Tea and a Story: Goddesses and Groundhogs

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This weekend is the Celtic feast of Imbolc, the kind of traditional start of spring in the Celtic and pagan calendar. As someone with a strong affinity to pagan traditions, I like this idea. I first realized that I was keeping pagan customs when I was a runner in graduate school and found myself counting down to the winter solstice, which is when the days started getting longer, so I was that much closer to being able to run first thing in the morning without being in the dark. One thing I remember from those days was that the end of January and the beginning of February felt like the deepest depths of winter, when it felt like I might never be warm again.

But I like the idea of spring starting at the beginning of February. Traditionally, it seems that the seasons started at the cross-quarter days (the days halfway between the solstices and equinoxes), which is why our first day of summer is also called “midsummer” and our first day of winter is called “midwinter.” Supposedly, Imbolc was the time when ewes would give birth, and start producing milk, so milk, dairy products, and lamb are all traditional foods. I like to make a big meal, perhaps with a cheesecake, or some pancakes. While eggs are more commonly associated with the spring equinox festivals, the beginning of spring would mean the birds would start laying again (traditionally, eggs are a seasonal food, same as strawberries or pomegranates). So pancakes at Imbolc (which was celebrated in the Christian world as Candlemas) are traditional as well.

Imbolc is also associated with the Celtic goddess Brigid (later believed to have become the Christian St. Brigid), a goddess of inspiration, creativity, midwifery, healing, and fire. In one of the stories associated with her, she is kidnapped by the hag-goddess Cailleach and held captive in a cave underground through the winter, and then escapes to bring spring to the world. This is surprisingly reminiscent of the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades, although in that story, the chthtonic goddess Hecate is her rescuer, not her captor. In some version of the story, Brigid and Cailleach are the same goddess, with the winter crone transforming into the spring maiden at Imbolc. This traditional view of the cyclical nature of the world mapping onto the life cycle of a person is one of the things that gave rise to traditional death customs that favored reincarnation as the explanation for what happens after you die.

But perhaps my favorite story of Imbolc has to do with the Cailleach, not Brigid. In some parts of the British isles, the Cailleach is a weather deity and has the power to control local weather conditions. So on the first day of spring, it’s believed that the Cailleach decides if she wants to extend the cold weather or not for another six weeks. If she decides that it will be a long winter, she makes Imbolc bright and sunny so she has nice weather to gather firewood for the rest of winter. But if she’s not going to make it a long winter, she sleeps in and doesn’t bother making the weather nice. So if the weather is bad on Imbolc, it’s a sign that winter will end soon.

Perhaps this sounds familiar, although with another creature in the place of a crone gathering wood. In the States, we celebrate Groundhog Day, where we wait and see if a certain groundhog sees his shadow when he comes out of his burrow. Now, the modern tradition says that the groundhog is afraid of his shadow and if he sees it, he runs back into his burrow to weather six more weeks of winter. But perhaps, he just sees that the Cailleach has made the weather sunny and is dashing back in to get cozy for the rest of the winter weather.

Blessed Imbolc to all my readers!

On the Health Benefits of Tea

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Building on last week’s post about how I’ve decided to take steps to learn the medicinal use of plants in a more formal way, I thought I’d talk a little about how I view the supposed health benefits of tea (that is, C. sinensis). Now, much has been said, particularly in the Western press about tea as some sort of miracle elixir that is supposed to promote weight loss, improve your skin, fight cancer, and reduce inflammation in the body. And recently, my mother (who was the first tea-lover in my life, but who largely drinks black tea) came to me with a request: can I suggest some white and oolong teas that she might like because they are supposed to be good for her.

So I invited my mother over to introduce her to some teas, both those that I thought she would enjoy, and those that were just a relatively good representation of what can be easily found in each style. We chatted a bit about tea, how to brew it, what kind of things made different teas different, and a bit about the reason she decided to try to drink teas (other than black tea, which for some reason is largely exempt from the health sensationalism). Of course, the darling of the popular press is green tea, but my mother categorically does not like green tea. I’m sure I could find one that she enjoys, but I didn’t want to push her, so I respected the request for oolong and white teas only. I sent her home with a few packets of oolong teas that she enjoyed (include my newly-beloved yancha), and hopefully a new motivation to expand her tea horizons.

The one thing I will say is that I am not here to talk about the validity of health claims about tea. If you read my contact information, you’ll find that I am not willing to work with companies that make overblown health claims or that promote weight loss or detox teas. That’s just not what I’m about with tea. But I think it is important to keep concepts of healthfulness in mind as context when exploring teas because tea was originally used (as were most plant-based beverages) as a medicine. The apocryphal story of the discovery of tea has the (likely mythical) emperor Shennong fortuitously tasting leaves that fell into his boiled water and finding out that it was an antidote to poisons he was testing. So acting like tea is purely a pleasure beverage, with no reason to consider any medicinal use, is also not quite right.

When I was pregnant, I had a really hard time determining if it was safe for me to drink tea. I’ve written about my research at length in a previous post, but suffice to say, I found a disconnect between research that lumped tea in with other caffeinated vices, like coffee, and research that treated tea like an everyday, innocuous-or-healthy beverage. The research that reduced it to “tea is for caffeine and caffeine is bad” tended to come from Western researchers, while researchers from Japan and China tended to focus more on the specific constituents of tea. In fact, if I hadn’t specifically looked up tea research from Japan, I wouldn’t have found information suggesting that the real worry about tea is not the caffeine, but the fact that other constituents can impede vitamin absorption! It was important to look at these drinks in a cultural context, particularly because in the case of pregnancy, there is a strong drive to demonize things and instruct pregnant women to avoid, well, everything.

So where does that leave me in the “is tea healthy?” debate? Honestly, tea, for me, is likely healthier than coffee because I’ve found that coffee causes me, personally, to have issues. But in that same vein, I’ve found that certain teas are more likely to affect me adversely than others. I think it’s important for each tea lover to do their own research, but that ultimately, the important thing is that you enjoy your tea, and don’t simply suffer through it for some particular health benefit that may or may not have been properly tested. I think tea is wonderful, and I understand the impulse to tout all the positive press I can find about my favorite beverage, but I think drinking tea solely for health benefits is rather missing the point. So when I set out to introduce my mother to oolongs teas, my goal was to find a tea within that style that she enjoyed, not to introduce her to the healthiest version of that tea. And I hope you, dear readers, will also choose your teas based not only on their purported health benefits, but also for the joy it gives you, because joy is a healthy thing, too.

NB: I am not a health professional and none of this should be considered medical advice. Please do your own research and come to your own conclusions (which can include consulting your own doctor).

Tuesday Tasting: Two Black Teas from Georgian Tea Limited

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Recently, I saw a new company launch on Instagram, Georgian Tea Limited, which offers tea grown in the country of Georgia. I was first intrigued by Georgian teas when I saw Northern Teaist review some a little while ago, so I commented letting them know that I would be interested in trying some of their teas and they offered to send me “a few free samples.” What arrived was three 100-g bags of tea, one of each tea they offer, the Black Classic Tea, the Black Premium Tea, and the Green Premium Tea. Since it went back to feeling like winter this weekend, I decided to do a tasting of the Black Classic Tea, but as I was sipping it, I was really curious how it compared to the Black Premium Tea, so I decided to try that one, too.

Black Classic Tea

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I used 2g of leaf in a 120-ml gaiwan to taste this one, with 95C water. I steeped it once for three minutes and a second time for five minutes. The warm dry leaf had light aromas of dry hay. After the first steeping, the wet leaf smelled mildly tannic, with some malt and dark chocolate. Oddly enough, the first time I smelled this wet leaf, I thought that it smelled like the fancy version of Lipton’s tea, and my husband thought it smelled of lemon. The first steeping yielded a medium rosy-amber liquor that smelled similar to the wet leaf. The liquor has a bright citrusy flavor right up front, with a pleasantly light body and no astringent dryness. The website states that this tea has very mild tannins, and they’re not wrong. The aftertaste is lightly caramel-y and fruity, and it’s a very smooth cup of tea. I had tried this previously with milk and sugar, and I see now that that was a mistake. This is very much a straight-cup-of-tea daily drinker. There is a slight hint of sweetness to it.

The second infusion was similar in color with similar flavors and aromas, just slightly lighter. I decided to stop after two steepings. The wet leaf is interesting. These leaves are obviously much less broken than the Premium tea, and when they unfurl, they are narrow leaves with a shallow serration on the edges. I would be curious to learn more about the cultivars they use.

Black Premium Tea

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I know that among US tea aficionados, “premium” is synonymous with bigger, unbroken leaves, so I was surprised when I received my tea samples to feel through the packaging that the Premium tea seemed to be a smaller leaf size than the Classic. So I was curious how this translated to the flavor. I also used 2g of tea to a 120-ml gaiwan with 95C water, with two steepings, one for 3 minutes and one for five minutes. The leaf didn’t really smell like much, dry or wet, but the liquor it yielded was definitively darker, with a dark ruby-amber color. It had the same smooth and balanced flavor as the Classic, but with a burnt sugar sweetness and a fruitiness that was bolder on the tongue.

The second steeping brought forward the lemony flavor I got from the Classic, with a smooth, non-bitter, and slightly sweet taste. I didn’t take a picture of the wet leaves, but they didn’t really look much different from the dry leaf, just, well, wet.

I found these two teas extremely interesting and am likely to turn to them again as morning teas, as they are uncomplicated and invigorating, without needing much help from fussy brewing parameters or additives, making them perfect for rushed mornings and travel flasks on the train.

NB: These teas were sent to me free of charge in exchange for sharing my honest thoughts about them. To read my reasons for changing from tea reviews to tea tastings, read this post. For more information about collaborating with me, click here.

When Tea Isn’t Tea

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One of the constant battles among the community of tea connoisseurs is how to talk about infusions of plants that are not Camellia sinensis. There are those that are staunchly in the “tisane” camp — it’s not “tea” if it’s not from the tea plant. Others are perfectly happy to use the term “herbal tea.” Interestingly enough, history and linguistics bear out this camp, as the term “tisane” originally referred to a barley-based beverage and was not brought into the common lexicon to mean something other than C. sinensis steeped in hot water until modern times. In fact, in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a recipe known as “beef tea” that was similar to a modern broth (interestingly enough, though Isabella Beeton’s 1860s book has recipes for “beef tea,” a similar dish made from chicken is called “chicken broth”). And I have found other instances of infusions of non-C. sinensis ingredients referred to as “teas.”

But this is a digression. You see, not all teas I drink are “true teas.” In fact, one of my earliest tea posts on this blog was my formula for my Gardener’s Herbal Tea, a blend of nettles, rosehips, red raspberry leaf, and oatstraw. Along with my love of C. sinensis, I’ve also had a passion for exploring herbal remedies since I was young. And in my Tea Primer, I expanded a bit on how I handle herbal teas (or tisanes or infusions, as you will) in general terms. But I would love to take more time in this space to talk about specific herbal remedies, and one of my tea goals for 2020 is to learn more about herbal traditions outside of the Euro-centric traditions I’ve primarily followed. So, to that end, I’ve decided to pursue some formal studies in herbalism.

This coincided with my own realization that I had stopped using one of my longtime personal herbal remedies, red raspberry leaf, since giving birth. I had been drinking red raspberry leaf tea for well over a year, starting from the time we first started thinking about trying to conceive, and on through my miscarriage, and then my pregnancy with Elliot. In fact, my pregnancy announcement on my YouTube channel was a tea session where I made a cup of red raspberry leaf tea. But I became thoroughly sick of it by the time Elliot was born (nearly two weeks late!) and had stopped drinking it in favor of other things after his birth. But in chatting with a friend on Instagram, I realized that I had always appreciated its support during my monthly cycle, and so I came home that night, mixed up a big pot of red raspberry leaf with chrysanthemum, orange, and some local honey for taste, and sat down with my mug in hand to explore my herbalism course options.

I discovered that one of the greats of herbal healing, Rosemary Gladstar, offers an online course that even has an option to sample just the first lesson for a modest price before committing the time and money to the full course. So I leapt at that and am now awaiting my first lesson to see how I like the course style. Hopefully, I’ll enjoy it, but for now I’m reading the books on herbalism I already have while I wait (along with maybe one or two new purchases), and have even ordered some fresh packets of herbs I’ve liked in the past. I’m excited to start this journey and have you all along with me, and I will almost certainly post updates as I progress!

Tuesday Tasting: 2016 Little Mountain White Tea from Bitterleaf Teas

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I tasted this tea in my recent video, but since then, I’ve read others’ tasting notes and determined that I got some very different flavors from this one. So I decided to sit down and do a proper tasting, with my own house filtered water and after cleaning my tea ware with some baking soda to make sure there weren’t any old off flavors affecting things. The 2016 Little Mountains are a compressed Shou Mei white tea that I originally received in my anniversary sale order, but that I have since bought more just because I enjoyed them. I’m tasting it in my silver teapot because I tend to enjoy aged white teas more when I’m drinking them out of silver.

I used a 5.4-gram mini-cake in a 140-ml teapot with boiling water. I warmed the pot and then warmed the leaf. From the dry leaf, I got aromas of some sort of sweet baked good. After a rinse, I got aromas of sweetgrass from the wet leaf.

The first steeping, I let this go for a minute, as per Bitterleaf’s suggestion. The liquor was the color of Tokaji wine, a lovely mellow gold. The wet leaf had aromas of fresh, sweet alfalfa, though the liquor itself did not have a lot of aroma. The mouthfeel was thick — syrupy, but not oily — and I got a slightly fruity tartness from the liquor, kind of like a very fresh apricot that isn’t overly ripe. The aftertaste was caramel. Despite this sweetness, I still felt like the tea had an umami quality, almost like it feels sweet more than it actually tastes sweet.

The second steeping was for thirty seconds, and yielded a similarly-colored liquor with a similar leaf aroma as the first, though the liquor had taken on a honey aroma. The mouthfeel was smooth and lubricating, with flavors of almond blossom honey. The third steeping was also for thirty seconds, after which the leaf smelled of honey and fresh hay and the liquor was slightly darker and had the same syrupy texture. The flavor had gotten sweeter, with a flavor similar to chamomile. The fourth steeping, I bumped the time up to forty seconds and got a darker amber-gold liquor with a slightly smoky and herbal aroma from the leaves. It still had the same honey-sweetness.

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The fifth and sixth steepings were for forty-five seconds each and held steady in flavor and aroma. I went up on one minute for the seventh steeping and two minutes for the eighth steeping. By then, I felt like I once again was tasting alliums, perhaps some caramelized onion or leek. After that, I decided to finish by boiling the leaves in a cup of water for about ten minutes. This yielded a very dark infusion with a reddish-brown liquor and a strong flavor that had a bit of bite in the back of my throat. I would probably be less aggressive in the final boil, but all in all, I definitely get more of the sweetness that others have found, so perhaps it didn’t play well with the tap water in the Philadelphia suburbs. If anyone is in the Philly area and has tried this with their tap water, did you get honey or onion soup?

Further Adventures in Historical Baking: Fruitcake

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In the States, fruitcake is a seasonal joke, a punchline. I remember it on a children’s show I watched from my youth. But when I got older, I discovered that my mother actually enjoys fruitcake, so when I saw a recipe in my beloved Nigella Lawson cookbook, I started stirring up a Christmas cake the month before Christmas each year to share with her. I cared for it, feeding it brandy every week, and finding the perfect tin to match the shape and size of cake I made that year, so that it wouldn’t dry out or go bad. And then I would give my mother the cake at Christmas so she could eat it in very thin slices or share it with guests.

But I gradually fell out of the habit of my own little stir-up Sunday, and kept forgetting to make my fruitcake. This year, I had every intention of starting the tradition again, especially after finding myself fortuitously at an open liquor store the Sunday after Thanksgiving. But, alas, things kept coming up and I never made it before Christmas. But I used my holiday to stir up a fruitcake of sorts. Rather than making one that required feeding and maturing, I made one based on the historical recipe used on English Heritage’s “The Victorian Way” series from their inimitable Mrs. Crocombe, based on a recipe from Queen Victoria’s own cook.

Of course, I made a few changes. In particular, a move that some may label utter blasphemy, I did not top my cake with marzipan or royal icing, as I know my mother dislikes both of those things. I also made it in a loaf pan, and instead of soaking it in brandy as I usually do, I brushed on a modest amount of a mixture of orange syrup and brandy. Oh, and I candied my own peel this year.

I highly recommend you candy your own peel. Other than peeling an orange in more-or-less whole pieces, it’s hardly any work at all. And not only is the candied peel delicious, but you are left with a quantity of delicious orange syrup that you can use in other things (perhaps in a tea cocktail). The one piece of advice I would have is to make sure you cut the peel into thin strips before you candy it. I candied mine in larger pieces and found that not only did it have to cook for longer to go translucent, but it was also much more difficult to cut after candying. To candy your own peel, simple peel three washed,  thick-rinded oranges, like navels, slice the peel into strips, and boil them in a syrup made of sugar and water. I used a rich simple syrup of one part water to two parts sugar. Boil until the white part of the rind looks translucent, and then remove from the syrup and dry on a rack overnight (or longer, if you don’t worry about curious spouses or cat hair). I didn’t sugar my peel afterwards as it seemed foolish given that the sugaring would soak off in the brandy.

The other change I made was to soak my cut up dried fruit in brandy for… well, a few weeks. I had put together the fruit mixture right after candying my peel and got it soaking, intending to make the cake in a day or two, but it ended up sitting in the refrigerator for a while. I eventually opened it up to see if it had molded or smelled off, but as it just smelled of brandy and fruit, I decided it was still safe for use, and made the cake. The result is a very deep brandy flavor throughout the cake. I also used no raisins, as neither I nor my mother like them, and instead added chopped dried apricots and chopped prunes. I also used dark brown sugar in place of some of the caster sugar, and I cut the recipe in quarters to perfectly fit a standard 9″x5″ loaf pan, which was lined thoroughly with parchment. It took about two hours to bake through, until the temperature reached 190F inside and a skewer came out clean. I cooled it completely, brushed it with syrup and brandy, and wrapped it tightly in parchment and two layers of plastic, as I don’t have a tin to fit it.

I opened it up the other morning when I was hungry for a little something with my tea, and it is absolutely perfect. A little crumbly because the immense amount of fruit interferes with the structural integrity of the cake, but the flavor is incredible. Even Mr. Tweed enjoyed it, and he generally dislikes cherries. I have yet to share it with my mother, but I think I may have to have her over to tea soon so she can try some before I finish it myself.

Tuesday Tasting: Kukitori from Hojicha.co

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Today’s Tuesday Tasting is a special one. Today, my favorite purveyor of roasted green tea, Hojicha.co, is releasing a new tea and I had the opportunity to try it so I can share my tasting notes with you. Their dark roast hojicha made my list of 2019 most memorable teas, so I was understandably excited to try a new one. This is their Kukitori, which means “stem bird” (thank you, Duolingo). The tea is their take on a kukicha, or twig tea, made from the stems of tencha, which is the type of tea that is grown to make matcha.

I used 4 grams of loose tea in a 120-ml kyusu pot, with 180F water. The dry “leaf” is twiggy, consisting of twigs of varying shades of brown, from light to dark, about 5 mm in length. After warming the leaves in the pot, I could get aromas of pipe tobacco and toasted sesame oil.

The first infusion was for thirty seconds, after which I could smell aromas of coffee on the wet leaves. The liquor was a rich chestnut brown color and smelled sweet and smoky, like a campfire. It had a rich, yet clean mouthfeel with flavors of maple and wood. There was an undertaste of toasted nuts, like pecans or hazelnuts, which persisted as an aftertaste.

I infused it again for thirty seconds. The leaf smelled of sandalwood incense. The liquor was the same rich shade of brown, with a sandalwood aroma. The flavor was sweeter and with more umami, with a mouthfeel similar to light soy sauce. It was very smooth and nutty, with that same hazelnut flavor and a subtle note of buckwheat honey, sweet and dark with a little acidity. I noticed a clear and meditative energy coming off this tea.

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The third infusion I let it go for forty-five seconds. My notes turn poetical at this point, with the note that the wet leaf smells of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” The liquor was slightly lighter in color, body, and aroma, and the flavor was subtler, too. I still got a light flavor of tobacco smoke and umami, but it was the kind of umami that turns into sweetness. After a fourth steeping, it was apparent that the tea was finished.

The wet leaf is not much to look at, just a darker color and, well, wetter, because it’s twigs and won’t unfurl like leaves do.

NB: Hojicha.co sent this tea to me free of charge for tasting. All thoughts are my own. If you’re interested in why I switched from reviews to tasting notes, read this post. If you’re interested in collaboration, click here.

New Year, Old Me: 2019 in Review and Resolutions for a New Year

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This was the year that everything changed for me, again.

Last year, I had been home less than two days after giving birth to Elliot and had started learning how to be a parent. Over the last year, I’ve seen my entire world dismantled and put back together. I think that the experience of becoming a parent has distilled my personality, rather than changing it at all. I find that I care less about what other people think of me and more about what I want in my life. And part of that was a reinvigoration of my tea blogging activities after a break.

I started researching historical tea practices and discovered a passion for history. I’ve also started taking more of an interest in my tea tasting experience and connected with people on social media and in person to share tea. Plus, I got my first traditional clay pot and discovered a deep love of yancha.

With all of this change and personal discovery and growth, it feels less like I’ve found a “new me” and more like I’ve come to settle in with my old self. Free of the insecurities of youth, I’m moving closer each day to the real me, and learning what is truly important to me. Of course, my first resolution for a new year is to continue this movement toward my own personal center.

But part of reflecting on a past year is looking forward to the new one, and like most people, there are things I would like to do better. I’m very proud of myself for spending the last year not trying at all to lose any weight after giving birth. In the same way that I’ve learned to accept my personality, I’m trying to accept my body for where it is in the moment, and I don’t intend to change that. That said, there is one resolution related to eating that I do have.

I have a rather large collection of gorgeous cookbooks, both gifted and purchased for myself. As we went through this year raising Elliot, Dan and I have started trying to make more of our food at home. Since Elliot started eating solid food, we eat most of our dinners at the table as a family, rather than in front of the television, which is a wonderful start at mindful eating. But I find myself using the same “recipes” over and over again, using a method that I like to call “put things in a pan and cook it until it’s food” to make our dinners. There is only so much bean chili, hash, and vague stir fry that we can eat.

So my resolution for 2020 is to cook from the cookbooks I own. I’m starting with the conservative goal of one dinner per week from a cookbook I have. This week, I went to my cookbooks on food from Ikaria in Greece and my two books of Japanese recipes to cook while I was mostly on vacation, and it’s been lovely to have the variety.

Other than that, I resolve to add more to my life, rather than giving anything up: eat more plants, drink more water, go on more walks, do more yoga, be more present with my family. How are you celebrating a new year?