Tea Together Tuesday: Everyday Pairings

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Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to share a food and tea pairing. Now, food and beverage pairing is something that can seem daunting to a lot of people. It evokes images of snooty sommeliers and people tasting wines and declaring that they have notes of mineral and cat’s piss. It evokes fancy restaurants where you get a quarter-sized piece of steak and a single pea for your main course, paired, bien sur, with something that was made in a chateau that crumbled sometime around the 18th century.

So I decided to go a different way. At it’s essence, food pairing is about balancing flavors. Have you ever had something really sweet and felt like you needed something bitter or sour or fresh to “cut through” the sweetness? That is food pairing, in a nutshell. Samin Nosrat really wrote the book on this one (and made the Netflix special), but balancing flavors is the foundation of all enjoyment of good food and drink. I used to get a lot of surprise when I said I made all my own salad dressing, but once you understand how to balance flavors, it’s not much more difficult than putting your ingredients into a jar with a tightly-fitting lid and shaking until it’s dressing.

And in the same way, pairing any beverage with food is about balancing flavors. And do you want to know the best part about balancing flavors? It’s uniquely personal. Do you think that the richness of a really good cut of roasted salmon goes beautifully with a full-bodied red wine? Well, guess what? That’s great! No amount of pairing advice will change the fact of what you enjoy eating and drinking. Like “steeping instructions,” pairing suggestions are like the pirate code — they’re really more like guidelines. If you’re completely lost, start there. But don’t be afraid to break the rules because there is no such thing as the pairing police. And even if there were, well…

So tea and food pairing. I’ve talked about cheese and tea pairing when I discussed my love of Ken Cohen’s Talking Tea podcast. But I really wanted to go for something a little more mundane today, even than cheese I can buy at my grocery store. So I’m sharing my breakfast, which is, at its core, a food and tea pairing. I don’t drink tea with most of my meals, but breakfast is usually some combination of food and tea. So this morning’s (first) breakfast was a slice of toast with some chocolate-hazelnut spread. And because it is very sweet, I paired it with a cup of Black Dragon Pearls from The Steeped Leaf Shop.

I find this Black Dragon Pearl tea fascinating because it has the full body and rich, almost chocolate-y notes of a Chinese black tea, but it doesn’t have the malty sweetness I associate with a Dian Hong or a Qimen tea. This lack of inherent sweet notes makes it perfect (to my tastes) alongside a very sweet breakfast, and the cocoa notes tie in with the chocolate in the spread. It’s like when Claire uses milk and dark chocolate when she recreates a gourmet version of a candy treat because they balance each other.

So that is my humble pairing and a little musing about the concept of food pairings. I am unlikely to pair my breakfast with wine very often, but choosing your tea to complement your breakfast food is one way to start thinking about the balance of flavors that go into all kinds of food experimentation. Carry on and pair delicious things!

NB: Nothing to disclose. If you are interested in collaborating, please see my collaboration and contact information.

Celebrating Lughnasadh

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This week it is the festival of Lughnasadh. Now, technically, Lughnasadh is the first day of August. Or perhaps the full moon the closest to the first of August. Or perhaps it is the day that is astronomically directly between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. So I tend to be a bit flexible, and more or less celebrate for almost a week. Other festivals get several days of celebration, and what else have I got going on right now?

Lughnasadh is a harvest celebration, the first of the year, and this year it seems even more appropriate to celebrate. In fact, I got a 20-lb. bag of freshly harvested and milled wheat flour from my favorite local farm on Sunday. I’ve been baking throughout our isolation for the last several months, but this weekend, I bumped it up. I made a loaf of sourdough, along with a pan of spiced pecan buns, and an apple pie. And I bought myself some small gifts to help with my baking — a new baking scale and a hand-carved dough lame.

Saturday, the first, I made my sourdough bread, along with some sourdough waffles with the discarded starter. I made a big dinner of pork chops, fresh local salad, and that beautiful fresh bread. Sunday was a breakfast celebration, with spiced buns made from the appropriately-sunny-colored dough from Max Miller’s Sally Lun Bun recipe, filled with ginger, cinnamon, allspice, honey, and pecans. That with a cup of Quantum Mechanics blend from Viridian Tea Company with a little extra fresh spearmint from the garden made for a delightfully festive breakfast before I sent my spouse to pick up the flour. And I set the table with some dried ornamental grass from our garden. It isn’t a corn dolly or ears of wheat, but it maintains the spirit. Then, the evening brought an apple pie with the fresh local apples that we’ve gotten from our farm box.

While most of the celebration was focused on the weekend, I did engage in a bit more bread baking once my new gifts had arrived. And since this promises to be a quarter of new beginnings for me, I made sure take some solitary time to meditate and read my tarot for guidance for the coming months.

Lughnasadh is similar to Imbolc in my mind. Where Imbolc starts to remind us that spring is coming, Lughnasadh promises the coolness of fall. We even got a bit of cooler weather this week (although Sunday was appropriately summery). But the harvest is starting and the weather will chill and the year keeps turning. Blessed Lughnasadh!

NB: Nothing to declare. If you are interested in collaborating, please see my collaboration and contact information.

Tea Together Tuesday: Mug Shot

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Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to share your “mug shot” or your favorite tea in your favorite mug. Well, I don’t really play favorites with my tea, but my mugs are another thing. So this morning, I’m sharing the tea I drink most often in the mug that has been part of my tea journey for a long time.

Most mornings, especially since we started isolating at home in March, I make myself a pot of stovetop masala chai as my first breakfast. It’s light for my first-thing-in-the-morning stomach, but it provides a little hit of energy after a long fast since dinner and perhaps an early morning yoga practice. It’s warming and soothing, so even in summer, the mornings feel cool enough to want that bit of coziness. And after an invigorating yoga practice, when I’ve built some heat in my body, I don’t want to throw a bunch of cold water into my stomach right away.

So I generally rise with the sun (or before!) and do my yoga, perhaps a bit of meditation, maybe take some time to myself to check social media or read a book. And I make a pot of masala chai, which I often pour into what I call my Ithaca mug. I got it from a local potter’s stall at the farmers market when I was in college and first lived on my own in a one-bedroom apartment that teetered over the edge of Cascadilla Gorge. Back then, I made my morning coffee while looking out over the gorge in the morning and drank it out of this mug, or I would make a cup of peppermint tea in the evenings to sip after dinner from the mug.

To me, it symbolizes my first steps towards adulthood and self-sufficiency. It reminds me of meals that I planned and prepared myself, and of days in my solitary apartment, something I didn’t experience again until seven years later when I divorced my first husband. The Ithaca mug represents my time in Ithaca, where I started learning who I am and how to be comfortable alone with that person. I learned the value of solitude in my life. And I learned the value of a morning routine, no matter how small.

Of course, on a more utilitarian note, the mug is big. It can easily hold 12 oz. of tea with plenty of extra room if I carry it back to the bedroom to sit with Elliot while my spouse takes a shower. It’s a heavy, handmade mug, and it’s bottom-heavy, so it’s difficult to spill. I’ve dropped it more times than I remember and it has survived. And the top being slightly narrower than the base helps keep things hot longer.

Unlike most of my teaware, this mug gets washed in the dishwasher, or with soap. This is not a mug for tasting small amounts of a fine tea. It is a mug for a builder’s brew or a cup of strong coffee. It is a mug to comfort and sustain. So when I make my masala chai for it, I make it strong. I boil together Assam, my current favorite being from Calabash Tea and Tonic (of course if you like your tea and spices pre-blended, Calabash’s Love Potion #10 is also excellent when I’m not in the mood to prepare my own spices), lots of spices, some brown sugar, and some coconut milk, along with the water. I make sure it simmers for at least five minutes, usually more. It makes an eye-opening brew, and this mug is perfect for it.

What does your daily mug or cuppa look like?

NB: Nothing to declare. If you are interested in collaborating, please see my collaboration and contact information.

Re-examining Herbalism in the Light of Colonialism

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When I wrote my tea primer, I included a section about herbal teas, in which I talk about the importance of botanical or scientific names in identifying the herbs that you are purchasing or planning to use. But a recent post from Justin Robinson on Instagram has made me not only rethink my relationship to the names of plants, but also my relationship with herbalism and its roots in colonialism and cultural appropriation.

Robinson talks about how “scientific” names were actually more like the colonized names of a plant. In his video about hydrangea, he talks about how the original name was ajisai, as it originated in Japan, but the Greek-derived name “hydrangea” leads us to forget or never know the plants origins. And in some cases, the scientific name can be so completely divorced from the native plant itself that it even honors a European botanist that never even saw the plant itself in its natural habitat, such as the plant spiderwort, which is part of genus Tradescantia, named for John Tradescant the Elder, who never even travelled to the new world. His study of specimens from the Americas was solely from plants that were brought to him by colonizers (including his problematic friend, John Smith). While many of the common names for plants of this genus are equally problematic, the name spiderwort likely refers to the spider-leg-like leaves or the way the flowers grow in clusters. Interestingly, this common name makes it easier for me to identify the plant, as it only flowers for a short window of the day, and the characteristic leaves and bud clusters are much more recognizable later in the afternoon.

An example that is even closer to home is mugwort, which I have pictured above. It is a common weed, native to Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa, and invasive to North America. Its scientific name is Artemesia vulgaris, which suggests its relationship to wormwood (A. absinthum), as well as suggesting a connection to some of the herbs used in ancient Greece that may or may not be similar. But the common name mugwort is what suggests its traditional use — its dried flowers were used as a bittering agent to flavor beer, much the same way hops is more commonly used today. And like hops, mugwort has digestive actions, as a bitter plant, as well as anti-parasitic and preservative qualities, and nervine actions. The scientific name, while somewhat standardized and “official” is not terribly indicative of what the plant can do, merely indicating that it is the most common example of the genus named after ancient Greek tradition.

These examples are just one reason why I’ve chosen to re-evaluate my herbal education in the light of colonialism and appropriation. All of the teachers I’ve turned to and schools I’ve gone to for herbal education in the past have been started by white women. The companies from which I buy herbs are white-owned and many of the books I use for reference are white-written. And apart from just diversifying the voices in my education, these people often use traditions that are not those in which they were raised without properly calling out the problematic history that has made those traditions available to us. A commonly-used example is the practice of smudging with white sage. While burning herbs to drive out miasma, “bad humors,” evil spirits, or any other unseen harmful entity, is common through folk traditions around the world, the specific practice of “smudging” and the use of white sage is specific to certain nations indigenous to the Americas. In fact, sage was only one of the sacred herbs used in this ceremony, and it was illegal for many of these people to practice their traditional religions until the late 1970s, making it even more insensitive for those descended from colonizers to use this practice lightly, perhaps to “cleanse” a new house they’ve bought with the generational wealth they’ve built on the backs of colonized nations. Plus, white sage is endangered and is often produced in highly unsustainable ways, making it even less available to those who use it for sacred traditions.

An even more insidious example is stevia, which went from a traditional plant used by the Guarani people to a mass-marketed product patented by Coca-Cola. Despite the fact that the only reason European colonizers learned how to use stevia (or ka’a he’e, as they call it) as a sweetener comes from the shared knowledge of the Guarani, white-owned corporations are patenting and profiting off this knowledge, while providing none of this wealth to the people who originated the practices. Plus, the actual stevia plant is not considered “safe” by the FDA and is banned from import. So this traditional plant is only deemed acceptable when it has been processed through the factory of colonial capitalism.

So what can we do to fight against this? Well, personally, I am trying to learn more of my herbalism from non-white sources. Robinson is one such teacher, as is Farai Harreld, whose Folk Herbalism for Everyone is on Patreon, among many others. The phenomenon of Black and indigenous herbalists reclaiming their traditional knowledge is particularly poignant, as these communities might have a very well-earned distrust of the mainstream medical community. Generations of abuse, exploitation, and experimentation has left them with a desire to make do on their own as much as they can. And while I don’t share their generational distrust of modern medicine, I appreciate the idea of using traditional medicine and allopathic medicine together.

But I have many gaps. For one, while many of the herbalists I follow sell products they have made, the return on value-added products, like tinctures, tea blends, and salves or oils, is much higher than selling bulk herbs. But I would like to find a source of bulk herbs that is owned by BIPOC herbalists, rather than one started with the benefit of generational wealth and access to startup funding. I am always new and always learning and appreciate any recommendations people have to give. For now, I will be re-examining my relationship with who I consider an authority in all spheres of my life.

NB: I am not a medical professional or a licensed herbalist. None of this is intended to be taken as medical advice. Please consult your own treatment professionals for advice. No brand relationships or PR gifts to disclose. For more information about collaborating with me, see my contact and collaboration information.

Tea Together Tuesday: Straight Talk

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Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to share your favorite “straight” tea and how you like to make it. I assume straight tea is simply unblended, unflavored tea, something that I drink quite often, so obviously I cannot choose just one favorite. But I can share my favorite tea of the moment (I have, unfortunately, run out of the Baozhong that so captivated me a few weeks ago).

I received this Colombian White Tea from Chado Tea Room as PR a little while ago. I actually used their Egyptian chamomile in my Hercule Poirot literary tea session, and chose the Colombian white as my second sample because it was just so intriguing. Who knew they grew and processed white tea in Colombia? Well, I shared my thoughts a little while ago, but one thing I hadn’t tried was cold-brewing it. Yes, it is still nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit here most afternoons, so cold tea is the way to go.

And oh my goodness! This tea is delightful cold-brewed. It has that soft tannin coupled with a sugarcane-juice sweetness that I associate with Taiwanese black teas, without the hay-like quality I get in the flavor of some leaf-heavy white teas. But the cold-brewed version had a peach note to it that made it just taste like summer. It almost tasted like peach sweet tea, but without anything added. I had grand designs to make some sort of tea cocktail or mocktail with it, but I drank the entire litre of tea before adding anything to it, so this is certainly the straightest of straight teas. Nothing added because nothing is needed.

I’ve definitely found myself gravitating towards white teas these days. I think if I had to associate specific teas with specific seasons, I would put green teas with spring, white teas with summer, roasted oolongs and hojicha with autumn, and black teas with winter, but the unique flavor of this tea makes it one I could see myself drinking all year round. But brewed cold, it is just the essence of summer.

What’s your favorite tea? Does it change by the season?

NB: Tea was provided by Chado Tea Room in exchange for sharing my tasting notes, which I shared previously. If you are interested in collaborating, please see my collaboration and contact information.

Experiments in Tea: How to Stay Cool

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It’s definitively summer here in Maryland, and we are feeling it, at home with our non-industrial air conditioning. By about 3pm (if we’re lucky), our aircon stops being able to keep up with the daily heat and the temperature inside starts to creep up, too. So sometimes, I just don’t feel like having a hot cup of tea. Now I’ve talked in the past about my love of cold-brewed tea, but that is not the iciest glass of tea I can make. For that, I have to turn to the Japanese technique that is known as shinobi-cha or kori-dashi, which is the practice of brewing tea with ice.

Now, if you’re new to ice-brewing, it may sound like some sort of Coors Lite gimmick, but let me tell you, it produces and singularly smooth, and very cold cup of tea. And I personally find it very well-suited to Japanese teas, possibly because of the power of suggestion, but also because of the delicate balance of umami and sweetness that dances in those leaves. It’s particularly prized as a method for brewing gyokuro, but I also love it for a delicate sencha.

So this week, with the weather sweltering, I weighed out 120g of fresh ice cubes made from filtered water (you don’t want them to have absorbed any weird odors while sitting in the freezer), and added 4g of sencha from The Steeped Leaf Shop on top. I’ve made it both with the leaves on the bottom and the leaves on top, and I find leaves on top makes for a more flavorful brew. And this sencha is one that I’ve particularly enjoyed, with a balanced umami, sweetness, and brightness that comes through beautifully when iced.

Now, you can use one big ice cube, if you wish. I will often weigh out a 120-g portion of water in a silicone container and freeze it overnight to have that one big, Instagrammable, ice dome, but I was impatient and brewing on a whim, so I used smaller cubes from the ice maker (our ice maker frightens the cat, so we only run it when we need ice right then). I haven’t noticed a big difference in the result, but the time it takes for the ice to melt is shorter with smaller cubes.

And that’s how you brew it — you put tea over ice, or ice over tea, and let it melt. When it has melted, it’s done. Personally, I like to let it nearly melt, so that the last little bits of ice are still solid, ensuring that the final brew is still icy cold. It is a long wait for a relatively small bit of tea, but the flavor experience is exceptional, and it’s probably the only tea I don’t feel absolutely disgusting taking outside to my garden after noon!

NB: Nothing to disclose. The tea mentioned was purchased by me and I was not paid or incentivized to write this post. If you are interested in collaborating, please see my collaboration and contact information.

Tea Together Tuesday: Time Traveling Tea

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Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to share a tea that transports you back to a specific moment in time. Now, while I have many, many tea-related memories, I was reminded of the one I’m going to share this week when I was filming my video this weekend on Tea with Catherine the Great. I made an offhand reference to how I was fascinated with the Russian practice of drinking strong tea with a lump of sugar held in the mouth.

I used to sit in my family’s tattered old wingchair, curled up with a book, sipping tea out of my very first thrifted tea cup, with a sugar cube. I would dip the cube at first, sip a little through the cube, and then eventually usually give up and toss a whole sugar cube in my cup of tea without bothering to stir, so I would get a gradient of flavor, similar to the idea behind East Frisian tea.

So today, I made myself a cup of Georgian black tea with a lump of sugar (homemade because I can’t simply run to the shop right now), and curled up in my own wingchair. I was instantly transported back to reading Crime and Punishment in my old chair, in our living room, a rather more formal room than our recreation room, with the comfortable sofa and the television. Our living room had a fancier sofa that my mother would sit on at the same time, just across the room, reading her own book. I remember spending hours like this, occasionally looking up to chat for a moment, or to go and get the telephone (the cord stretched all the way to the sofa). There was a window with some lace drapes by the chair so I had natural light as well as whatever lamps we had on. I could read here for ages, until I was fairly peeled up from my seat for a meal or some other responsibility.

And I read Crime and Punishment for fun when I was going through my phase of being fascinated by Russian culture. It was more of an aesthetic fascination, I think, before that was really something that was put into words. The dark atmosphere and gritty realism that it seemed permeated a lot of these works appealed to a privileged teenager just exploring rebellion and ennui. And of course, it went well with a cup of tea that was bitter at the top and sweet at the end.

Of course, I could re-read Dostoyevsky while I sip my time travel in a teacup, but instead I’ve opted to curl up with a book I have yet to finish. Enchantments was recommended to me by a coworker who has since moved on to another job, and I still haven’t gotten more than a couple chapters in. But perhaps the memories of afternoons spent absorbed in my childish concept of this mysterious foreign culture will inspire me to find the time to read the rest. If not, at least I will have a nice cup of tea.

NB: Tea was provided by Georgian Tea Limited in exchange for tasting, which I shared previously in my Tasting Tuesday series. If you are interested in collaborating, please see my collaboration and contact information.

On Historybounding (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Weird)

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In my post on my 37th birthday, I made an offhand reference to “historybounding” and how it has helped me discover and crystalize my personal style. But what actually is historybounding? Where did it come from? And what does it mean to me? Well, I’ve recently joined a Facebook group dedicated to historybounding and gone further into making friends in the historical dress community and thought maybe I ought to talk a bit about this.

When I very first started Tea Leaves and Tweed, I envisioned it as a vintage-inspired lifestyle blog. I went through phases of blogging mostly about natural beauty, my rudimentary internet historical research, and later Asian-inspired beauty. Through all of this, tea was a consistent presence in my life, both herbal and true, and eventually, my tea content started to inspire me more and more. But as with most things in my life, I cannot be content with one thing, one label, one… anything. So this blog is a jumble. And my vintage style was a jumble, too.

At the point that I started this blog, “vintage” in the blogging community typically meant mid-20th-century fashions, usually heavily focusing on women’s fashion, with lots of victory rolls, fit-and-flare silhouettes, and red lipstick. Obviously, I am fully on board with the red lipstick, most of the time. But I realized that 1.) my style was not firmly in even a narrow 2- or 3-decade window, and 2.) many of the styles that drew me didn’t have a lot of available vintage in my price range. But I figured that if I wanted to keep the red lipstick and not attempt to adopt a minimalist French chic look (trust me, I have flirted with minimalist, French, and chic, and I am none of them), I would need to keep my style firmly rooted in the 20th century, specifically the 20s-50s.

Enter Bernadette Banner, Rachel Maksy, and Morgan Donner. I found Bernadette’s YouTube channel when a friend of mine convinced me to try sewing one of her patterns and I was too stubborn to borrow my mother’s sewing machine, so I decided to hand-sew the whole thing. From there, I discovered historical costuming and then historybounding. I realized that I didn’t need to stick to an era or wear all vintage clothing. Putting together an ensemble that evokes an historical era is not only fun, it’s actually historically accurate, as people in the past often wore their take on what they thought historical fashions were in art. And I realized that there was a community of people out there with “vintage” looks that went much further back than the 1920s for inspiration.

The term “historybounding” grew out of the term “Disneybounding,” which was a practice that Disney fans used to wear character-inspired outfits to the parks, which prohibit dressing in costume. The challenge was to put together an outfit with recognizable color palettes or details to evoke a certain character, but without going too far over the “costume” line to be turned away at the gate. The results are truly fascinating and I highly recommend looking up Disneybounding if you’re interested in some very creative everyday cosplay. In the same vein, the idea of historybounding is to put together an outfit inspired by historical dress, but without necessarily looking like you got lost on your way to a theatrical performance (or like you’re dashing around the theater on the street in costume to make a house entrance — I have some stories!).

So now I might wear a Victorian-inspired walking skirt, high-neck blouse, blazer, and my American Duchess boots one day, and an 18th-century peasant-inspired outfit another day. I tend towards using historically-available fibers, like linen, cotton, and wool, but most of my wardrobe is either secondhand from a thrift shop, or else handmade by a modern person. Pretty much the only “historically accurate” items I own are my Penny River silk stockings and ribbon garters, plus the aforementioned boots. But just the other day, while I was wearing the outfit pictured above, a friend said I gave off a “Belle vibe.” Since my inspiration was a 19th-century painting romanticizing an 18th-century peasant, I’ll take it.

Plus, I think that historybounding gives me a way to stretch and explore my idea of time-traveling fashion. In the same way that I pick and choose items of clothing, I pick and choose ideas. I love the idea of red lipstick as a symbol of women’s suffrage and empowerment, but I acknowledge and reject some of the racist ideals held by 19th- and early-20th-century feminists (and, let’s be frank, it didn’t end there). I admire the practices of refashioning rather than buying new, mending, and using more sustainable fabrics of the past, but I recognize that the widespread use of cotton was made possible by the exploitation of enslaved and colonized people, and I look to the ethics of the companies from which I purchase. For me, historybounding is the epitome of “Vintage style, not vintage values.” By picking and choosing fashion, I am also symbolically saying that I am not limited by the mindset of an era whose clothing and style I might enjoy, while the willingness to explore historical accuracy prompts me to do more research than when I was simply looking at Etsy and Pinterest for “vintage looks.”

Finally, historybounding fashion has inspired me to historybound other aspects of my life. Most notably, I’ve started exploring the tea cultures of different eras around the world, which has also led to a fascination with historical cooking and baking. Historical cookery has not only given me an interesting look at the origins of our modern recipes, but has taught me new-to-me spice combinations and tidbits like the use of salted butter in baking (which is nice when you use up all your unsalted butter stress baking during lockdown and your spouse isn’t scheduled to go to the store for another week).

Have you ever heard of historybounding? What’s your favorite era for fashion inspiration?

For anyone who is interested, the dress I’m wearing above is from Galia Couture (not sponsored). The shirt is my spouse’s.

Tea Together Tuesday: Fraternité and Iced Tea

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Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to share your favorite way to jazz up iced tea. Now I have waxed rhapsodic about my love of cold-brewed tea over the years, most recently in my back-to-back videos about cold brewing both in plain water and sparkling, but today I am, surprisingly, not going to talk about cold brew!

After all, the prompt is “iced” tea, and I frequently never pour my cold-brewed teas over ice! I was also reminded when I signed onto social media this morning that it happens to be the Fête Nationale (or Bastille Day), during which French people and Francophiles around the world celebrate the liberation of the French Revolution. Since I spent much of my remembered childhood in a former Ursuline academy, I grew up steeped in French culture, and it seemed only appropriate to celebrate this festival at the end of Messidor, leading into the steamy Thermidor month, with a bleu-blanc-rouge inspired iced tea.

I was heavily inspired by Traci of Tea Infusiast, both to try her iced tea technique (borrowed from Taylor of Cup of Té) and create a Bastille Day inspired iced tea. I used the shaken iced tea technique to create a delightfully frothy chilled tea, using some White Silver Tips from the Rare Tea Company, and then strained it into a coupe glass (which has an appropriately-French apocryphal origin) studded with some fresh strawberries and blueberries. The froth almost gives it a champagne-like look, and the combination of the strongly-steeped silver needle tea with the slight dilution and muting of flavors from the chilling yields a tea that tastes like a summer day, with notes of fresh hay and summer stone fruits. It reminds me of walking through a peach orchard at the height of summer, where the grass is a little dry from the heat, and the scent of dry grass and peaches permeates the air. The strong steeping also reminds you that silver needle white tea, contrary to popular belief, can be rather high in caffeine, which concentrates in the tips of the tea plant. After a couple glasses of this, I was ready to take on the monarchy, or at least my ever-expanding to-do list.

While the fruit does not so much imbue the tea with its flavor (although you get a lovely whiff of strawberry as you sip), the tea-soaked fruit at the end makes a lovely treat. I also encourage you to try this with actual champagne, as raspberries that have steeped in champagne is not only delicious, but one of our family’s Christmas traditions.

So in keeping with the community theme and the ideal of brotherhood celebrated on Bastille day, I offer up this community-inspired tea drink. Sip in good health and good company, be it in person or virtually.

NB: Nothing to disclose. The tea mentioned was purchased by me and I was not paid or incentivized to write this post. If you are interested in collaborating, please see my collaboration and contact information.

Difficult History (or Present!): A Chat with The Rare Tea Lady

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Last month, I decided to start a posting series called “Difficult History,” in which I examine the darker corners of Western tea culture and its connections to colonialism, imperialism, and slavery. But before I dive deeper into the historical context of the dark side of tea, I thought it was important to examine the current state of the tea industry, since history is continuous and these historical origins have led to the injustices perpetuated today. To that end, I scheduled some time to sit down with Henrietta Lovell of the The Rare Tea Company to discuss how the modern tea industry perpetuates some of the same injustices that we think of as blots on history.

Of course, I’ve talked about Henrietta before in my review of her book, Infused, and as I’ve sipped my way through the offerings of The Rare Tea Company (full disclosure: their Earl Grey is my favorite Earl Grey and I am endeavoring to get all my Earl-Grey-loving friends hooked on it), but I had never had a chance to chat directly with her, other than a few brief exchanges on Instagram. But when I messaged her to ask if I could quote her Story in my post on injustice in tea, she suggested we meet over FaceTime to talk further and I rather leapt at the opportunity. We “met” in the morning for me, and the afternoon for her. I had just poured my second cup of tea of the day, the single-origin English breakfast from the Rare Tea Company because, yes, I am that guy, and she tried to make me jealous with a shot of the gorgeous Danish bakery in which she was sitting.

She started our conversation by pointing out that more than 90% of the tea in North American and Europe is bought and sold primarily by seven companies, which act as brokers for smaller vendors down the line. These companies even own many of the industrial tea gardens from which a large portion of our tea is sourced. This helps smaller companies because the brokerage companies act as a sort of a bank — they assume the primary financial risk of buying up the tea, and the smaller companies can simply purchase what they need to sell, rather than assuming the risk of buying an entire harvest from a large-scale farm. But because of this, the brokerage firms can drive down the wage that farmers earn from their tea, leading to widespread poverty in tea-producing communities in India, Sri Lanka, and the tea-producing African countries, like Kenya and Malawi.

As she had previously said in her Instagram Story, the average life expectancy of people living and working in these tea-producing communities is only about their 40s, with few seeing their 50s. They’re experiencing a lack of access to education, medical care, or even clean water. And initiatives like Fair Trade, Henrietta says, only work to improve the system within this status quo of the brokers setting the prices: “They’re there to make sure we’re not total [jerks].” And it’s not helping. Tea prices are dropping and conditions are getting worse.

Part of the problem is that young people are moving away from drinking commodity tea. She compares it to the issues happening in the dairy industry: as young people move towards plant-based diets, milk prices are dropping, and farmers are finding it harder and harder to move the inventory they have. And that leads to dairy farming communities experiencing serious hardship. “It’s not just cows that are suffering; it’s whole communities,” she says. And in the same way, it is necessary to find a way to make tea sustainable, not just for the planet, but for the people who produce it.

Henrietta’s solution is direct trade, rather than Fair Trade. By dealing directly with farmers, she and The Rare Tea Company not only have the opportunity to visit gardens and deal directly with farmers, so they can see the conditions in which the workers live rather than dealing with a faceless broker, but they can also give the farmers the advantage of being able to sell an interest in an entire harvest and negotiate their own prices, ahead of production. This involves some risk to her company, but it gives the farmers security and provides her company with high-quality tea produced by farmers who are paid a wage that they had a say in negotiating.

That’s not to say it is all unicorns and rainbows. There is still the problem of people expecting cheap tea. The Rare Tea Company, and other direct-trade tea sellers, tend to charge more for their tea than you would see at the grocery store, and many of their large orders come from businesses that don’t want to pay more for a better cup of tea. But Henrietta is heartened by the amount of interest consumers have started taking in the companies from which they are buying. She says that she can see that, rather than searching for a product, finding the product page, and immediately making a purchase or else leaving, consumers now are taking upwards of ten or twenty minutes looking at mission statements and information about the ethics and sustainability of their purchase. It’s something that gives her hope for the future, despite being called a Pollyanna whose company would never make it in the past.

But the pandemic is not making this easier. In addition to the disruptions to tea production itself — India and Nepal had no first flush this year, while China has lower output from their spring harvests, in part due to the difficulty in getting temporary migrant workers to do the picking — the entire model of the company representatives visiting farmers directly to buy new harvests has been disrupted. Plus, a large portion of The Rare Tea Company’s business comes from the hospitality industry, which has been devastated by the drop in travel. If a hotel was hesitant to serve a more expensive cup of tea in the past, they probably will not be more willing to take that risk now. But she is adapting. By using social media apps and tasting samples that are sent through the mail, Henrietta is able to keep in touch with her farmers, tour gardens virtually, and select teas to buy. And she remains optimistic that the continuing shift of public opinion towards paying attention to where your tea comes from will put pressure on other companies to adopt a more transparent, equitable business model.

In her ideal tea economy, Henrietta explains, rather than brokers acting as a go-between, tea sellers and tea producers work together. Farmers would work directly with the sellers. Right now, often the farmers and the sellers have no idea what the other is getting for the tea, and the brokers can drive up their profits either by driving up the selling price when there is high demand, or by driving down the price paid to farmers when there is low demand and selling prices drop. If sellers work directly with farmers, not only is there more transparency, but the broker profits are removed from the equation. But it does mean more risk for sellers, as farmers are given a guaranteed order at a set price and for a set quantity.

And Henrietta has seen these risks. Her small group of Rare Tea Company employees, including herself, have taken 20% salary cuts this year to make sure they can fulfill their financial obligations to their farmers. She also helps manage the Rare Charity, which works to provide educational opportunities for those living in these tea-producing communities. It all comes down to her personal philosophy: “There’s more to a successful business than a profitable business.”

So that is where we are in the world of tea. Many of the brands that you may think of are probably working with these large brokerage companies, especially if you are buying Fair Trade rather than direct trade. There are smaller companies out there who are moving to a direct trade model, but the cultural issue of direct trade and economically-sustainable tea being considered “posh” is part of the problem. Just as we’ve started looking at avoiding companies like Amazon or Walmart, those of us with the means to choose can vote with our dollars as one way of encouraging the tea industry to follow in the footsteps of those who are concerned with mitigating these inequalities.

NB: Nothing to disclose. The tea mentioned was purchased by me and I was not paid or incentivized to write this post. If you are interested in collaborating, please see my collaboration and contact information.