Monday, April 16, 2018

Interview: Bruce Richardson of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas

Photo Courtesy of Bruce Richardson

As a fan of tea history, I first came across Bruce Richardson's name as the co-author of a book I reach for often, A Social History of Tea. Since then I've noticed his name pop up on numerous books, lectures, tea history sites, and as the co-owner of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas with his wife Shelley and son Ben.

Last month I had the pleasure of speaking with Bruce face to face at the NY Coffee & Tea Festival, and knew he'd be a perfect person for a blog interview. As expected he's very knowledgeable about all things tea, but also fine art, music, and travel. Read below for our interview, including one of his most memorable tea adventures, and a special personal tea ritual.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Visit To The Charleston Tea Plantation

When my husband suggested we visit Charleston, SC with our kids for spring break, there one was thing that instantly popped into my mind. Not the immaculate architecture, the historic sites, or the southern cooking. Naturally, the first thing I thought of was 'We need to visit the Charleston Tea Plantation!!'. 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

American Tea History: Who Sipped Iced Tea First?

It's time for more tea history! This weekend we're jetting off to Charleston for spring break, and I imagine we'll be inundated by sweet tea. When I think about iced tea in America, Southern 'sweet tea' immediately comes to mind. I'm not a huge fan of sweet tea myself, but it got me wondering about the history of iced tea in the US so I did a little bit of research and found a few interesting tidbits. It seems iced tea may not have been invented in the south, but let's look at some of the evidence...

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Tea History 101: The Value of 18th Century Teaware

I love history, especially when it involves tea! I also love to share the tidbits I'm learning here on the blog. I recently had the pleasure of attending a seminar on tea etiquette by Bruce Richardson, who co-authored A Social History of Tea, one of my favorite books on Western tea history. Bruce gave an informative seminar on afternoon tea etiquette throughout history, and one photo he shared in particular struck me as interesting:

Family Of Three (c.1727) by Richard Collins. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This is a painting of a family enjoying tea with beautiful tea accessories, and drinking from tea bowls! I didn't realize that it was common to sit with your tea and teaware for paintings in the 18th century. During his seminar, Mr. Richardson mentioned European families often put their most valuable possessions in their paintings, so it makes sense that teapots, teaware and tea bowls are often seen in them. Teaware in the 1700s was very expensive and difficult to acquire, therefore quite valuable to a family. The above painting is part of the Victoria and Albert Museum's collection in London, and per the V&As website:
When painting 'conversation pieces' (relaxed portraits of family groups or gatherings of friends), artists were expected not only to show their sitters in fine clothes, but would also be obliged to include valuable possessions, indicating their wealth and social status.
Eighteenth Century European tea drinkers such as the ones in the painting enjoyed tea from bowls, since that's how it was consumed in China and Japan (and still is today). European exporters simply purchased the tea ware in Japan and China and shipped it off to England. Commissions for specific designs and sizes came later, as did manufacture within Europe. The woman in the painting looks as if her pinky is 'up' but most likely she is extending her pinky to counterbalance the bowl, and also to keep her digits cool from the hot bowl. By the way, putting your 'pinky up' for afternoon tea is a definite myth! But more on 18th century tea bowls- handles were added later, per wikipedia: 
Tea bowls in the Far East did not have handles, and the first European imitations, made at Meissen, were without handles, too. At the turn of the 19th century 'canns' of cylindrical form with handles became a fashionable alternative to bowl-shaped cups.
The pieces of tea ware available during this time were often shipped from China and Japan in mixed batches and most families did not have matching sets. They often purchased individual pieces one at a time. This was well before the large fancy European tea sets were available. European artisans started to reproducing teaware they saw from China in the early 1700s, but re-creating the delicate pieces was difficult and artisans didn't master the technique until the mid-eighteenth century. Companies such as Meissen mentioned in the quote above, started creating tea bowls and other teaware, and later produced cups with handles. 

An old Meissen demitasse cup from my collection, but this one has a handle!

According to the book Steeped In History, Europeans required handles because they drank mostly black tea, which (as you know) is usually served at a higher temperature than green tea. The hot temperatures made it difficult to hold the delicate tea bowls. Just think about the woman in the painting above, trying to balance her hot tea bowl in her hand! The child in the photo is also holding her bowl quite precariously. When I use a gaiwan to prepare black tea such as dian hong, I do admit I have a hard time holding it because of the temperature. It makes sense handles were developed when black tea became the popular choice in England and much of Western Europe. If you have an antique European tea cup that doesn't have a handle, chances are it's quite old! 

Have you come across Eighteenth Century European portraits that include teaware? Or the teaware itself? If so I'd love to hear more about what you've seen!

For more bits of tea history, check out my previous posts on such things as Americans sipped tea before the Britstea and the presidency, and tea and women's suffrage

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review: Global Tea Hut Tieguanyin 2017 Traditional Oolong

Tea reviews are fun to write, and give me the opportunity to share my tea tasting adventures with you. They can be helpful if you are mulling over what teas to buy, or looking for a particular brand or variety. Keep in mind that taste is subjective, and depending on how you prepare the tea and the water you use, you may have different results. I usually prepare the tea as instructed by the vendor, unless otherwise noted. If at first you're not happy with a tea, try adjusting your water temp, steep time, and amount of leaf. Keep experimenting and tasting!

I have to admit, I don't often reach for Tie Guan Yin. It's either too green and floral, or the roast isn't right for me. There are a few exceptions, and lately I've noticed more traditionally roasted Tie Guan Yin (TGY) popping up.

Today's tea is TGY is from Global Tea Hut. The weather has been cold and I'm reaching for many roasted, darker teas. Traditional Tie Guan Yin is definitely appropriate for this time of year. Global Tea Hut is an organization dedicated to spreading their love of tea around the world. They run a monthly subscription program that includes a tea magazine and a tin of tea every month.

I subscribed to Global Tea Hut for quite some time, but decided to end my subscription because I couldn't keep up with reading all the magazines and drinking all the tea. I still have a huge pile of tea and magazine from about a year ago to get through. Such tea blogger problems! I do recommend it if you are looking for a monthly tea subscription that is unique, and full of information. It's an interesting look at tea farmers, tea culture, history, and teaware. In each issue you can also meet members of 'The Hut' and learn about their tea journey.

I was recently sent the January 2018 issue which is all about TGY. I was excited to try this version, and see where it fell in the 'too green' or 'too roasted' categories. I apologize that in my excitement I didn't take full notes, so I don't have a record on the aroma of the dry leaf. I prepared the sample in my small white porcelain gaiwan. My water temp was originally 200F, and it made a gentle, smooth brew. I prefer my traditional TGY with a little bit more bite, so I changed the temp to 212º F, and I got the more dynamic flavor I was looking for. It did have a little astringency at this temperature, but that's what I prefer. If you're looking for a clean and smooth flavor, go with 200º.

The brewed tea is roasty, with notes of toasted sourdough bread. After one sip I could see freshly baked sourdough bread, cooling on the kitchen counter. There is a hint of tartness within the toasted bread flavor, so my mind went to the sourdough. It also has a juicy flavor I've come to recognize with TGY.  I think it's similar to stewed apples. Flavor is clean, and the roast isn't too aggressive. It is nicely balanced. Definitely a nice version of a traditional TGY.

Thank you to Global Tea Hut for providing the magazine and sample! I enjoyed sipping and reading all the info in the magazine. I hope to subscribe again when I find myself with a little extra time for reading.

To see what fruit I'd pair with a roasted Tie Guan Yin, check out the Oolong and Fruit Tea Pairing 101 I did with my tea pairing friends last year. For a comprehensive look at the tea reviews I've done, you can check out this link, here.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Review: Congou Black Tea By Oliver Pluff & Co

I love learning about tea history, there is so much information to discover and digest. I've written a bit about colonial American tea drinking in the past, as well as the historic tea blends of Oliver Pluff & Co. Their blends give a peek inside the teapots of colonial America.

Today's review is for Oliver Pluff & Co.'s Congou. Congou is derived from the word gongfu, meaning a skillfully crafted tea. You may recognize the term from the Chinese gongfu preparation style (prepared with skill), and perhaps you've come across it in tea blends such as dian hong congfu, and bai lin congfu. Oliver Pluff's Congou is a full leaf, finely twisted tea. During colonial times, it was considered very high quality tea.

Jumping back to Colonial America, Congou was one of the black teas imported by the British East India company. It's a tea the American colonists would have seen in local shops. Tea was extremely expensive back in colonial times, and often stored under lock and key. In fact, during the Boston Tea Party in 1773, 15 chests of Congou tea were thrown overboard as part of the protest.

The flavor of the colonial teas must have been quite different from what we'd expect today. In the 18th century,  teas took months to ship from China to England, and then could have sat around in London storage warehouses for months or even years before making its way to the New World. Definitely not what we'd expect when purchasing tea today.

But on to today's tea review! As I mentioned, the dry leaves are twisted, and also contain some golden buds. They have an extremely sweet fragrance with a bit of something starchy, reminding me of sugar cookies fresh from the oven. A warm and comforting aroma.

The brewed tea is sweet and quite smooth. There is a mellow toasty flavor to this tea, with barely a hint of astringency. Oliver Pluff's website describes the flavor as unsweetened baked apples, and I think it's spot on. When I was young, my grandmother often served baked apples, and the flavor of this tea definitely brings me back to her kitchen table. The flavor is also reminiscent of baked sweet potato- there is definitely a bit of earthiness lingering within the sweetness. The flavor is strong enough to work as a morning tea, and appropriate for a bit of milk. I've been drinking it as my morning tea for the past week, and I've enjoyed the sweetness and full body. I usually prefer my teas on the slightly oversteeped side, and this one doesn't get astringent with my aggressive steeping. It's a nice tea to prepare during the chilly winter mornings we've had lately.

To learn more about this product you can visit the Oliver Pluff Website. Also, to learn a bit about the company's founder, you can check out my review here. Thank you Oliver Pluff & Co for providing this tea for review!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Tea For The Super Bowl

Do you enjoy watching football, or is your idea of a Super Bowl using your biggest cereal bowl to make matcha? Well, whether you watch the Super Bowl attentively or sit near the TV while scrolling through Instagram, this weekend is the 'big game' and I thought it would be fun to suggest ways to infuse the festivities with tea. From tea and food pairings, cooking with tea, to straight up 'tea beer', there are many ways to celebrate the day with your favorite beverage.

Tea Pairings
Game-watching food is meant to be grazed- you know you'll be picking at various snacks for a few hours, basically non-stop. The common theme is heavy, greasy, and spicy. There may be some veggies on a platter, but you know they're meant to be dunked in the onion dip. If you'll be nibbling on spicy wings, nachos, and seven-layer dip until the final touchdown, go for a puerh. I'd choose a silky, deep shou to wash down the spicy and greasy treats. Bonus points if you drink your shou gongfu style, set up among the wings and dip.

If you're more likely to stick with chips and a creamy dip, or maybe veggies and cheese for most of the evening, I think a vegetal green tea such as bancha would work well. It's got a bit of astringency to work with through heavy chips and dip, but will also compliment veggies and milder cheeses. Or if you'll stick with noshing on a bowl of potato chips, a White Peony would work quite well (but probably not a Silver Needle). The hay-like flavors will enhance the potato.

If you'll be eating pizza, I think a kombucha would really win the day. Whenever I think about pizza, I just love a good, fizzy drink to go with it. Kombucha's got the fizz,  a sour punch, and a nice sweetness. The perfect foil for that oily pizza, and a great substitute for soda. There are so many different varieties of Kombucha out there, so pick up a few and see what you like. If I had to choose, I'm partial to GTs and Health Ade.

If chili is on the buffet, I think a Keemun tea would be great. The smooth chocolate note in a good keemun will really round out the chili. Or a malty Assam would be a nice choice as well, to highlight the earthy and spicy notes. Are we getting a bit too highbrow with the pairings? Any tea with a bit of heft will work well with most Super Bowl-approved foods.

Beer Tea?
Apparently, beer tea is a thing. I've seen matcha beer served at 29B in NY, although I haven't tried it. For straight up beer and tea recommendations, I found this page, which lists many varieties of tea beer. No time to order? Check out stores that have a large beer selection, you never know what you'll find! I also noticed that Owl's Brew (they make some very tasty tea cocktail mixers) sells Radlers which are a blend of tea, beer, and other flavors. Now you know!

Make Tea-Infused Chili!
Why not add tea right into your party food? Last spring I posted my recipe for Lapsang Souchong infused chili. It's quite delicious, and perfect for a crowd. The slightly smoky flavor works really nicely with the beans and spices. You can serve it alone or pile it on chips for amazing nachos.

There you have it, lots of different ways to enjoy your tea during the Super Bowl. What's your plan for the big day? I'll be at a party with tea in hand and one eye on the game, and one scrolling through Instagram.