What tea should I try if I like a normal black tea?

I’ve ran into this situation a lot of times: most people just like their ‘normal’ cup of tea. Of course, everyone has a slightly different ‘normal’ especially when it comes to the amount of milk added. But generally, a ‘normal’ cup is an English Breakfast – a strong tea that you can personalise with milk and sugar (or not add any at all).

Yet sometimes, you can be forced into a situation where you’ll have to pick a different tea. Maybe they’re out of English Breakfast in the restaurant. Or maybe you’re visiting someone else’s office for a meeting and they show you their tea box full of options to choose from. And you get stuck.

No need for panic attacks, I’m here to help you out of a sticky situation. I’ve suggested some teas that will give you the same satisfaction based on what you love in your cuppa.

Teas that are similar in strength

Some teas have a strong body. You know when you add milk and it tastes good and it turns the perfect colour? Not grey, not white either? That’s a strong tea. If that’s what you like, I recommend you try anything labelled:

Assam (second flush if you have the choice)

Tippy Assam
Picture from Whittard’s tea collection. You can buy the tea here.

Keemun – well-regarded and flavoursome Chinese black tea

Lapsang Souchong – very smoky aroma (you can’t miss it, it’s a bit like a bonfire smell) but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea

Lapsang Souchong
Image from Seven Cups – online seller of Chinese teas

If you’re after that dark, malty taste of tea

Darjeeling – light black tea referred to by many as the “champagne of teas”

darjeeling fortnums
Image from Fortnum & Mason where you can buy it, and even find some from a single origin (called single estate).

Yunnan – light Chinese black tea with a beautiful dark golden liquor

yunnan-gold_infusion_gallery
The picture of this beautiful Yunnan is from JING Tea. The golden loose leaves look great too!

Russian Caravan – a slightly smoky black tea blend, though the ‘bonfire’ is not as potent as it is for Lapsang

Earl Grey – a light blend of black tea with bergamot (another one which divides people)

For the caffeine kick

Any of the teas above will give you caffeine, but if you really want to buzz with energy, I recommend trying something different from black tea.

A darker Oolong will be the easiest choice without stepping out of your comfort zone. Something like Dong Ding Oolong or the Iron Goddess of Mercy (how do they come up with these names? Haha!) should do the trick.

iron-goddess-of-mercy
Image from the Tea Palace where you can get this tea at a good price.

Alternatively, white tea has the most amount of caffeine because it’s the least processed, but it’s also the most delicate in flavour which means some of you will find it bland.

If you like mint, try the unique combination of a fresh taste with caffeine in Morrocan Mint – a combination of Gunpowder and spearmint.

moroccan mint fortnums
Image from Fortnum & Mason’s Moroccan Mint product page. Notice the tightly rolled green tea against the mint leaves!

There’s no need to be stressed anymore when faced with a choice other than your ‘usual’. Or perhaps you’ve been inspired to try something new? Either way, let me know how it goes.

Until next time,

Anca

 

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What’s in an English Breakfast tea?

When I used to work for Whittard, many years ago, the store was always buzzing with tourists looking to bring the delights of Britain back to their countries. It also helped that I live in the beautiful and historical Cotswold area, with the spires and colleges of Oxford attracting those who want to visit the top-ranked university in Britain and among the oldest in the world.

Of course, tea plays a major part in tourist retail along with magnets and flags and other paraphernalia, but what says ‘I’ve been to England’ better than a box of English Breakfast? And it’s not just the name of the tea that has its appeal, English Breakfast is also the drink of choice for the natives – whether it’s called that or ‘everyday tea’ or under the respective brand names like PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea, etc. It’s all the same blend and it definitely doesn’t grow in Yorkshire!

A recipe with different ingredients

You see, what many people don’t realise is that while we all have our favourite brand and type of tea we prefer, producing that flavour every time is not quite as easy as making cake. You don’t just add the same ingredients in the same order and quantities and get the same result every time. And that’s because the ingredients are never the same.

If any of you are budding or keen gardeners, you’ll know that you can’t guarantee a plant to yield the exact same crop every year. That’s true for tea as well. The climate, rainfall, soil, general weather conditions and time of picking affect the taste of the leaves to a great extent. Through processing after plucking, you can still control what type of tea you obtain but a lot of factors are out of your control as a tea producer.

Tea blending – a craft like no other

What happens is that every company will have a taste they are aiming to achieve. They have a rough idea of the ‘ingredients’ that should go in, called a ‘blend’ in the tea world. For English Breakfast tea, that blend is generally a mix of Assam, Kenyan and Ceylon teas, but the exact proportions will vary with each company. The reason why these teas have been chosen to create such a popular and delicious blend are:

  1. Assam for strength – giving us the kick of caffeine with a strong body we crave in the morning
  2. Kenyan for colour – that dark golden brown which gets us out of bed
  3. Ceylon for flavour – that’s not to say that the other teas don’t taste nice but Ceylon, a tea from Sri Lanka, has a really special flavour among the black teas

As each batch of leaves that is bought is different, master blenders in each company will then make many variations of the same recipe with modified quantities of these three teas to match the previous batch they had made. Which was made to match the one before, and so on, to obtain a consistent taste. Master blenders will make even as many as 50 different blends, so you can imagine they have quite a sophisticated pallete to be able to differentiate each one.

All to bring us the comforting taste of our favourite cuppa.

Not all people want that though, much like wine, some tea drinkers prefer to taste the differences in seasonality and yields year after year much like with wine. But to do that, you need to drink single estate teas, which I will talk about in my next post.

Time to put the kettle on,

Anca

How did tea come to England?

I found out today that not only is tea loved everywhere in the world, it’s the second most consumed beverage after water! Which made me think: how exactly did we come to like it so much in England?

As with any story of foreign products which became popular, tea was originally the privilege of the rich and royal. Apparently, the first time tea was offered in London was around 1660. But before you start dreaming of your usual cup of black tea made with just the right amount of milk, you must know it was actually Chinese green tea which Londoners would have tried first. And since it was served in public coffee houses, it would have only been men who drank it as women would only socialise in the confines of their homes at the time.

However, tea was also a favourite of Princess Catherine of Braganza, the wife of Charles II, who made it popular amongst the ladies at court, which consequently made the drink more popular and more desirable with everyone. At this point in time though, tea was mostly viewed as a medicinal drink believed to cure many problems including asthma! It was not until sugar was added, which also happened to be the luxury of the rich, that tea became more widely drank for pleasure than medicine and black tea overtook green tea as the favourite.

Catherine of Braganza
Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II (Image from History of Royal Women)

As import prices dropped, tea become more accessible to middle classes and, fuelled by the aspiration to mimic the wealthy, led to the consumption of tea as an established ritual which came with its own set of manners and traditions, much like the one related to afternoon tea.

An early James Bond – Robert Fortune

Before we go too far ahead into tea’s history, I need to tell you about a man that we owe our outmost gratitude to: Robert Fortune. You see, at the beginning all the tea imported into England came from China on Tea Clippers (more below). China kept the secret of their precious beverage under strict control including where and how it was grown and processed to be able to leverage it for export. The British had many attempts of uncovering the secret in order to replicate it on their own territories instead of paying the high Chinese taxes, but it remained closely guarded. One strategy was even to get the Chinese addicted to opium – but that’s a story for another time.

The best plan, in the end, was to train a spy with a classified mission. This top secret James Bond was called Robert Fortune and he was actually a botanist. He went to great lengths to find out how the Chinese produced the much desired tea leaves, including disguising himself as a Chinese tea merchant in order to travel on one of the boats that had access to the tea plantations high in the mountains. His diaries and explorations are fascinating and they shed a lot of light on tea production that was unknown at the time. One such fact is that all tea comes from one plant, contrary to the popular belief that green and black tea leaves came from different varieties.

Robert eventually managed to collect some seeds to take back to India (a colony of the British Empire at the time), where he was surprised to discover a relative of camellia sinensis – the camellia assamica variety.

The most famous Victorian ship of all: The Clipper

It wouldn’t be a complete story of how the English fell in love with tea without talking about Tea Clippers. Developed in the 19th century, clippers were the fastest sailing ships of their time and their image is probably the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions a ship from that period.

tea clipper
Image from Tea.co.uk

As they were constructed for speed, not capacity, they couldn’t carry large amounts of tea but they could reach 30 km/h – a speed which still hasn’t been beaten by modern commercial sail vessels. Not that we use sail vessels commercially that much anymore! But it meant they could bring tea more often, which made it fresher.

If you’re interested to see one of these beautiful vessels, you can visit the Cutty Sark in Greenwich, now kept in dry dock. It’s really impressive!

The interesting story of Gunpowder

Finally, I’d like to share the story of one of my favourite teas: Zhu Cha, which means Pearl Tea. This was one of the first teas ever imported into Britain. You have to remember that the only other way the English would have seen loose tea is as what we think of it today: varied sizes of dried leaves. As the name suggests, Zhu Cha is tightly rolled into little balls or pearls, but they are so small and so tight that they resemble gunpowder pellets – giving it its Western name. Contrary to what you might think, I find Gunpowder a very smooth and mellow green tea in comparison to the earthy Japanese Sencha. The Chinese aren’t great fans of it so most of the production is used in the Moroccan Mint blend which many of you might be familiar with. I’ll review it for you soon!

If you found this article interesting and you want to know more, rest assured that I’ve only just scratched the surface in England’s history with tea. There is plenty more to discover and if there is something you’d really like to know, just leave it in a comment below.

Until next time,

Anca

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!