My tea has the word ‘flush’ on the label. What is it?

I’m on a mission to help everyone who is passionate about tea discover what they are really drinking. And why not, try something new along the way! Last week, we looked at what English Breakfast is made of – the magic trio of Assam, Kenyan and Ceylon. Now, I want to talk to you about flushes, or at least introduce you to them. You might not see them on your regular pack of tea, but if you’ve regularly bought tea presents for friends and family, or visit the speciality stores, you’re bound to have come across the term.

The plucking process

As you may remember, the plucking process generally involves the bud (first leaf, still not completely unfurled) and the two leaves immediately underneath it. In the case of special teas like Silver Needle, it’s only the bud that is taken. 

The tea bush will continue growing throughout the year so tea pluckers can come back to take the top three leaves again and again. When winter comes, the tea bush will go to sleep and come back to life again in the spring. If you think of us humans for a minute, we keep doing things all day before going to sleep every night, but we are at the top of our game in the morning (most of us anyway!). Tea is the same – it will keep regenerating throughout the year but it’s that first spring harvest that is said to be the most concentrated in goodness and also the most delicate.

Ok, ok, so what are flushes you ask? Well instead of calling them seasons, in the tea world, different crops are called flushes. So the first flush is in the spring (March time), the second flush is in the summer (May and after) and the third flush is during early autumn (August – September).

Why flushes matter…

As I said above, the level of flavour and body that go into the leaves will be highly influenced by the type of flush. The first flush has a more concentrated flavour but a delicate, light body, whereas the second flush has a more distinct body. That’s why first flush Darjeeling (a light afternoon black tea) is considered the champagne of tea as a delicate body is desirable, whereas a second flush Assam is preferred to the first flush because it has a stronger body associated with a good Assam.

Single estate teas

Most commercial tea is mixed from different crops and from batches from around the world, so the flushes really matter only for single estate teas, a bit like single malt whisky. The name of the estate will sometimes be included in the name of the tea especially with historic estates, Margaret’s Hope First Flush Darjeeling is one example. 

Buying tea from one estate will help you identify the difference that the climate makes over time and season by season. However, as a standalone purchase or drink in a tea room, I have difficulty tasting the difference between single estate teas and blends. I assume it’s the continuity that makes the difference in taste. 

Which reminds me … time to put the kettle on!

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

Tea review: Fortnum & Mason’s Afternoon Blend

In honour of Afternoon Tea this week, I’ve decided to review a classic choice for this joyous occasion: the eponymous Afternoon Blend. Many tea merchants will have a variant of this, including Whittard and Twinings, but I have chosen Fortnum & Mason’s blend as it was recently given to me as gift and I like to call Fortnum & Mason The Mothership so I’m probably a bit biased.

If you’re looking for an easy choice to go with your Afternoon Tea this week, or simply need a pick-me-up without the heavy body and strength of a regular English Breakfast, this is your tea. And while you’re at it, why not read more about the Afternoon Tea tradition?

Dry leaves: the aromas of the leaves have that characteristically strong earthy smell of a black tea, with notes of dried tobacco on this particular blend. As with many black teas for general consumption (as opposed to the grand crus and single estate varieties), the leaves are cut quite small to produce a full-bodied liquor.

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Water temperature: 100 degrees Celsius

Amount: one teaspoon or 3-4 grams per cup

Brewing time: 3-5 minutes. It might sound like a lot if you normally use teabags, but this time will give the tea leaves the chance to absorb the water and infuse it.

Wet leaves: the infusion process reveals a much lighter aroma to the leaves, which are now light woody, a bit like balsa wood, rather than earthy. The leaves have now also expanded and you can notice their size a bit better, which is the sign of a good quality loose leaf tea.

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Brew: those adverse to change will be happy to know that the tea tastes a bit like your regular cuppa without the strength, which is why I would suggest not adding milk to it because it won’t hold the taste very well. It’s mouth-filing but smooth, making it a good match and a versatile companion to the sweetness and variety of afternoon tea cakes.

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Ready to try it?

My best recommendation would be to go to Fortnum & Mason and enjoy their full Afternoon Tea package. Don’t worry, I’m in no way paid by them to say that, it’s simply the nicest Afternoon Tea I’ve ever had so it comes from the heart.

However, you can always buy the Afternoon Tea blend that I reviewed, priced at £10.95 for a lovely tin and 250g of tea (or about 80 cups!), bake a fresh batch of Mary Berry’s scones and enjoy a cream tea at home with cream and jam.

Thanks for reading!

An unusual, yet charming place to have Afternoon Tea

Afternoon Tea is one of my favourite treats ever and I’m not only saying that because it’s Afternoon Tea Week! It’s not just the tea and the cakes, but the daintiness of it all, the opportunity to sit down and take some time to be with friends and family, as well as the sense of occasion to it. It’s not every day you have delicate finger sandwiches and elegant cakes arranged on an elegant tiered stand and tea out of fine bone china cups.

If you want to find out more about where the tradition came from, read my previous post. Today, any luxury hotel or accommodation will offer it and I’m sure you’ve been treated to one at least once in your life, but I want to share with you a slightly unusual location that is close to my heart. Held as Oxfordshire’s secret for a long time, Jane’s Teas is no longer a mystery to many and you’d be wise to book in advance – there are no places left for this year!

Set in the heart of the British countryside, amidst the green next to the Kirtlington quarry, is a really charming Afternoon Tea location by the river. Jane’s Enchanted Tea Garden is run by the delightful, flamboyant and friendly Jane who was awarded the Small Holder of the Year award in 2009.

What makes it so special?

Jane grows as much as possible in her own garden, including the flowers she puts on every table, to give her produce a real local quality and the taste… mmm… her cakes and scones are just divine! Everything is fresh and produced for the bookings, so I’ll be surprised if there is ever as much as a crumb left.

Entering the garden is like entering a childhood fantasy land with little statues, multi-coloured ribbons floating in the wind, old cups and creamer hung on the rails and in the trees and lots and lots of fairy lights. The atmosphere lives up to the name – enchanted – and it feels as much of a treat as a high-end hotel restaurant just with mix-and-match fine bone china instead. The whole place has a homemade but delicate feel to it and it’s an experience you can’t quite have anywhere else!

How to get there?

My personal recommendation would be to park somewhere at the top of the hill or lane and take the 10 minute walk to the garden on the road. Then, having enjoyed Jane’s scrumptious cakes and goodies, burn some calories by walking along the South Oxford canal through the woods. When you get to the old quarry, take the steps up and you’ll get back to the road where you parked the car.

If you need any proof as to how remarkable this place is, just read the outpour of love on their Facebook page.

Thanks for reading!

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

Tea review: Fortnum & Mason’s black tea with lemon blend

If you’re an avid black tea drinker, that might be all you want to try and I understand that. But why not introduce a bit, a tiny bit, of variety with a citrus twist? Go on, at least while it’s summer! 

Fortnum & Mason has a lovely blend called black tea with lemon. It has a blend of light black teas from China and dried lemon peel from Sicily. Because the lemon is dried, you can even add a splash of milk without risk drinking a cup of curdle, but I prefer a splash of lemon juice instead. It reminds me of holidays in Italy where tea is drank with lemon and those yellow fruits are the most fragrant you’ll ever taste after bathing in the sun of the Mediterranean for the summer. Before I drift too far down memory lane, I’d like to add that black tea with lemon is a lovely companion to afternoon tea. Or if you don’t fancy the whole nine yards, its light and citrusy taste is a great complement to a slice of moist, creamy, chocolate cake or a rocky road, as it allows the sweet treat to be the star and acts like a light refreshment. 


Dry leaves
: malty like a regular black tea though light with a hint of citrus which combined, to me, smells like poppyseed. I actually mean that, not like when wine makers say you should get hints of chocolate in a wine and all you can smell is well…wine, or alcohol.


Water temperature: 100 degrees Celsius

Amount: one teaspoon or 3-4 grams per cup

Brewing time: 4-5 minutes.

Wet leaves: the maltiness is now gone, leaving space for a light scent of almost sweetly roasted notes. For a nature equivalent, it smells to me like a forest after a summer thunderstorm. 


Brew: the comforting familiarity of a regular cup of black tea with a softer touch. The lemon peel makes the liquor just a bit zingy ending every sip on a high without tasting sour or too much of lemon in any way. A very subtle brew indeed! And because it’s a light blend, it can work well as an iced tea too, served with slices of lemon and orange and a few sprigs of mint. 

Ready to try it?

I’ve used Fortnum & Mason’s black tea with lemon but as you can probably imagine, a few tea suppliers will have something similar. This is the one I use and like so I’m sharing with you my favourite but let me know what you think and what gems you find! 

At the time of writing, it’s priced at £7.25 for 120g and the famous F&M tin or you can buy it loose in their stores for slightly cheaper. A bargain!