Afternoon Tea is delicious, but what is the history behind it?

The fanciest of china sets, fresh scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam, mini cakes and finger sandwiches. What’s there not to love? The British tradition of Afternoon Tea has certainly seen a rise in popularity recently, but where does it come from? With Afternoon Tea Week just around the corner, it’s time to find out.

Meet Anna, the Duchess of Bedford

It’s the early 19th century and we are at the court of Duke and Duchess of Bedford. Lunch was not a popular meal in the 19th century among the upper classes as they woke up late (around 10am or later) to have breakfast and the main meal of the day would be dinner. However, as lighting the house began to be more efficient, dinner was pushed later and later in the evening and it was believed to be served at 8 o’clock. I would definitely get hungry or peckish in between those two meals, that’s for sure! It is for that reason that Anna (very close to Anca, it must be fate!), the 7th Duchess of Bedford, started taking a small snack and some tea in her room during the afternoon.

As this became a more regular occasion, Anna started inviting her friends over to share the ritual, relax and gossip. Soon enough, the ladies started copying her and so Afternoon Tea was born. You must also know that tea at this time in history was still very expensive, to the point that it was kept in locked tea chests, and drinking it would be a sign of wealth. So as the upper classes adopted the ritual, wearing fine clothes and displaying the finest china, high-end hotels started offering it as a meal, gradually evolving to what it is today during the course of 20th century.

afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason
A birthday treat: enjoying tea in the Diamond Jubilee Salon at Fortnum & Mason

What is the difference between Afternoon Tea and High Tea?

Although you might sometimes see Afternoon Tea described as ‘High Tea’, the two are not to be confused! Traditionally, High Tea is the evening meal that the working classes would have upon returning home from work which included a hearty dish such as a soup or main course, followed by bread, butter, cakes and tea.

This was served at a high table or dinner table, which is where it derives the name from, and it must have appeared much later when tea was no longer exclusive to the upper classes. In contrast, Afternoon Tea was always served on low tables as it was intended as a snack in between meals and it was very much a tradition for the wealthy, who wouldn’t be at work during the afternoon.

What about cream tea?

Cream tea is a lighter alternative to Afternoon Tea in which a pot of tea is served with scones, cream and jam. If you think about it, cream tea is probably much closer to what the Duchess of Bedford would have had rather than the lavish meal it is today.

The origins of this tradition are highly disputed between Devon and Cornwall, two counties in England, where they differ slightly. In Devon’s tradition, the scone is layered with clotted cream first and then jam is spread on top, whereas in Cornwall, the traditional calls for butter, followed by a layer of jam and a spoonful of clotted cream. I personally prefer the Devon method, why add more fat? And even if you skip it, surely you would use the cream as butter and spread it first, right? Each to their own though!

cream-tea-scones
A tantalising cream tea picture from the Cream Tea Society, which shows the Cornish method of serving cream tea.

Afternoon Tea today is still an occasion where we take the time to catch up and relax as it was originally intended. So why not impress your family and friends next time with your newly acquired knowledge?

Stay tuned for my next post for a review of a very unusual afternoon tea location.

Cheerio,
Anca

Avoiding caffeine? You don’t have to give up tea

Here’s a fun fact for you: the tea leaves of camellia sinensis have more caffeine than coffee. However, the process they go through after plucking to become your favourite tea destroys most of it. That’s why a coffee will give you more of a kick than a cup of tea.

But even so, I know many people still avoid having tea altogether because of it, due to health, lifestyle choices or simply because they want something warm to go to bed with without having trouble sleeping afterwards. That doesn’t mean you have to give up all tea for ever though. Just don’t think green tea will help, that actually has more caffeine!

The black alternative: decaf tea

For the traditional tea drinker, a decaf English breakfast blend should go down a treat. This is made using tea leaves that have gone through the same process as black tea and then an additional one to extract the caffeine.

Simply re-using the leaves after a 60 second infusion will get rid of a large part of caffeine, but unfortunately it will also take away the taste and flavour of black teas. That’s why another compound is normally used to take the caffeine out. Some companies use chemicals such as ethyl acetate, but not in such quantities so it becomes dangerous. A more natural alternative is to use CO2 where the leaves are soaked in a liquid solution to release the caffeine.  This is then extracted using charcoal from the resulting solution and the tea leaves are re-soaked to absorb the flavours all over again.

If you ask me, any process is unnatural no matter what method you use, so you might as well go for different blends altogether. 

The herbal variety

If you want a tea that naturally lacks caffeine, you’ll be better off going for a herbal blend. I am a fussy drinker of herbal teas because I hate the ones that always end up tasting like a tart, berry flavour concoction. So I’ve included three very different recommendations that I enjoy, hoping one will tickle your tastebuds!

Chamomile tea
I love a soothing cup of chamomile tea on a chilly evening

Rooibos – the needles of a bush native to South Africa. Most commonly it goes through a process of fermentation after picking (like black tea) which is why I’ve included it in the list of teas you can add milk to. This makes it the perfect substitute if you miss your normal cup of tea but you need to stay off caffeine for a while. Most commonly known as Redbush in the UK (because of the colour), you can also find it in the green variety where the leaves are not fermented and the antioxidants level is higher.

Chamomile – made from the flowers of the chamomile plant and is often thought of as a calming tea. It has a natural sweetness to it (closer to toffee in flavour than to fruit, just not that sweet). It’s also been recently recommended as good for fighting cellulite due to its stress-relieving properties. A bit of a stretch if you ask me but worth a go! What I do know is that chamomile has anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties which makes it great for digestive problems such as heartburn and to help alleviate flus and colds or mouth ulcers. 

Lemon verbena – if you’ve had a lemongrass tea before, you’ll know what fresh and citrus taste to expect from this tea. It’s beautifully refreshing and, similarly to chamomile, has many health benefits including a calming effect on stomach issues like cramping and bloating, immune system booster, helps reduce muscle damage after exercise and joint pain. However you must know it’s not recommended for those with kidney problems. 

…and many more! In fact in many countries, like Romania for example, teas are mainly herbal and seen as a form of natural medicine rather than drunk for pleasure. I think they are a bit of both! 

What’s your favourite tea without caffeine? 

Which teas can you add milk to?

Perhaps one of the reasons why tea and coffee are such popular drinks is that they are a blank canvas. You can have them hot or cold (try my recipe for a refreshing ice tea), with a little milk, a lot or no milk at all, frothed or not, with one, two or however many spoons of sugar you prefer, or perhaps you’re the special syrup type of drinker.

One of the founders in the company I work for has a T-shirt with his tea preference. Many people get customised mugs with it. Everyone has their preference. My mum loves a vanilla latte. I, as you’ve probably guessed from the title, like my black tea with milk and no sugar. Though I like white tea too so I’ve been a bit cheeky there!

Milk first or last?

The habit of starting with milk comes from the time when Westerners first discovered the pleasure of drinking tea. They poured milk in first to prevent their fine bone china or porcelain from breaking when the boiling tea was added from the teapot. Times have changed though, many people now make tea directly in cups and mugs which are much stronger. And unless you know what you’re doing, you can ruin a good cup of tea by adding too much of the white stuff. I recommend adjusting the milk ratio after the tea is prepared.

Black tea but not all of it!

Now that you know there is more to tea than a builder’s brew, it’s time to introduce you to tea varieties. Depending on where the teas are grown and when they are picked, tea leaves have a certain aroma, flavour and stregth. They can be consumed as a standalone variety or in a blend – the way most people prefer them. Take the popular English Breakfast for example – it’s a blend of three varieties: Kenyan for colour, Assam for strength, body and maltiness and Ceylon for aroma and adding complexity to the flavour. It really does sound like a recipe for success, no wonder Queen Victoria loved it so much.

Out of those three, it’s the Assam that has a full enough body to hold the blend’s taste when milk is added. Otherwise you’d just taste a watered down version of milk. So, which teas and blends are suitable?

  • Add milk to: Breakfast blends like English Breakfast (also Irish, Melbourne, etc.), Assam, Keemun, Lapsang Souchong.
  • Don’t add milk to Darjeeling, Ceylon, Afternoon tea, Earl or Lady Grey.
Melbourne Breakfast from T2 with milk is one of my hubby’s favourite teas

​​​Rooibos or Redbush

If your personal preference is to stay off caffeine, you can still enjoy a milky tea. Try Rooibos or Redbush – a South African herbal tea that is made with the needles of a bush. It’s similar in colour and flavour to an English Breakfast (as similar as a herbal tea can be) and it holds its own well with a splash of milk.

Vanilla Rooibos Dragonfly Tea with milk

Matcha – the new health craze

A very popular drink with the health conscious at the moment, matcha is the powdered form of special green tea bushes, such as Gyokuro, from Japan that are grown shaded from the sun. Japanese green teas are generally really earthy, a bit like the taste of boiled spinach, and this one is no exception. The traditional way of preparing it is using a bamboo whisk to blend it with water. However, Westerners prefer to add it to smoothies and cakes for an antioxidant kick, or to mix it with frothed milk as an alternative to a latte. Because of its strong, bitter taste, it’s probably the only type of tea that I like to add honey or a lemony syrup to. I’ve never tried cooking with it before, but I’ll do some experiments and let you know!

That’s it! Don’t add milk to green, white, Oolong or other herbal teas as they won’t hold their flavour. Also, if you normally add lemon to your tea (a popular habit in Europe), avoid adding milk as well as you’ll end up with a curdled mess!

Until next time!

Are you drinking a good quality tea? 5 tell-tale signs

As consumers, we’re no longer happy to buy just any food and drink that is available. We want to know more about its origins and nutritional value and to good reason! We’re also spoilt for choice more than ever before so we need to find something to differentiate products by, right?

You might like to experiment with different types of tea or you might prefer the comforting taste of your favourite brand. But have you ever wondered what goes into your regular cup of tea? I have 5 sure signs to help you tell if you’re drinking a cup of goodness or just dust.

1. Tea bags vs loose tea leaves

This might be harsh to hear for some but tea bags are mostly made up of what is left when all the good quality tea has been taken away. That’s not true of all brands of tea, but it is for most of them. No wonder we don’t give it much respect when brewing a cup then. Three swirls of the spoon and it’s out.

Why do I say this? When mechanisation of tea processing came about in the 19th century, the traditional methods (all in a neat table here), most tea leaves started being processed using the CTC method. This stands for Crush, Tear, Curl and is still the way a lot of tea is processed today, especially that used in tea bags. And in order to obtain the brew most like in such a short space, the tea needs to be really small. Proper big leaves needs a longer infusion time to create a delicious cup.

One of the key criteria of drinking loose leaf tea is that you’re supposed to be able to see the leaf, whether it’s the unfurling of a Gunpowder pellet or the long strands of a Silver Needle. So when the best leaves are picked for loose packages, it would be inefficient if businesses binned the remaining broken leaves. These will be used for teabags or blends where whole leaf quality is not so important.

Having said that, not all tea bags are bad. To find out, simply rip one of them open. You should still be able to distinguish broken pieces (called fannings) rather than just dust.

Open tea bag
Dusty tea bag
Fannings tea
Fannings – a better tea bag

2. Clarity

If you’re still on the fence on the above, I get you! Convenience is hard to beat. Then, the next thing to look out for is clarity. Judge this before you add milk if making black tea!

Essentially, no matter how tall your cup, mug or glass is, you should be able to easily see the bottom. It doesn’t even matter if you see tiny specs of tea that have escaped from your infuser. The fact that you can actually see them is a good sign.

Clarity in tea
Bottom of the cup visible? Tick!

3. Taste

The next item on the list is taste. If you normally have sugar in your tea, this part will be trickier because the sugar is masking the real taste. Try to have a small sip. Is it bitter and clangy? Does it make you feel like the mouth is dry? That’s not good! While I’m not saying you should be tasting nutty or floral aromas (that comes with practice), your drink should be smooth and have flavour all on its own.

One of my colleagues whom I introduced to the wonderful world of tea has 1 1/2 teaspoons of sugar in her daily brew. But she never feels the need to add sugar to any of the teas I’ve introduced her too because the flavour is so much nicer.

4. Grading

This is where things get a bit more technical but bear with me! If nothing else, you’ll get some good trivia knowledge for your next pub quiz. Though only used for black teas, tea grading is a good indicator of quality because it indicates the size and type of leaf. A medium graded tea is ‘Orange Pekoe’. Don’t be fooled into thinking that it has orange oils or flavourings like many people do! The orange part of the name comes from the Dutch House of Orange in connection with the fact that the Dutch East India Company was mostly responsible for importing tea to Europe in the beginning.

From Orange Pekoe – which is the general grading for the bud and first two leaves – it can go two ways:

  • lower graded tea – Broken Orange Pekoe (not so bad), fannings (what you find in most tea bags) and dust (no jokes, that is the term!)
  • higher graded tea – generally given to describe the other attributes of the leaves. As such, tea can be flowery (if the shoots were really young), golden (certain types of tea) going all the way to SFTGFOP (this is the trivia part!). SFTGFOP stands for Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe and this is only awarded to the best single-estate First-Flush Darjeelings, considered the champagnes of tea.

5. Origin

Much like whisky or coffee, origin is important in determining quality. Single estate teas are higher quality blends as they don’t contain leaves that have been exposed to different climates or soil conditions. That means the taste can vary slightly year on year and it should reflect the environment in which the plants grew. As single estate teas are a bit like fine wine, they are also a lot more expensive so think of them as a treat!

Even if you’re not buying a single-estate tea, knowing which country your tea comes from can still have an impact on its taste. Japanese and Chinese green teas, for example, are vastly different. Experiment and find out which ones you like best!

Discovering new teas: white and oolong

In the past two posts, we covered the two most popular types of tea in the Western world: black and green. Although you might not be familiar with them, a full introduction to tea would not be complete without covering white and oolong tea.

White tea

White teas are the most delicate of teas because they undergo the least amount of processing after plucking. This is also why they have the most amount of antioxidants so if you’re looking for a drink that is healthy and can help (not drive) weight loss, white tea is the best! It is a speciality of China and they only go through the withering and drying stages.

If you remember that leaves went straight to the firing process for green tea, they are left to wither in the case of white tea, just like black tea. This process reduces the moisture naturally by drying them out in open air, but instead of 18-30 hours needed in the black tea process, now they get to relax for 48-60 hours. When the moisture level is at about 5%, they go through the drying process like the others did.

silverneedletea
White tea from Teavana: Silver Needle

Oolong tea

Oolong (sometimes called Wu Long) is the resulting tea from a combination of the black and green tea processes. If you imagine a scale with black tea on one end and green on another, oolong is somewhere in the middle, though more towards green. That’s because it’s semi-oxidised, so it follows this order:

  1. Withering (like black and white) for a period of 1-4 hours, then cooled down. Repeat twice!
  2. Oxidation by gentle stirring (rather than rolling over high heat in the case of black tea)
  3. Firing between 30 seconds and 5 minutes to destroy the enzyme that causes oxidation
  4. Rolling and drying when the leaves are still warm so they’re more flexible
monkeypickedoolongrtea_a
Oolong tea from Teavana

As I know all I’ve explained is a lot to take in, I thought I’d make it a bit more visual.

tea-processes

You might be thinking, that’s all great, but when do we actually get to do some drinking? A theoretical tea blog is probably not what you signed up to read! Rest assured, that’s next time on White, No Sugar.

How is green tea made?

Last time I shared the processes that tea leaves have to go through to become black tea. Bet you didn’t think all that effort goes into making your daily brew (or brews, the more the merrier I am!). So if all tea comes from the same plant, what makes green tea green?

Firing

Instead of being left to wilt, green tea goes straight to the firing process to kill the enzymes that cause oxidation (responsible for the black colour) straight away. This in done in a hot pan which looks very similar to a wok (the Chinese method) exposing them to a temperature of 100 degrees Celsius anywhere between 30 seconds to 5 minutes. Or it can be done by steaming them (the Japanese method) which helps preserve the fresh flavours and aromas. That’s why Japanese green teas have a brighter green colour and a higher vitamin content.

green-tea-firing

Before they can move on to the next step, the leaves are left to cool down completely.

Rolling

Once the tea leaves are cool, they will go through a shaping and rolling process. The shape they take depends on the tea – some are curly, some are twisted and Gunpowder (a tea we will review in future posts) is rolled into tiny balls which look like gun pellets.

green-tea-rolls gunpowder-tea

Depending on tradition, the drying and rolling processes might be repeated a few times. This is customary with Japanese teas, but not Chinese ones.

Drying

When the producer is happy with the tea leaves, they proceed to the drying step that black tea also goes through. This reduces the moisture content to 5% so the tea is ready to be brewed and produce a good cup but dry enough to prevent mould.

Because green tea goes through less processing than black tea and it skips the withering and oxidation steps, a higher level of antioxidants is preserved in the tea. And that’s why we see so many articles on its health benefits and weight-loss properties. Though don’t read too much into it, I drink green tea every day and it doesn’t affect my weight at all!

Next time, we’ll discover white tea – an even less processed and lighter bodied tea!

What is black tea anyway?

Last week, I talked about how all tea comes from the same plant: camellia sinensis (and its varieties). I got a bit excited sharing how tea is grown, how it’s plucked and when it’s harvested and ran out of time/space/your attention span to explain how we end up with black, green, white and oolong tea. As they are such distinct yet delicious varieties, I’ve decided to dedicate a post to each one. So here we are: black tea.

In order to obtain the dark brown liquor we all love so much, tea leaves go through four stages once they are plucked: withering, rolling, oxidation and firing.

Withering

Similar to the way your flowers or herbs wither in hot weather after they’re picked, leaves react in the same way. It’s a natural process that traditionally occurs by exposing tea leaves to sunlight; they’re arranged in thin layers on bamboo or wire trays so that every one of them can sunbathe in style! However, you can imagine that for large productions this is unfeasible, so the leaves are instead transferred to temperature controlled rooms and kept between 20-24 degrees Celsius, with good ventilation.

The leaves will be left to relax and wither for 18-30 hours depending on the climate.

withering tea leaves

Rolling

Now that the leaves have softened, they are more flexible so the rolling process can begin. This is done to break down the cells to release an enzyme which helps with oxidation. And, as you’ve probably guessed, the more you roll them, the quicker oxidation will happen. This can be done manually or mechanically and the length of time it’s performed depends on things like the leaf quality, the time of the year, the temperature and the climate.

rolling tea leaves

This stage also determines the body of the cup – gently rolled leaves produce a light tea, whereas vigorously rolled leaves have a fuller, stronger body.

What is the body of a tea you ask? Well, the first sign will be the colour: light = pale and full = dark(er). Then it’s also the taste, light teas are generally mild, whereas full bodied teas have a much stronger, pronounced taste (this is your English Breakfast).

Oxidation

If withering was necessary to remove the water from the tea leaves, one of the crucial points with oxidation is that the humidity needs to be maintained between 90-95%. The leaves are again spread so they can all get the same treatment and the enzymes start to change the chemical composition, turning them the familiar dark red/brown colour.

The temperature also needs to be closely monitored as if it drops below 20%, the oxidation slows down or stops, and if it goes about 22% the leaves are ‘burned’.

oxidation tea leaves

Firing

It’s not actually as harsh as it sounds! I’d probably call it baking but ‘firing’ is the official term. This is done by exposing the leaves to temperatures of about 90 degrees Celsius for around 20 minutes which will both dry out the moisture left and kill the enzymes to stop oxidation. Tea manufacturers have to be careful with this process because if they don’t run it for long enough, the leaves could become mouldy. And if they run it for too long, the resulting brew will lack flavour. The leaves should have about 5% water left in them for a decent cuppa!

So, what do you think? Once I found out all of this years ago, I couldn’t look at a cup of tea in the same way! And wait until you discover how the green, white and oolong teas are formed.

Until next time!