In pursuit of the perfect cup of tea
Many people are afraid of adding a bit of “spice” to their life, in the untraditional sense. For me, that extra twist was found at a world market named Cost Plus. On the outside, this store bares a surprisingly strong resemblance to the Staples that sits next door. But when you push open the swinging doors of the store, you’re whisked in by a light breeze that swirls through your hair and up to the creaking wood fans hanging down from the vaulted ceilings. Okay, so it wasn’t that dramatic of an entry in real life. However, once inside, you’re bombarded with scents and colors and sounds that throw themselves at shoppers from the radiating isles: intricately woven oriental rugs from Istanbul underfoot; handmade baskets of white birch bark; jingling tapestries flashing fuchsia, neon orange, and lime green; furniture stacked up fifteen feet tall in all four corners of this giant room; dark, jagged, authentic African masks; sparkling crystal glasses for wine, brandy, martinis, margaritas, even fancy water glasses; naked granite statues of beasts and beauties with aquiline features; hand-thrown pottery of black and red and white clays; and the amber glow of hard liquors, the bloody water of the merlots and zinfandels, and the pale shimmer of the Rieslings, chardonnays, and dryer white wines. Everything begs for your pause, your time- a touch, a sniff, or a taste.
Infrequent shoppers at Cost Plus are easily and quickly distracted by all the ethnic items that tempt them as they move to the item that serves as their original reason for entering this rustic store. I can hardly break myself away from the henna journals made from recycled paper (with little flowers pressed into the pages) or lift myself from the comforts of the Turkish ottomans in order to reach the back of the store. There, centered along the back wall, shelved from floor to ceiling, you can find my obsession. The Teas (and accessories).
Whole leaf, crushed, crumbled, bagged, bottled, and sealed for freshness. Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast, chamomile, black, green, peach, lemon zester, blackcurrant, chai spice, double spice, and iced teas. I scan the rows and rows of teas in search of a small brown package: my tea. The tea I’ve been buying for the past year and a half, traveling cross-town to get it. On the very bottom shelf, dead center, between a gallon container of peach iced tea mix and saran-wrapped bulk packages of Earl Grey wait two small brown paper packages, each sealed with a string tie and stamped red wax on the top.
This is the most exotic tea I could find in Cost Plus on my first visit, and after my first cup, I’ve been hooked. From that moment on, I drink only black tea and spin-offs thereof. There is no orderly way to open these packages. You must cut the ties, tear off the wax, bringing the outer brown packaging with it, and then dig through aluminum-coated wax paper and underneath a slab of cardstock to reach the granules of this blesséd tea. The tea itself looks like the mutant offspring of caterpillar turds and Grape Nuts cereal. The smell, however, cannot be compared to either of its parents: the tea smells heavy of earth and plants and stale air with a breath of orange rind intertwined.*
*At this point, my mother entered my room, catching me with my nose in said package of tea, inhaling deeply. Without a word, she slowly backed out of the room and closed the door.
This particular black tea was made at the Putharjhora Tea Estate in West Bengal, India. This plantation, I learned, is near the foothills of the Himalayas, and is famous for not only the high quality and volume of tea they export, but also the wild elephant herds that roam the area (perhaps now I should be rethinking my “caterpillar turd” comment from above). What makes this black tea so famous is its briskness and inherent strength, fashioned through the timely process of "Crushed, Tear and Curl" of the tea leaves. This process is what makes the thick, rich flavor of true Indian Chai.
I have the pleasure of dining at an Indian restaurant once every week or so. Called Pasand, it offers excellent Indian food and drink at a moderate price. Pasad’s brews phenomenal chai tea, which, the (Indian) waiter/manager confided to me, was shipped directly from India, from the exact estate that I purchased my tea from via Cost Plus! The tea at Pasad’s, however, was flavored with goat’s milk instead of cow’s milk, giving it a thicker, richer taste than what I drink at home.
When purchasing your own tea, make sure that:
When brewing, remember to:
- Use a good quality loose leaf or bagged tea
- This must be stored in an air-tight container at room temperature
- Always use freshly drawn boiling water
- In order to draw the best flavor out of the tea the water must contain oxygen; this is reduced if the water is boiled more than once.
- Measure the tea carefully
- Use 1 tea bag or 1 rounded teaspoon of loose tea for each cup to be served
- Allow the tea to brew for the recommended time before pouring
Some tea types recommended by the Tea Council are:
- Darjeeling- a black tea from India (described above). Brew for 3-5 minutes, then drink black or with milk. It has a delicate, slightly astringent flavor.
- Assam- a black tea from India. Brew for 3-5 minutes then drink black or with milk. It is a full-bodied tea with a rich, smooth, malty flavor.
- Ceylon Blend- a black tea from Sri Lanka. Brew for 3-5 minutes then drink black or with milk. It has a brisk, full flavor with a bright color.
- Kenya- a black tea from Kenya (Africa). Brew for 2-4 minutes then drink black or with milk. It is a strong tea with brisk flavor.
- Earl Grey- a black tea from China or Darjeeling. Brew for 3-5 minutes then drink black or with lemon. This tea is flavored with the natural oil of citrus fruit.
- Lapsang Souchong- an oolong tea from China. Brew for 3-5 minutes then drink black. It has a smoky aroma and flavor.
- China Oolong- an oolong tea from China. Brew for 5-7 minutes then drink black. It is a delicate, lightly flavored tea.
(The Tea Council an independent body dedicated to promoting tea and representing the world's major tea producing and exporting countries and UK tea packers. You can view their site at www.teacouncil.co.uk.)