6 “out-there” teas to ease a cold

We know, we know: there’s no escaping this flu and cold season. And when immunity-boosting foods don’t work, only lots and lots of fluids can ease your common cold and flu symptoms. That includes tea.

The internet offers a plethora of recommendations and concoctions to aid your recovery. Most include the usual suspects of lemon,  ginger, echinacea, and chamomile. But as part of our journey into the world of tea, we’ve discovered a handful of “not-your-usual” tea blends and herbals that may also help whip you back into shape.

Part of the success of these teas is heat. As the warmth moves down your throat toward your stomach, it helps loosen mucus, making it easier to cough out. And part of the reason is ingredients. These teas contain natural herbs that have been used medicinally for nearly 5000 years, and are employed in almost every tradition and region on earth.

  • Ginseng Oolong, also known as King’s Tea, is a mixture of fine oolong dusted with ginseng root and licorice powder. Ginseng is known for its health benefits, such as boosting the immune system, enhancing physical and mental endurance, strengthening the body against fatigue and stress. Ginseng Oolong also delivers antioxidants via flavonoids in tea.
  • Snow Mountain Chrystanthemum tea hails from the remotest corner of southwestern China. It has antiviral properties and helps relieve congestion in the head which may be caused by viral infection. It is also known to be a natural coolant and helps in lowering the temperature of the body when suffering from fever.
  • Greek Mountain tea is unique in the world of herbal infusions. It is made from the dried flowers, leaves and stems of the native Sideritis plant which grows throughout the mountainous regions of Greece at very high elevations. It has been used for millennia to fight common flu and colds by strengthening the immune system. It also acts as an anti-inflammatory for body aches and pains.
  • Sage has one of the longest histories of use of any culinary or medicinal herb. In the first century C.E. Greek physician Dioscorides recommended an infusion of sage leaves for hoarseness and coughs. Combined with apple cider vinegar and a pinch of salt, it makes an effective throat gargle.
  • Chai has been cherished for centuries in India to preserve health and increase peace of mind. Although chai is made using different formulas, depending on the region where it is being consumed, the standard ingredients (black tea, ginger, cardamom, fennel, clove and black pepper) are known to enhance the immune system, fight inflammation and deliver antioxidants in spades.
  • Kuding (bitter nail) tea is relatively unknown in the western world, but has a rich texture and profound bitterness that has the power to soothe the throat like nothing else. Bitterness is an under-appreciated flavor in the Western canon, but it’s an impressive physiological reset button. When you’re slurping this stuff down, no stuffy cold can faze you.
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Snow Mountain Chrysanthemum from Yunnan, China

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Wild-crafted Sage from Greece

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Ginseng Oolong from Fujian, China

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Wild-crafted Sideritis from Greece

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Kuding tea from Yunnan, China

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Masala chai from India

© Felicia Stewart, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

10 minutes with OKU – NZ Native Herbs

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Before pharmaceutical companies started running things, herbal remedies were what people used in times of ill-health.

Many sodas, bitters, spirits and liqueurs were originally made as tonics for helping with ailments. In New Zealand, tohungas (an expert practitioner) created balms, herbal teas, and steam baths from local flora for preventing, curing or easing all sorts of conditions.

Ill-health and a run in with the evergreen Kawakawa plant over a decade ago inspired IT specialist turned herbalist/naturopath, Scott Smith, to revisit the Maori tradition of using herbs as medicine and create a thriving herbal tea business in Tauranga.

Known to some as ‘Pharmacy within the Forest,’ the pure Kawakawa steep was the focus of the OKU range, launched seven years ago via local farmers markets. Today, OKU boasts five unique herbal teas – each featuring Kawakawa with the addition of other native and mainstream therapeutic herbs.

In recent years, Scott has formed a partnerships with independent growers who provide him with native New Zealand herbs from approved wild-crafted locations in our forests. In addition, OKU donates a portion of its profits to separate trusts who are involved in restoration and replanting of native bush.

We connected with Scott to learn more about his passion to revive rongoā (traditional Maori healing) techniques and build a successful tea business within a rapidly-changing consumer environment.

How would you characterise the present tea culture in New Zealand in terms how tea is consumed? What are the current trends amongst consumers?

From what I have seen the coffee culture still dominates the drinking habits of Kiwis but there is growing interest amongst certain consumer groups who are wanting a premium tea product. Something that is different and unique. I think the premium end of the market is growing and there is interest in teas that are grown organically. The green tea market also continues to trend upwards. What was once seen as quite a fringe product now seems to be almost a commodity item.

How important have specialty teas become in this country?

I believe it is still a niche market, a growing one. But it is quite separate and not influenced by the commodity tea market, as it is an entirely different consumer that is stimulating its growth.

How would you describe a typical tea consumer in New Zealand? Where does he or she primarily consume tea?

When we first started out, we took our teas to local farmer’s markets to obtain feedback from the community. Because OKU has always been sold as a loose leaf option, people needed a way to brew/infuse our product and we were amazed at how many people did not even own a teapot anymore! This was a real eye opener into how much the market has changed in a generation. In saying that, most people owned a coffee plunger (which has probably now been replaced with an espresso machine!).

That we blend exclusively organic and wild-crafted herbs singles OKU out to a specific market. Our typical customer is predominantly female, professional (but not exclusively), age does vary – but the 25-50 bracket appears strongest. They will often buy our tea because of the interest of the native herb content but also of the benefits that can be derived from the overall blend. For example, our Digest tea has had a lot of feedback showing people have had considerable relief from digestive ailments when drinking this regularly. Therefore, our range is mostly consumed at home but is also brought out to be shared with guests.

In your opinion, what makes OKU unique?

The vision with the OKU tea range was to re-introduce the amazing properties and tastes of NZ native herbs in a contemporary tea range that not only gives the consumer therapeutic benefits, but also tastes great. Introducing a ‘new’ New Zealand-grown ingredient to the tea category was unique – ground-breaking, in fact. There was also a real passion for doing this in a sustainable way in that we can encourage land to be restored to the native plants that can be used for this purpose.

While we do use ‘tea’ from the Camellia Sinensis plant in our range (Sencha is part of our Energise tea), but it is used as supporting acts rather than the headliner. Our main ingredient remains Kawakawa, along with other native herbs such as Manuka, Hoheria, and other mainstream therapeutic herbs.

What is the future of tea in New Zealand? What advice do you have for tea producers, merchants, retailers interested in entering the market?

We believe the niche tea market will continue to grow as people seek out new tastes and something different from mainstream offerings. In addition, the interest in native herbs will continue to trend upwards as people come to appreciate the benefits that can be gained from drinking infusions of health-giving plants. Unlike past generations, New Zealanders have been programmed to take pills for all that ails us. So we do not often associate drinking a cup of tea with medicine. It is an herbal tradition that is as old as time itself…and we’d love to see it restored.

http://www.oku.co.nz

(c) Felicia Stewart, 2016

 

 

A nomad, a camel, and the evolution of language

While some might scoff at the idea of a tea sommelier, it’s really not so different from being an expert in any other kind of enterprise, including that of camel handler and tea purveyor in the Sahara desert. 

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It was in my carefree twenties that my husband and I found ourselves in a remote part of Morocco with a nomad and a camel. The Berber who led our small expedition into the Sahara desert looked like he was heading back into the Old Testament. He hid his chiselled features behind a voluminous head scarf, or cheche, turbaned around his head and had the distinguishing casualness of nomadic tribes. The adolescent camel was less attractive and much more forthright.

When settled into our remote camp under the stars, our Berber lifted up a teapot and poured out long, thin, unerring streams of heavily sugared mint tea into small glasses on a silver tray. Had I been a romance novelist, I would have been tempted at this point to “swoon” (or drop in a dead faint). Fortunately I am not, for I would have missed that feeling of amazement which arises when one is incapable of imagining anything that could surpass a defined moment in time.

It wasn’t until some months later, while drafting an article about our desert expedition, I learned of the charming designation given to the Berber nomads, chamelier (or camel handler) and decided that in a life beyond my twenty-something years, the appendage of chamelier would become mine. That New Zealand has no camels was a mere detail.

The Tea Sommeliers

Fast forward fifteen years, the tea sommeliers are making their presence felt in the world; myself included.

While the French could easily argue the differences in semantics between chamelier and sommelier; to me, they are essentially the same. Let me explain. A somier (Old French for “pack animal”) was watched over by a sommerier. A sommerier’s responsibility included the animals and their cargo. Sommerier mutated into soumelier, and the meaning slightly shifted – a soumelier was responsible for transporting supplies. The spelling and meaning slightly shifted again – a sommelier was someone in charge of a specific type of cargo. Today, this term refers exclusively to beverages – such as wine…or tea!

In case you haven’t noticed, tea has gotten exceptionally popular over the last decade. The tea section at the local supermarket has exploded, and more people are drinking more different types of tea than ever before, due to its increased availability.

Like a wine expert, a tea sommelier is a person who has training and expertise about how teas are cultivated and processed, how they should be brewed, and what their potential effects are on the body and mind. Oh, and they know about flavour, too; a well-trained tea sommelier should be able to recommend a tea to someone who doesn’t know much about the subject, based on what other foods and drinks they enjoy, and what kind of caffeinating effect they want.

“A tea sommelier can talk you about how to create tea cocktails, tea-and food pairing, cooking with tea, as well as creating the perfect tea menu,” says Australian Tea Masters founder, Sharyn Johnston.

But it’s not a quick and easy process: “You cannot become a tea expert overnight. It takes years of tasting, training, knowledge, sharing, and learning to call oneself an expert in tea. Most experts – or tea masters – come from families who have been in the tea industry for generations and have made it their lifelong journey.”

Training Programmes for Tea Sommeliers

But one has to start somewhere. If you’re interested in dipping your toes into this world, you could start with a short free course online (www.teaclass.com). TeaClass offers self-paced education with lessons ranging from basics like what tea is to more advanced topics like how to intelligently talk about it. It also includes overviews of many types of teas, and the characteristics of teas sourced from specific tea-producing countries (such as, China and Japan). It’s an easy, accessible, and free way to enhance your knowledge of tea.

Longer courses available through tea institutes around the world, including Melbourne-based, Australian Tea Masters (www.australianteamasters.com.au).

With a three-day on-site primer and a 14-week online course via Skype, potential tea sommeliers learn everything they could ever want to know about tea: proper preparation and taste-testing, various tea ceremonies and serving styles, tea evaluations, tea pairings with food, the health benefits of tea, etc.

However, the intense and rigorous training is not for the faint of heart, or the light in wallet.

Of course, in addition to countless online resources for tea education, one could always learn the old-fashioned way by picking up a book, such as James Norwood Pratt’s New Tea Lover’s Treasury.

Pratt’s book not only provides an extremely in-depth history of tea and its significant influence on developing worlds and empires, but also information about specific types of tea and their preparation. This book is more comprehensive a resource than anything that can be found online, which probably has a lot to do with why it is the most notable and respected work about tea in recent times.


Introducing the Tea Sommeliers in the Southern Hemisphere

Benjamin McManus, Langham, Auckland

Q: You have a deep passion for tea. What drew you in? And what excites you about tea?

My interest in tea is driven by history and tradition, as one of the oldest beverages in the world. Artisans around the world are continuously perfecting the age old techniques of tea production…in many cases, they are tending to the same tea plants of their ancestors.

Q: In your words, what makes a great tea sommelier?

It is important to listen carefully to a guest’s needs and guide them in their experience of tea. By asking simple questions, a tea sommelier can suggest a tea that matches their mood, lifts their energy, revitalise and refresh, or pair with their choice of food.

Q: What teas are most requested by your patrons? And why?

Many guests today enjoy the tradition of Afternoon Tea. So a classic English tea is commonly requested. Our Langham Blends (such as English Flower featuring chamomile, rose petals, elderflowers, heather flowers, lavender and cornflowers) are also popular. Where possible, guests are encouraged to try artisan loose leaf teas – such as Nuwara Eliya or White Forest Darjeeling (biodynamic) and are seldom disappointed.

Q: Can tea really hold its own in a cocktail?

Mixing any ingredient with tea requires a careful marriage of flavours and balance. One has to remember to keep tea as a main ingredient. Jasmine Green works well with Vodka or Gin and Lapsang Souchong complements Bourbon. A new tea inspired cocktail menu will be launched at the Palm Court (Langham Auckland) in February.

Sarah De Witt, Impala & Peacock, Melbourne

Q: What is the biggest lesson you have learned in your journey to become a tea sommelier?

The varieties, flavours, and aromas of the world of tea is so expansive. It’s a continuous journey of discovery about how fascinating and unique this beverage can be.

Q: How do you convince devoted ‘tea-bag’ customers to try premium loose-leaf teas?

It’s an educative process. Once people understand (and taste) the difference between fannings that are swept up and placed in bleached tea bags versus the deliberate pluck and care that goes into premium loose leaf tea production, people often come to their own realisations about which is best!

Q: You have created a number of blended teas, what knowledge do you need to bring to the blending table?

Tea (Camellia sinensis) is the building block to creating a blend and so to be able to know what herbs and spices will work with it you need to understand the region where it’s grown, the brewing parameters, and the flavour profile (taste, aroma) of the tea leaf itself and in combination with other flavours.

Q: What is your favourite tea and food pairing?

Blue Cheese and Tung Ting (Dong Ding) Taiwanese Oolong. The combination is creamy, milky, sweet, and salty. It’s sensational.

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Benjamin & Sarah

Snigdha Manchanda, The Tea Trunk, Goa

Q: When did you first become inspired to become a tea sommelier?

Tea has been a ritual for over a decade – even before I formally studied tea it was a big part of my life as my father was posted in Assam. In the early 90s, he bought me a packet of green tea that opened up my world. At one point, I owned over 100 rare and exotic teas from China, Japan, Taiwan, Russia, England, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Kenya but I knew little about the humble leaf. After a while I wanted to learn and know more about tea. That’s when the decision to study came about.

Q: What is your favourite tea to serve?

Marigold and Lemon Grass green tea is my current favourite when entertaining.

Q: What are some popular misconceptions about brewing or drinking tea?

Of all the myths associated with tea, the most common are associated with green tea. It’s such a fad to drink green tea. People gulp green tea for anti-oxidants. Of course, it is rich in anti-oxidants, but black tea has anti-oxidants as well as traces of vitamins and catechins. Many tea drinkers are also unaware green and black tea is obtained from the same plant – the teas refer to different stages in the oxidation process.

Julie Wang, Australian Tea Masters, Singapore

Q: Why did you study to become a tea sommelier?

Being a self-professed tea junkie working in the food and beverage industry, I noticed a lack of emphasis on tea in the menu. So I set out to become a tea specialist. It is my vision to help educate fellow professionals in the industry about the potential that lies in specialty tea, and raise the tea service standards for customers.

Q: What keeps your passion for tea alive?

Tea, to me, is a never ending discovery journey. The diverse varieties of tea alone floors me. But I most enjoy introducing specialty tea to customers: seeing their eyes light up as their taste buds awake to the myriad of flavours from the humble tea plant is my greatest joy.

Q: Do you have a special technique or formula for preparing tea?

Where possible, I prepare my tea “gongfu-cha” style as I believe this is the best method to draw out and maximise the flavours of the tea. It’s not a special technique, rather, it’s taking the effort to know the leaves. Whether they work best with a certain temperature, type of water, brewing vessel or infusion time.

Q: What is the most creative use of tea you have experienced?

Tea has such versatility as illustrated by the ingenious and skillful interpretation of Gyokuro at the Peace Oriental Teahouse in Bangkok. Their three-course Gyokuro starts with an eight-minute cold-brew that has such intense umami flavour. The same leaves are then steeped hot to extract those fresh vegetal notes. Lastly, the remaining leaves are served as an appetising cold dish infused with Yuzu. Not only are the leaves well-utilized, each course brings out a different dimension that allows the customer to truly appreciate the depth of the tea.

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Snidgha & Julie

(c) Felicia Stewart, 2016

How do you take your tea? Fast or slow?

The World Tea Media reports ‘slow tea’ is a thing. In fact, Italy has it’s very own ‘slow tea’ movement with the goals of preserving tea traditions, protecting local biodiversity and promoting small-scale quality teas.

The founders of the movement looked to traditional tea producing areas such as Yunnan in China. There, when you visit a friend, colleague or even a business, the first thing you are offered is a cup of tea. Many people have ‘tea stations’ set up in their homes and offices. Each cup of tea is carefully brewed according to set protocol and customs and guests are invited to savour the colour, aroma and taste. The consumption of tea is not to be rushed.

It is, in many ways, not dissimilar to the ‘slow food’ movement – which puts quality before speed.

While Kiwis are starting to embrace the concept of ‘slow food,’ many of us continue to live a life of ‘fast tea.’ For decades, tea drinkers in this country have slurped tea entombed in paper sachets and now instant tea, tea pods, and ready-to-drink (RTD) teas are making an impact in the supermarket aisle.

Even if you are a fan of the loose leaf and ‘slow tea,’ in this age of technology getting your tea fix is quick and easy. Many tea traders have an online web store and teas are marketed through social media tools, such as Instagram or Facebook. If you see a tea you like, click through to the web store, and plug in your payment details. Chances are, your tea will be in your cup the next day. Worse case, the wait may be a couple of weeks if your leaves are coming from offshore.

So, imagine having to wait months – nay, years – for new tea? Well, that’s exactly what tea consumers in past generations had to do.

Tea was introduced from China to Europe in the 17th century, but, as a luxury item, was not transported in significant quantities. Enormous, strong and slow East Indiamen boats were charged with carrying  tea during the East India Company’s monopoly. But even with favourable sailing conditions, the round trip took almost two years. And if anything went wrong it could take a lot longer. In the meantime, smugglers satiated the palates of tea drinkers by adding dubious ingredients to mask the taste of expired tea.

The demise of the East India Company’s monopoly and a ‘need for speed’ heralded the arrival of the first clipper ships. They earned their name from the way that they ‘clipped off’ the miles – with an average one-way journey taking 70-100 days to deliver fresh tea to waiting British tea cups.

So what about the overland routes to markets such as Russia and Europe?

It has been well documented that much of the tea transported by the ancient Tea Horse Road which ran from China north through Tibet, Mongolia and Russia was carried by caravan, mules and horses. How long it took for tea to journey from it’s place of origin to end destination is not as well known.

Historians have learned that as recent as the early decades of the 20th century, human porters carried tea along the smaller tracks and trails leading from remote tea-picking areas to the arterial Tea Horse routes, both in Yunnan and in Sichuan.  Black-and-white images of these incredibly wiry, tough, hard-bitten men have come to light, including a (now famous) 150-year-old French-made lithograph from Yunnan.

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American explorer and botanist E.H. Wilson: “Western Szechuan; men laden with ‘brick tea’ for Thibet. One man’s load weighs 317 lbs [144 kilos], the other’s 298 lbs [135 kilos]. Men carry this tea as far as Tachien-lu [Kangding] accomplishing about six miles per day over vile roads. Altitude 5,000 ft [1,500m] July 30, 1908.”

Four porters were interviewed for an article that appeared in the China Daily in 2003. According to 81-year-old former tea porter Li Zhongquan, when it became impossible for pack horses and mules to go any further, the porters took over. Li was part of a group of porters that carried tea all the way from Tianquan to Kangding, a distance of 180km each way on narrow mountain tracks, much of the way at dangerously high altitudes in freezing temperatures. According to Li, an able-bodied porter would carry 10 to 12 packs of tea, each weighing between 6 and 9 kg. To this had to be added 7 to 8 kg of grain for sustenance enroute, as well as “five or six pairs of homemade straw sandals to change on the way.” The strongest porters could carry 15 packs of tea, making a total load of around 150 kg. “The grain lasted no longer than half the journey,” Li remembered, “And you had to replenish your food supply at your own expense.” As for the multiple pairs of straw sandals: “These would be worn out quickly, as the mountain path was extremely rough.”

To make the portage of such heavy loads possible, and to help guard against the ever-present danger of overbalancing and falling into one of the many deep ravines skirted by the narrow mountain trail, tea porters carried iron-tipped T-shaped walking sticks both to assist in struggling over the steep, rocky path, and to rest the load on, without taking it off their backs, when they paused for breath.

For the tea porters from one particular village, the hardest part of their journey was the climb over a precipitous mountain trail was so narrow that it was only wide enough for one person to pass at a time. According to Li Zhongquan: “One misstep, and you were gone – we had our sandals soled with iron to get over the mountain.” Li also remembers when: “One of us was sick and fell dead on the mountain top in winter. We had to leave him there until the snow thawed in spring, when we carried the body down home.”

Upon arrival in Kangding (about 30 days later), the tea was dropped at warehouses or market stalls. The porters then turned around and headed home with loads of medicinal herbs, musk, wool, horn and other Tibetan products. As for the tea – well, it continued on its long journey to waiting tea lovers living in remote locations, such as Siberia and Morocco, by any means necessary.

unit3_a_bigThe tea porters are remembered in this statue park in Ya’an, China.

When you are making your next online purchase – finger poised over the ‘enter’ key – spare a thought for tea consumers of the past who patiently waited so long for their tea fix and for those who helped to get it to them through determination and bloody hard work!

Sources:
Forbes, Andrew, Henley David, ‘The Burden of Human Portage,’ in China’s Ancient Tea Horse Road, Congoscenti Books. 2011.
‘Blazing the Tea-Horse Trail,’ China Daily, June 13, 2003, athttp://www.china.org.cn/english/culture/66934.htm

(c) Felicia Stewart, 2016

Region Profile: Yunnan

China was the first country to understand the value and power of the leaves of tea bushes – first as a food source, then as a medicinal tonic and lastly as a refreshing beverage. As a result of centuries spent developing their tea industry, vast numbers of teas are produced in the many tea growing regions of China.

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Yunnan is the southwestern most province of China, and is known for being the origin of a number of rich and diverse styles of tea. Yunnan borders Tibet in China and Vietnam, Laos, and Burma.

Yunnan’s climate and topography is diverse, with many mountains, but the climate tends to be mild, and tends to have strongly seasonal rainfall in keeping with the pattern of the Asian monsoon, with very wet summers and very dry winters. In the warmest parts of the province, the climate is closer to a tropical wet-dry climate, with only slightly cooler winters; the cooler areas have more of a subtropical climate with cool, dry winters.

Much of the tea produced in Yunnan province is produced in a system of permaculture, with ancient tea trees, some hundreds of years old, grown in a tree form. In these regions, people pick the tea leaves by climbing the trees. The forests of tea trees in these areas support biodiversity that is much greater than that found in most monoculture tea plantations, with moss, lichens, and flowering plants, growing on the tea trees.

Distinctly Yunnan 

Yunnan is best known for pu’erh tea, a unique style that originated in the region. This is the tea that travelers took along the Tea Horse Road and Silk Road, compressed in brick form and consumed as a tea soup with the addition of berries and spices found along the trading routes.

Pu’erh has two distinct categories: the “raw” sheng (naturally aged) and the “ripe” shou (artificially aged through fermentation) that are pressed in many different forms. All types of pu’erh tea are created from maocha or “new tea.” Only tea originating from Yunnan province can be marketed as pu’erh; elsewhere tea producers must use the term heicha or dark tea.

Yunnan also produces black teas, as well as white and green teas, many of which were once known as Imperial Tribute Tea (teas once favoured by various ruling emperors). Plucked in the cool, misty days of early spring from isolated tea gardens in lofty mountain regions, these teas were cherished for their remarkable and ethereal quality. Emperors took delivery of the tea as soon as it was available in the spring, which was recorded as fulfillment of ‘tax’ owed to the government. Hence the name ‘tribute’.

The Imperial Tribute Teas lost their emperors in 1911, but the teas became available to more tea drinkers in China. And their moniker changed to Famous Chinese Teas. The reputation of these teas has survived both the Cultural Revolution and modernisation in Chinese drinking habits and they still remain famous and revered today.

Five teas to try:

  • Imperial Silver Needle: Only the tender bud is plucked from the tea bush. It is also known as Silver Needle due to the exquisitely shaped buds enveloped in white down. This white tea dazzles with its fruity aroma, subtle savoury notes and smooth delicate body.
  • Purple Black: This rare black tea is crafted using a wild tree purple leaf varietal (Ye Sheng) that grows wild in the mountainous areas west of Feng Qing area in Yunnan at an altitude of 2000-2200 metres. The taste is full and robust with sweet and fruity tones, a touch of chocolate and caramel, and aged rum with spice.
  • Black or Black Gold (Dian Hong): A one leaf/one bud ratio black tea from the high mountains of Zhenyuan. Lightly wilted, the leaves still have a slight greenish colour amongst vivid gold. The traditional processing gives the tea a floral aroma and smooth and sweet taste, with a late spice note. The flavour becomes earthier and more layered as it cools.
  • Sheng Pu’erh Mini-Tuocha: This is an entry-level pu’erh that is processed much like green tea before being compressed into nest form. This tea can either be brewed immediately or it can be stored and aged for many years, much like a fine wine. The taste is subtle, but coats your mouth cavity and can be savoured long after you have finished the tea.
  • Green Needle: When compared with Sichuan or Fujian province green teas, Yunnan green teas lean towards rustic and hearty. A popular style is Xiang Zhen (green needle or pine needle). The leaves are pan-fried, rolled, dried, and then pressed flat again to make it straight and pointy. The taste is robust with stewed fruit tones, as well as the freshness of pine needles.

(c) Felicia Stewart, 2016

Putting the ‘tea’ back in AOTEAROA

Tea is the second-most consumed beverage in the world, after water. But it is a second-class citizen in our nation, no matter how much the tea numbers around the world are trending upward. That’s surprising, considering that tea was the go-to refreshment in New Zealand long before the introduction of the flat white in the late 1980s.

These days, the tea bag rules here and in England. Problem is; it’s the coffee equivalent of instant. Nonetheless, Nathan Wakeford of the Australasian Specialty Tea Association says we are making progress. “New Zealand is enjoying the start of a tea renaissance right now with patrons  getting hip to leaves, coming in to sample single-origin varieties and blends,” he says. “They appreciate the unique and complex flavours of the leaf as well as the health benefits. It’s a choice more people are turning to.”

Perhaps that’s because of tea’s comparatively mild jolt. Typical brewed black teas contain about one-third the caffeine found in coffee, yet there’s a contradiction in the cup. True Camellia Sinensis or tea plant leaves, despite being processed differently to create black, oolong, white and green teas, contain L-Theanine: an amino acid that helps the brain to simultaneously relax and concentrate. In other words, a little buzz with focus.

But tea is so much more than that. It has been closely associated with medicinal use and health benefits for centuries. In recent years, consumers have sought out green tea, drawn to its antioxidant properties and studied ability to help prevent cardiovascular disease. This category is now facing staunch competition with specialty black tea making a comeback, along with white, oolong and dark (Pu’erh) teas.

Getting started (or restarted) with loose leaf tea can seem like a daunting task. The good news is that a few basic tips are all you really need to make a great cuppa.

Tea has to taste good to keep you interested day after day, which is why sampling and understanding some of the ‘tea language’ (much like wine terminology) will go a long way toward your personal tea education. Keep in mind, drinking blended tea in bags is rather like being a wine drinker who never explored beyond the cheapest bottle of table wine from the supermarket. If you really want to immerse yourself in tea, ditch the bags and go loose. Not all loose tea is quality tea, but the world’s best teas don’t come in bags. And if cost is your concern, plenty of loose leaf tea is actually cheaper (per cup) than what you can buy in a tea bag. Today consumers have an unprecedented abundance of superb loose leaf teas to select from. There are teas with Zen-like simplicity. Teas with delicate sweetness of white wine. Teas with the complexity of quality bourbon. And teas that are not teas (tisanes) that offer a myriad of health benefits. You are limited only by the size of your wallet.

Getting familiar with tea brewing basics is key. Black teas are steeped with hotter water than green teas, and each type of tea has a recommended range of steeping times. A reputable tea merchant will include specifics on each package, so there’s no need to commit the information to memory.

Don’t expect to have Nana’s tea pot either. Tea aficionados prefer to drink tea the old-fashioned Chinese way – in a small tea pot (200ml or less) or gaiwan – with or without infusers. This is so the loose-leaf has space to expand as it steeps, for optimum flavour. A higher leaf to water ratio and short multiple infusions are also preferred.

And there is an acceptable alternative to the commercial tea bag: filling your own. Look for individual, biodegradable tea filters made of simple porous paper that are long enough to drape over the edge of a cup. They take seconds to put together. Pyramid-shaped tea sachets (such as that used by Harney & Sons and Tea Total) are gaining in popularity, as well — a good choice that allows the leaves some room to steep.

To really fall head over heels for tea-drinking, you have to head to its home turf: Asia. But if you lack the budget or the time, there are a handful of cafes and hotels that will help you to get started on your tea journey…

In Auckland, Chapter (www.chapter.co.nz) in Mt. Eden have been in the business of promoting tea and romance (books, that is) for close to 20 years. More than 100 teas are available to purchase, online or in-store, including NZ Live (Bell Tea), Harney & Sons, and Tea Total.

A short distance away in Symonds Street, Langham Auckland is committed to offering a first-class tea experience. Much attention is paid to water temperature and the menu of rare and limited-production, single-estate teas from China, Japan, Sri Lanka and the Himalayas reads like sommelier notes; thanks to the guiding hand of certified tea master, Benjamin McManus.

Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Temple in Flat Bush deals out an experience that is more in keeping with traditional Chinese tea house: rustic and simple in its décor and presentation. Fine Chinese loose-leaf teas are served in glass teapots. Over a bowl of noodles, watch the leaves slowly unfurl and reveal their secrets.

In the Waikato, Zealong Tea (www.zealong.com) is doing an outstanding job to educate locals and tourists of the benefits of converting to premium leaf tea. The humble leaf is presented to patrons of the Camellia Tea House in the most innovative and enchanting ways, including sumptuous desserts.

Getting into tea mode in the ‘windy city’ is a breeze. T Leaf T (www.tleaft.co.nz) in Dukes Street and Lampton Quay has a huge range of tea as well as regular tastings for those who wish to expand their palate. Hippopotamus (www.hippopotamus.co.nz) offers an elegant high-tea starting from $39 accompanied by Dilmah ‘T’, gourmet loose-leaf offerings from the Ceylon-born tea giant. Noah’s Ark Teahouse in Tory Street serves respectable leaves though it is doubtful getting ‘tea drunk’ would be permissible. And Mister Chai (misterchai.co.nz) in Cuba Street is doing its bit to add some spice to New Zealand tea.

Christchurch has its own tea merchants including Stir Tea (www.stirtea.co.nz) and The T Shop (www.thetshop.co.nz), who supply local cafes. Jo Bind, the owner of Ya-Ya Teahouse (www.ya-yateahouse.co.nz) runs tea education workshops at Lotus Flower Vegetarian Restaurant in Saint Asaph Street. Jo’s knowledge of the leaf and the ‘way of tea’ is exceptional. Premium loose-leaf tea can also be brewed and poured for you at The Teahouse in Lincoln (www.theteahouse.co.nz).

If you don’t have access to a good tea shop, buy some tea from a reputable online merchant (make sure you check the reviews) and conduct a side-by-side tasting of loose-leaf and bagged teas at home, with discerning-palate pals. Or ask your favourite cafe to start carrying loose leaf tea options in addition to tea bags.

@2016, Felicia Stewart

Chai: Spiced goodness in a cup

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Ever-increasingly we are seeing articles about health and well-being posted in social media. It seems the world has decided “good health is in.” Well, it’s not the first time…  

In the years leading up to the early 19th century, citizens around the globe relied on herbs and natural remedies to meet their primary health care needs. Early New Zealanders and Australians used a variety of native leafy bushes and plants for medicinal purposes. In fact, one of the most popular decoctions drank by the Maori and Aboriginal people was an infusion from the plant species Leptospermum (also referred to as Manuka or Tea Tree). This was observed by Captain Cook who recognised the plant’s potential as far back as the 1760s.

However, in the 1930s the power of herbs lost its lustre. Consumers sought to replace time-enduring folk remedies with modern synthetic drugs, which are designed to reduce symptoms rather than correct the underlying cause of a health problem.

Herbal teas regained popularity ‘down-under’ in the late-1990s when Healtheries, a company known for its natural stone-ground flours, launched its first functional tea range. In Australia, Penelope Sach, a renowned Herbalist and Naturopath in Sydney, lead the way with organic herbal teas that were Australian grown and blended to suit different health levels.  Since then rising consumer interest in natural and herbal products has fuelled the launch of new companies providing their own blends for ‘self-care.’ But it has taken some time for chai to find its place in the wellness tea category and there is, perhaps, still some scepticism in the marketplace as to what it actually is.

What is chai?

The word ‘chai’ is derived from the Hindi word for ‘tea.’

“Legend has it that an Indian Maharaja concocted a recipe comprising herbs and spices in a quest to create a healing elixir,” says Ayurvedic practitioner and tea blender at Tea Coup, Fehreen Ali. “After that, the recipe was modified for use in the ancient practice of ‘Ayurveda’ holistic medicine. This earliest chai (named ‘kadha’) did not contain tea, but rather was a combination of plant roots, bark, seeds and spices, taken both hot and cold.

“It was only when the British set up tea plantations in Assam, India (to break the Chinese monopoly) that tea leaves made its way into the ancient ‘kadha,’ laying the foundations of the masala chai as we know it now. But its popularity was restricted in India until the 1960s, when a mechanised form of tea production called ‘CTC’ (or ‘Crush, Tear, Curl’) made black tea affordable for Indians,” Fehreen explains.

A quick look on the web and it is evident regional, local and household preferences determine the style of chai. “It is the choice of ingredients and preparation that defines its efficacy. Usually, the recipe involves black tea, pungent spices, sugar, milk and water. But blends with green tea – even white tea – are becoming more prevalent.”

To be clear – spices and herbs are not the same thing. “Most of us use the terms ‘spice’ and ‘herb’ interchangeably. Herbs, however, are traditionally obtained from the leaves of herbaceous (non-woody) plants, while spices can be obtained from roots, flowers, fruits, seeds or bark and tend to be strong in flavour. The most commonly used spices in chai include cardamom, ginger, cinnamon and cloves. It is the rejuvenative and detoxifying effect of combining them together that is at the core of their medicinal value,” says Fehreen.

What are the health benefits of chai?

Modern day chai-walli, Uppma Virdi, learned everything she knows about spices at her Grandfather’s knee. Most days, she can be found grinding spices and packaging her signature blend ready for distribution to cafes around Australia. “Since the day I was born I’ve smelt the aromas of chai brewing,” she says. “There is so much goodness in this cup; goodness that has been observed for many years.”

Cardamom, she says, is noted as a safe and effective warming digestive aid. “Some believe it can also stimulate the mind and provide cognitive clarity.”

Ginger is another healing spice. “It is excellent at combatting gas and also offers antifungal, antibacterial, antiviral and anti-nausea effects. In addition there is evidence that ginger stimulates the circulatory system.”

Cinnamon has been used for hundreds of years as a perfume, but recent investigation points to potential benefits in boosting energy, controlling blood sugar and as a sleep aide. It is believed to have a synergistic effect with other spices.

Folklore recommends clove as a natural remedy for a toothache and as an effective agent to combat bad breath. “But cloves are also energising and can restore heat in the body,” says Uppma.

The tea plant or ‘Camellia Sinensis,’ which is part of chai in the form of black, green or white tea, is also known for having tremendous antioxidant capabilities. Research into tea also links it with increased immune function and cardiovascular benefits. “In India, mostly CTC black tea is used for its bold, tannic flavour that complements chai’s sweet, creamy and spicy notes,” Uppma says.

“However, in Western countries high-grade single estate leaves such as Assam (from India) or Kenilworth from Sri Lanka is becoming more common.”

How do you prepare chai?

It doesn’t take much searching on the web to find a range of delicious chai blends to steep and sip. Some blends favour traditional method of preparation (in a pot) and others only require boiling water and a three minute steep. The choice to add milk is yours.

Do keep in mind that to have maximum health effects, the spices must be fresh. The inclusion of excessive amounts of sweetness will reduce this potential powerhouse of a beverage into a guilty pleasure. So don’t be afraid to ask tea merchants for a list of ingredients or a sample before committing yourself to purchasing a 100g bag.

If you fancy yourself a budding chai-wallah (or chai-walli, if female) and wish to make traditional chai from scratch, Julie Le Clerc’s ‘Masala Chai’ recipe featured in Hot Pink Spice Saga: An Indian culinary travelogue with recipes (Random House) is a good place to start. But please note. There is nothing generic about chai tea. It has no rules. You can make it the way you like. Drink it the way you like.

“Chai has no stiff upper lip rituals and improvisation is allowed (in fact, it’s encouraged),” says Uppma. “But when you make chai, do make sure you steep and sip slowly. There’s no need to gulp chai down quickly like medicine.”

The future of chai

Increasingly, chai is taking many forms. There are chai syrups, chai powders, tea bags, and countless chai blends (including white chai, chocolate mate chai, coffee chai, dark chocolate chilly chai, pumpkin spice chai and ‘Oprah’ chai!). In addition, chai lovers can purchase caffeine-free blends, made from South African rooibos instead of tea. An interesting example is ‘Hindu Holiday’ made from rooibos, cardamom, cassia, and spicy ginger adorned with garlands of rose, jasmine and marigold petals.

Chai is also now an ingredient. It is often found in the ever-popular chai latte, delivered either hot or iced or as ‘dirty chai’ (a standard chai with an espresso shot). And don’t forget eggnogs, exotic cocktails, desserts, and other foods…!

“Chai has many formats that are becoming increasingly accepted,” says Fehreen. “At the end of the day, there’s much to be gained from the collective good of tea and spice. To drink chai is to relax, restore and revitalise.

“Healing never tasted so good.”


 Julie Le Clerc’s Masala Chai*

Makes 6-8 small cups

  • 2cm piece of fresh ginger, thinly sliced
  • 3 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 5cm long cinnamon stick
  • 4 whole black peppercorns
  • 1T black tea leaves
  • 250ml milk
  • 3T sugar

Use a mortar and pestle to roughly smash the ginger and spices. Put this mixture and the tea leaves into a large saucepan with 2 cups of water and bring to the boil. Turn the heat to simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Add the milk and continue simmering for 5 minutes. Then add sugar to taste.

Strain and pour into a clay cup or a glass, slurp and say: “Dhanyabhaad, didi!”

*Extracted with permission from ‘Hot Pink Spice Saga: An Indian Culinary Travelogue with Recipes’ (Random House $49.99)


Where to buy Chai:

Australia

  • Tea Coup (www.teacoup.com.au) has two signature chai blends, including an exotic coconut white tea with ayurvedic chai spices.
  • Chai Walli (www.chaiwalli.com.au) offers packs of traditional masala chai and a caffeine free version made from rooibos.
  • The Tea Chest (www.theteachest.com.au) keeps customers in the ‘wet tropics’ on their toes with a range of chai blends including traditional, vanilla, and green.

New Zealand

  • Nomad Tea Merchant (www.nomadteamerchant.com) offers a wild chai – a single-estate Ceylon combined with warming spices and coated with wild bush honey.
  • Informal Tea (www.informaltea.co.nz) makes its own signature blend called ‘it’s chai’ with a twist (of orange,that is).
  • Mister Chai (www.misterchai.co.nz) is the new chai-wallah on the block with a small range including organic tulsi and mint chai.

@2016 Felicia Stewart