In Praise of Tea

This month, I have been in need of comfort, and what more comforting thing can there be for the soul than a warm, smooth cup of tea? I have to confess that before last week, my knowledge of tea was pretty much confined to the pleasure of a short fleeting moment in the morning and mid-afternoon, when I poured out my Twinings English Breakfast. (Yes you can have English Breakfast in the afternoon if you want to. It’s ok.) But on browsing for tea related presents this week I have become aware of the whole fascinating world that tea inhabits! I knew that England was a nation of tea lovers, but I had no idea that there were so many interesting places to buy tea and teawares, and so much to learn about the story of it, and its place in history across the world.

Mariage Frères: ode to tea ceremony

I have been reminded that tea has a fascinating and varied history and it is interesting how each country and culture responds to a simple drink of dried leaves. Each place has its own peculiarities of making and serving tea, with its own peculiar meanings, and the art of serving is unique in each place.

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Chinese tea culture is a vast subject – there are so many rituals and ceremonies far beyond what I thought I already knew! Traditionally, tea is offered to convey respect to ones family and elders, as a way of apology, to connect large families on a wedding day, and as a symbol of thanks. Tea (茶) was historically regarded as one of the seven daily necessities, the others being firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar(柴,米,油,鹽,醬,醋) I have read that the most popular way to brew tea in China is still by using a traditional gaiwan or literally ‘covered bowl’. I really love the idea of drinking from a tea bowl, I think I may have to try it, it seems like the right way to drink it somehow. I found some lovely ones here, at the Canton Tea Co, a great place that I found where you can buy all sorts of varied teas and teawares online.

Green tea leaves steeping in an uncovered zhong (type of tea cup)

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Green tea’s traditional role in Japanese society is as a drink for special guests and special occasions. Green tea has been used as both a beverage and a method of traditional medicine in most of Asia, including China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea and Thailand, to help everything from controlling bleeding and helping heal wounds to regulating body temperature, blood sugar and promoting digestion. What I didn’t realise was just how many types of green tea there are! I love the names – Gyokuro (Precious Dewdrop), a beautiful jade tea, Matcha, an astringent frothy green tea. Sencha, Bancha, and Kukicha are other very different green teas. Genmaicha includes puffed  rice, and Hojicha is a roasted, smoky tea. You can read more about green tea here. I think I would like to take mine like this..

Matcha tea and a sweet cake

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Tea occupies a very important place in Moroccan culture, and is considered to be an art form.  They famously add mint leaves to their tea, but they also often add lemon verbena, wormwood, and  even pine nuts. Traditionally, the tea is served three times, as described in this proverb:

Le premier verre est aussi amer que la vie,
le deuxième est aussi fort que l’amour,
le troisième est aussi doux que la mort.
(The first glass is as bitter as life,
the second glass is as strong as love,
the third glass is as gentle as death.)

Tea pouring Ceremony

Moroccan Tea Glasses from Camellias Tea House

Sweet mint tea, served warm in a glass, scattered with pine nuts…mmmm…

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As well as the Canton tea company, I found some lovely things at Postcard Teas.  They say that they  pioneered “proper tea provenance” by putting the maker or estate’s name and place of production on every tin of tea they sell. They make a worthy comment when they say “Imagine a fine wine world where companies sold bottles of wine labelled only with the wine’s country or region of origin but not the estate or maker’s name!” I think that I may have to be adventurous and try out some different teas.

Well, now I really want to pour myself a big cuppa. With maybe some scones..cream…or some little sandwiches, cakes, and golden tea in a china pot. Ahhhhh……it’s enough to make me turn girly..

Afternoon Tea

Luxury Tea Room at the Hotel De Crillon, Paris

Glass of tea in a vintage Soviet "podstakannik" (Tea glass holder)

My Charity Shop Tea Set

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