sized mortar and pestle, then shaped the leaves into cakes (mine weren't the most uniform, but I had so much fun!), and left them to dehydrate (I'll be writing a more in-depth post about Korean teas, including the ones we made).

MongJoongSan Dawon

We also had the opportunity to make our own tea flower liquor. We took the tea flowers we plucked in the fields and added them to a bottle with soju. In a few short weeks I'll have special liquor to make cocktails with! Throughout our time at Borim, everyone made sure we were comfortable, and well fed. One evening they even held an outdoor BBQ where everything was grilled: various seafood and meats, veggies, even rice cakes and chestnuts.

I'll never forget the cheerful folks at MongJoongSan Dawon, a large tea plantation in Boseong where the majestic fields are bathed not only in mist, but in sound. The farmers play music to their tea plants to keep them happy. It was surreal to be walking through the misty fields, listening to hauntingly beautiful music and feeling the energy of the plants. We were given a ride through the tea fields with a very jovial tea farmer, and we later had a lively tea tasting with him and a few of the other tea garden employees. Check out my pinned Instagram story about Korean Tea, you'll be able to hear the music played in this tea field.

korean dasik and a dasik mold

Another cherished memory is spending time with the tea grower who showed us how to make Korean tea sweets (dasik). She was patient as we took the time to roll out different types of dough and press them through traditional molds. We later had a lovely walk through her tea fields where she serenaded us with a beautiful opera performance while we sat by a creek. All the tea people we met have a connection to the arts, whether it's singing, playing an instrument, dance, or other visual arts. I love how they not only grow tea, but have a connection to it through the arts as well.

Hongcha at the top of a mountain

Then there is the tea farmer in Hadong that let us ride his monorail, a little vehicle (and I mean little!!) meant for hauling tea leaves from mountain (not humans!). Riding on a tiny platform scraping the sides of tea bushes up a mountain was definite a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We were laughing and cheering the entire time, while desperately holding on! Once we were at the top, he brewed cup after cup of hong cha for us, while we gazed at the sloping tea fields below us. Drinking tea in nature is a key part of the Korean tea experience. Korean culture is deeply connected to nature, and it is expressed in every way possible.

In Hadong, we met the owner of BuTea who introduced us to his family. After showing us his tea production area, his young son drew us pictures as we sipped tea. We also enjoyed treats and his wife and daughter had prepared for us to eat. Snacks kept appearing as we had more and more tea, and the little boy shyly sat near us while we all chatted. It was such a sweet afternoon.

here I am attempting to roll tea leaves

While in Hadong we also went to a tea farm and research and education center where we processed our own green tea! It was such fun to get our hands on the leaves, and learn how to pan fire and roll it. I knew making tea was a laborious process, but doing just a small bit of it really showed me how much time and effort it takes.

Before my trip, most people asked me if I was going on a 'green tea' tour, as Korea is mostly known for green tea. But my favorite teas of the trip turned out to be hwang cha (semi oxidized teas also referred to as balhyocha) and hong cha (black tea). We also tasted the ddoek cha I mentioned earlier, and fermented teas along with various green teas. I can't wait to talk about them further.

Tea Chefs and Artisans
While in a Southern province, we met a master baker of Korean sweets who owns a tea house with her husband. She creates all of the food, and he built the entire place and maintains the gardens. She welcomed us with a tour, explaining every little detail of the tea house, and kept bringing us added extra treats. We learned about the art of Korean tea snacks. This tea house was such a special place, tucked in a remote rural area that I never would have found on my own. Every little brick and stone was brought in by her husband, and meaningfully placed. The tea house is a true marvel.

beautiful Korean tea house

We met a well known potter that invited us to his studio and insisted on making us endless cups of tea while talking about the history of Korean pottery. He taught us the importance of nature in Korean art and culture, and throughout the trip I was able to see how nature reflected in every person we met.

Later in the trip we met a potter and his wife in Gwangju that not only spent hours chatting and pouring us tea, but when we had to rush off to the train station, they took the long drive with us, helped carry our bags, and made sure we were all safely on the train. They didn't leave until the train departed, waving to us as we pulled out.

I can't forget to mention the kindness of our guide Yoon Hee, who went above and beyond to make sure we had a stellar experience. She drove us all throughout the country, translated every word, made sure we were happy and comfortable. She gave us tea experiences we will never forget!

Korean teas can be difficult to find in the US, and I feel fortunate to have tasted teas on the farms where they are grown and processed. Whether it was a large plantation or a small scale garden, every tea farmer we met welcomed us with open arms, eager to tell us about their teas and give us many tastes. When I sip tea I often think about how many people were involved in bringing these leaves to me. It's even more special now that I have met the people behind my Korean teas. In the coming weeks I will dive deeper into the Korean tea experience.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Interview: Tatjana and Tom of Teapro UK

Tatjana and Tom, photo courtesy of Teapro UK

Instagram is by far my favorite way to connect with tea people, I love looking at all the creative tea photos! One account that always entertains and amuses is Teapro UK. Founders Tatjana and Tom are incredibly whimsical and artistic. They do a great job of illustrating the joys of tea. Teapro UK is a virtual tea shop where you can browse tea and teaware, or order tea subscription boxes. Our interview below gives you a peek into the life of two tea-entrepreneurs, and how they keep the creative juices flowing.

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!