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If you’re like me, you enjoy drinking a variety of different teas throughout the day, the week, the month, the year. So you’ve probably got a bunch of teas on hand to choose from – some purchased, others samples, and perhaps a few gifts – depending on what “tea mood” strikes you.
Once you start piling up lotsa teas, you need to devise a method for keeping them organized so you’ll know which teas you own. It’s also a good idea to keep track of when each one was added to your stash to indicate their freshness. And if you store teas in more than one place, you’ll need to map out exactly where you can find them when you want them.
The first thing I do when I get a new tea is mark the package with the date it arrived. Self-adhesive labels are handy, or you can cut a strip of paper and tape or glue it to the container. If the name of the vendor isn’t clearly marked, I note this on the label as well – it comes in handy when you want to reorder or write a review. You can also add steeping information on the label if you’d like – the water temperature, steep time, and quantity of leaf you prefer. (Yes, many vendors include this information on the package, but I consider these to be suggestions. Often I find that I need to play around with the many parameters of infusion to obtain the results I want with any given tea.)
My teas are separated by categories. As I generally drink oolong or pouchong in the morning, I dedicate one wooden storage box to these teas. Black, green, and white single-estate and blended teas are kept in a large seagrass basket. A second basket holds flavoured, scented, and smoky teas. I keep my dyeing and crafting teas in a separate smaller basket. This system helps me find the tea I want relatively quickly. You may want to organize your teas differently: one storage area for each type of tea, or perhaps separated according to source country. Consider how you tend to relate to teas, whether it’s by process, origin, vendor, date acquired, or some other criterion, and set up your system accordingly.
Several tea drinkers I know keep meticulous records and tasting notes about their teas. I used to do this, but laziness and laissez-faire have, over time, won out over fastidiousness. Still, it really is the best method for keeping track of your tea stash, and if you’re the disorganized type I highly recommend it.
A tea journal or notebook is charming and easily portable, with a separate section – or a separate journal – for each variety of tea. If you’re the retro or analogue type, this could be a perfect solution. On the other hand, if you’re inclined to technology, set up an electronic database of your tea reserves for use on your computer or other device. Advantages of this system are the ability to instantly search for a particular tea, along with its location and any prep notes, as well as to monitor the expiration dates of teas that have been in residence for some time.
Here’s a sample outline for creating a system to organize your tea, whether via paper or pixel:
As I’ve mentioned from time to time, I don’t drink flavoured teas – that is, teas with added flavourings. With all the wonderful single-source teas and pure-tea blends available, I just can’t justify taking the time from my tea-drinking for a combination that works perfectly well as tea and accompaniment: While I enjoy a piece of chocolate or some strawberries with my tea, chocolate-strawberry flavoured tea seems rather pointless.
On the other hand, I very much enjoy cooking and baking with tea, including flavoured teas. Tea with added flavour saves the extra step of adding tea and then flavour, and often inspires creation of a new dish.
But I’m careful about which flavoured teas I use, because I’d like the tea qualities to come through in the finished dish. That’s why I’ve been particularly pleased with the flavoured teas from English Tea Store. Yes, it’s a shameless plug, but it’s well deserved. Whereas many (or most?) vendors add flavourings to generic China teas, ETS prefers a high-grown Ceylon tea for their flavoured black teas. It’s a tea that stands up perfectly well on its own, and really does make a difference in the finished dish.
Of course I need to steep up and sample any flavoured tea to understand what dish or dishes it might best complement. When I opened the package of Blood Orange tea, the sweet orange juice aroma segued into a somewhat more bitter and sophisticated orange peel quality. That’s when I knew what this tea was made for: tea Sangria.
My original recipe for tea Sangria incorporates Darjeeling tea, with its beautiful dry grape personality. But this flavoured tea works perfectly as well, complementing and intensifying the added fruit while still asserting its own tea flavour and aroma.
I really think you’ll enjoy this simple recipe. It’s a non-alcoholic variation of a traditional Spanish wine with fruit. As a reminder: To steep strong tea, do not let the tea steep for additional time, as this will make it bitter. Instead use about 1-1/2 times the amount of leaf you would normally use for the same amount of water, and steep for the usual amount of time. This is a delightful beverage any time of year, but especially so right now in wintry mid-February, when citrus fruits are at their best and we’re getting the first of the excellent fresh Florida strawberries.
And here’s a tip: Make your ice cubes with the same tea and they won’t water down your Sangria.
About 8 to 10 servings
6 cups (8 ounces each; total 48 ounces) prepared strong Blood Orange black tea
3 cups fresh fruit, cut into bite-sized pieces (try mixed citrus, strawberries, peaches, melons, mangoes, pineapple, or whatever fruits you like)
2 to 3 Tablespoons sugar, or to taste
3 cups white grape juice
Allow the tea to cool to room temperature. Place the fruit and two Tablespoons sugar in a large pitcher. Pour in the tea and grape juice; stir well. Adjust sweetness if necessary. Serve in tall glasses over ice. The fruit can be spooned into the glasses (provide a tall iced tea spoon), or served separately in bowls – optionally with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream – after the Sangria has been consumed.
While I firmly believe that the very best cup of tea can be made only with fresh loose leaves, I have to admit to using a teabag every now and then. Like when I’m rushed and just need a quick cuppa, or if someone offers me tea at their home. It doesn’t happen often, and when I do use bagged tea I much prefer the pyramid-shaped sachets that at least allow the leaves a fighting chance to infuse.
There was a time, however, before I learned how to prepare a proper pot of tea, when my tea ritual consisted of a teabag steeping in a mug. This was long before sachets were invented. The teabag would be attached to a short string that was in turn attached to a little paper tag, usually bearing the name of the manufacturer, the tea, or both. Most teabags are still made this way.
Aside from what I consider the lesser quality of the resulting cup, a problem with teabags is that it’s awkward trying to figure out what to do with the spent teabag. If there’s no saucer, do you put it on your upturned spoon or in the ashtray, or carry it to the garbage can while it drips on the floor? (A guest of mine once decided that the best place to park a drippy teabag was not on her saucer but on a small inlaid wooden table in my living room.)
Apparently other tea drinkers shared this dilemma, because some brilliant person – or, more likely, a frustrated teabag user – came up with the idea of adding a little pouch onto the side of a mug for depositing the used teabag. Hey! This was a really neat idea! Now I could drink my tea and not have to worry about what to do with the soggy teabag.
I shopped around, and the first pouch mug that I liked was at a handicrafts fair. It was perfect: wheel-thrown stoneware embellished with natural and blue glazes. It had a good feel to it, and was thick enough to hold comfortably in my hands when it was full of hot tea. The sign next to the display of these mugs described them as kangaroo mugs – get it, a mug with a pouch?
The design of this particular mug solved a third teabag problem: If you’ve ever used a string-and-tag teabag, you know that it can be difficult to keep the string and tag from falling into the tea. This mug has a little slit in the rim; you thread the string through it, catching the tag which blocks it from slipping down into the mug. Clever!
Well, I bought that mug and sipped my tea out of it for many years. It proved particularly handy for drinking tea at work. I also discovered that the little pouch can be used for other things as well. Like holding a packet of sweetener, or for tucking in a cookie or two to accompany my tea.
Although they’re not as common as standard mugs, you can find them at many tea shops, housewares stores, gift shops, and other specialty shops, both online and walk-in. And at handicrafts fairs of course. Call them pouch mugs, pocket mugs, sidekick mugs, or kangaroo mugs, they’re available in a variety of sizes, styles, and colours, both manufactured and handmade. Some even have lids for use while the tea is steeping. Whether you use teabags regularly or occasionally, a kangaroo mug is a charming way to go about it.
It never ceases to amaze me how creative people can be – especially with tea. Certainly it requires a good deal of artistry to process a top-quality oolong, for example, or to compose a blend of leaves that complement each other perfectly and transports you to tea nirvana as you sip. But right now I’m talking about creative-tea outside the cup.
I recently profiled an artist who incorporates tea into her paintings for brilliantly colourful and remarkably textured tableaux. Today we’re going to meet a couple of artists whose paintings comprise the essence of tea: just tea and water, with perhaps just a little enhancement.
Carlos Martyn Burgos is a London-based visual artist who works in both painting and photography. I just fell in love with his tea pictures, which meld drawing and painting into one extraordinary image.
Carlos uses real tea and tisanes in his work. I asked him about his technique, which is unique as far as I know, and this is how he explained it: He takes a teabag, adds a touch of hot water, and lets it rest a bit. Meanwhile, he maps out his image with a brush. Then – and this sounds like the really fun part! – he picks up the wet tea bag and throws it against the paper, creating “tea splats.” The black tea and fruit infusions offset each other, creating dual tones. As each stage dries, he layers the splats on top of each other, gradually building up darker hues and creating patterns within the splats. Finally he takes a pencil, along with a pen and white ink, to define and add depth to his composition.
As you can see, the results are quite amazing. Be sure to click through to the second image.
Located right here in South Carolina (who knew?!) illustrator Zach Franzen normally works in oils, watercolours, and drawings. He ventured into tea painting in 2008 to produce several pieces for a special exhibit with the theme of “Civilization.”
Employing the same technique with tea as he does with watercolor or inks, he first developed a black tea infusion. The process incorporated a hundred teabags in a gallon of water, which he then boiled down to a quart of really strong tea. Working from a plastic watercolor palette, he painted directly onto illustration board. He found that the drying quality of the tea was similar to an alcohol-based drawing ink in that it has a sheen and forms a lacquer-like surface in the most concentrated areas.
While Zach hasn’t continued painting with tea following the exhibit, he will take commissions for custom tea paintings. As he tells me: “Painting with tea is difficult because the values don’t build up evenly. The darks tend to rush in. On the other hand this yields an interesting quality.” Indeed: interesting and quite beautiful in my opinion.
I believe I’ve mentioned here once or twice that since 1998 I’ve been running an online chat group that over the years has attracted members from around the globe, from consumers to tea professionals. Some years ago the group was discussing disposable cups and the effects they have on the tea served in them. This was long before the current crop of portable tea infusers hit the market.
While we were chatting about the pros and cons of paper (which got mixed reviews) versus Styrofoam™ (a unanimous “yuck”) versus the hassle of carrying around a Thermos® bottle, one of our members – a tea estate owner and exporter, I believe – mentioned the disposable clay cups used in India. When I remarked that I had seen these in some movie or other (maybe Flame over India?) but had never seen them in person, he very kindly offered to send me one.
Disposable clay cups are quite common in India. Tea vendors – or chai wallahs – on the street, in kiosks, or on trains use them for serving a thick, sweet, and spicy milk tea, a form of what we know as chai, to travelers, commuters, and shoppers.
The cups are hand-fashioned of a local clay, then dried and lightly baked in a low-fire kiln. This produces a rather crude unglazed cup. Some street vendors have a potter’s wheel and kiln of their own to produce the cups, but most vendors, especially on trains, buy their cups from potters – thus providing an income for both tea seller and cup maker.
An experienced potter can turn out a cup in about ten seconds. The size and style of the cups varies according to region, from tall and tapered – the most common type used on trains – to small and bulbous, and many shapes in between.
Once the customer is finished with their tea, they simply throw the cup on the ground, whether on the street or out the train window. The resulting shards, left to the elements of heat and rain, disintegrate and return to the earth fairly quickly. It’s really the ultimate in recycling!
When I received my disposable cup I noticed that there were clay “crumbs” in the bottom, so I dumped them into the garden and rinsed out the cup. But not well enough: I could still taste the clay in my tea. Then I learned that a little bit of grit in the chai was to be expected and just adds to the experience. While I’m not quite sold on that idea I don’t think it did me any harm – although it didn’t do the tea much good.
My benefactor sent me not only the chai cup but also a small bowl and plate of the same material. These disposable clay food dishes are for the most part being replaced with plastic serving ware. But it looks like the clay cups will still be around for a while, so if you travel to India you’re sure to come across them at some point, and may want to give them – and the local chai – a try.
I want to make one thing very clear: my dear husband doesn’t need a special day to surprise me with flowers, candy, or other little gifts. But in case he should happen to want to get me a nice little something for this lovers’ holiday, I’m happy to help him out with a few suggestions …
He could start with a beautiful seagrass basket from a local gift shop. I have several of these in my tea room/library already, as you can see in the second photo here, and can always use another. And then he could fill the basket with:
- This teapot from the Vanderbilt collection that will remind us of our fifteenth wedding anniversary visit to the Biltmore estate in Asheville, North Carolina.
- A tea cozy in a pretty blue pattern of cranes in recognition of my love for origami.
- Tea towels for tucking things into the basket. Perhaps this one featuring a teapot composed of tea names, or another one embellished with a charming embroidered teapot. Or both – you can never have too many tea towels!
- A pair of bright pink Moroccan tea glasses. Perfect for elegantly sipping our morning tea together.
- At least one package of scone mix. I’m particularly fond of the oatmeal variety. And a bag of chocolate chips or chocolate-covered raisins to mix into the scones. Because what would Valentine’s Day be without chocolate? The scones will be especially good baked in this heart-shaped baking pan.
- Lots of “shalom” with this pretty heart-shaped silver necklace.
- These toasty warm socks with hearts knitted right in for a chilly February morning.
- Several little Victorian style heart-shaped soaps, or heart soaps with embedded images of cats or dogs.
- Speaking of cats and dogs, we need something for the kitties – perhaps these heart-shaped catnip toys. And for the dog, of course – like this toy heart that squeaks “I love you.”
- Finally, there must be tea. Like this Spring Pouchong with its wonderfully floral bouquet, or a rare white Darjeeling White Tips to show me how rare and precious I am to him … and he is to me.
Have a lovely Valentine’s Day everyone!
I love crafting with tea, and never tire of designing new ways to incorporate tea into my crafts. I’m also interested in others who use tea in their creative arts. So I was very excited when artist Mary Pagón connected with me about two years ago. I immediately fell in love with her strikingly colourful tea paintings.
Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Mary about her work:
How did you get started painting with tea?
My earliest memories of drawing and writing are when I was in elementary school. (I also write children’s stories, two of which have been published.) I grew up in a household of tea drinkers. Using tea as a medium in my paintings allows me to combine two things that I’m passionate about: drinking tea and painting.
I am a self-taught mixed-media artist and have been painting with tea for about six years. It took over a year and a half to master my technique, which I call TeaDimensionalArt.
What kinds of teas and paints do you use?
I work with acrylic paint on canvas, and prefer metallic paints because of the eye-catching shimmer and shine it gives my paintings. The teas I choose come from all over the world and from many vendors: matcha, oolong, jasmine, white tea, and green Moroccan mint amongst many others. I also use flavoured teas, and various herbal tisanes such as rooibos, peppermint, and tulsi. Green, white, oolong, black, herbals – all are excellent mediums.
How do you select which teas and tisanes you use?
I choose teas and herbals that inspire me, whether it’s the flavor, the smell, or the sound and texture of the tea when I’m crushing it between my fingertips. Sometimes I’m inspired just by the name of the tea. I steep up and taste many of the teas before I paint with them so they can “speak” to me; as a true tea lover, the teas have a lot to say to me! I listen intently and let the aromatic flavors pique my imagination.
Can you tell me about your technique?
The tea’s texture is what adds dimension to my paintings. Sometimes I use tea from teabags; at other times I’ll crush and grind whole tea leaves with a mortar and pestle before I add it to the paint. When mixed with acrylic paint, the tea builds layers and shapes on the canvas, and adds intensity and depth. Some teas, like fine powered matcha, can gently alter the color of the paint. And you can even smell the more aromatic teas on the canvas!
Is there anything else we should know?
The names for my paintings are inspired by the tea I’ve used, whether it’s the smell, flavor, or texture that moves me. Along with the works tea inspires me to create, I also take commissions. So if you have a favourite tea I can use it to create a custom painting that will inspire you too.
As it did with so many young girls, the book Little Women made quite an impression on me. A lot of my friends identified with one or the other sister, but I didn’t. Not until I read this passage about Jo taking a special dish to an ailing Laurie:
“Mother sent her love, and was glad if I could do anything for you. Meg wanted me to bring some of her blanc-mange; she makes it very nicely, and Beth thought her cats would be comforting.”
“That looks too pretty to eat,” he said, smiling with pleasure, as Jo uncovered the dish, and showed the blanc-mange, surrounded by a garland of green leaves, and the scarlet flowers of Amy’s pet geranium.
“It isn’t anything, only they all felt kindly, and wanted to show it. Tell the girl to put it away for your tea; it’s so simple, you can eat it; and being soft, it will slip down without hurting your sore throat…”
What was this blancmange? It sounded so … French! I knew it must be something truly elegant!
I can’t tell you how disappointed I was when I learned that blancmange was simply cornstarch pudding, a dessert that my mother used to cook up for us at least once a week. And that I like to fix every so often.
A few years ago I started experimenting with substituting tea for some of the milk called for in the recipe. “Candy” flavoured teas – vanilla, coconut, chocolate, and the like – were the most successful. Recently I fixed a potful with Angel’s Dream tea, which combines two of my favourite flavours: maple and blackberry. The result? In a word: tea-licious!
Here’s the very simple recipe. Do give it a try with whichever tea you prefer. Leaves and flower petals are optional ;-).
About 4 to 6 servings
1/3 cup sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
pinch of salt
1½ cups plain (not unsweetened) soy milk
1¼ cups Angel’s Dream tea, or flavoured tea of your choice, prepared at regular strength
2 Tablespoons Earth Balance Buttery Spread© (optional, for a richer texture)
Combine sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a medium saucepan. Gradually stir in the milk and then the tea until smooth (a whisk is handy for this). Turn the heat on to medium high. Cook, stirring and scraping the pot continuously so it doesn’t burn, until the mixture begins to boil, about ten minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the Buttery Spread until well blended. Transfer to a four-cup bowl or to four to six individual serving bowls. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight.
Variation: Add a few berries to the bottom of the bowl/s before pouring in the pudding.
One of the best pieces of cooking advice anyone ever gave me was this: Never use water when you can use some other liquid. In other words, don’t just add liquid – add flavour, aroma, and character too.
Although I cook (and bake) with various liquids – broth, wine, beer, juices of all kinds, milks of all kinds – my preferred cooking and baking liquid is still tea.
And although I’ve amassed well over a hundred cookbooks, clipped countless recipes, and searched online for many more, there are still some basics that I prepare over and over again.
Amongst these is my go-to recipe for sauce and gravy. I start with béchamel sauce and alter it to complement – or complete – whatever dish I’m creating. Despite its fancy name, béchamel sauce is not difficult to fix. You start with a roux, a mixture of flour and oil or butter, and then add liquid and seasonings. The only real trick is to avoid lumps, which is much easier to do if you use a whisk.
Perhaps you’re already a whiz at whipping up béchamel sauce; if so, just substitute tea for the liquid in the recipe. The tea should be steeped at regular strength and hot when you add it to the roux. Choose a type that complements whatever you’re cooking up. I find that a rich dark Assam adds a flavourful touch to most savouries. Ceylons, an autumnal Darjeeling, or a roastier oolong works beautifully with lighter dishes.
For those of you who’ve never done a béchamel sauce, here’s the recipe I use. It’s very versatile: To use as a sauce, prepare with quantities as shown; for a gravy, add more tea – a quarter cup or more – until it reaches the desired consistency. If you want a creamier texture, replace about half the tea with milk (soy or dairy). Finish by adding herbs that complement your dish. As with all my recipes, a cup refers to an eight-ounce measuring cup.
I’d like to pass along another good piece of advice: Never use cheap wine for cooking. Similarly, never cook with cheap tea. Make sure you use fresh good quality tea in these recipes; it really does make a difference.
Voilà! And bon appe-tea-t!
Yield: Two cups – about four servings
2½ Tablespoons light oil, margarine, or butter
2 Tablespoons unbleached flour
2 cups hot tea, steeped to regular strength
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
¼ teaspoon dried herbs, or ½ teaspoon fresh herbs, of your choice
Heat the oil (or melted butter) in a saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour until smooth. Continue whisking until the flour browns to a light sandy color.
Raise heat to medium-high. Slowly dribble in a quarter cup of tea, whisking constantly to keep mixture smooth. Repeat with another quarter cup of tea, then another. By this time the tea should be thickening without lumps and you should be able to stir the mixture with a wooden spoon.
Stir in the remainder of the tea and bring to a gentle simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue simmering until the flour has completely softened, about five to ten minutes. Season with salt and herbs of your choice.
Ever since I was a kid I was intrigued by the beautiful, exotic arts of Japan. I used to go to the library to look through their enormous volume of Hokusai prints, and I never missed a museum exhibition of Japanese arts or crafts. I’ve learned and taught origami, dabbled in Japanese brush painting, and have stashed away a couple of rolls of washi paper that I plan to use once I can bring myself to cut it into more manageable sizes.
I still appreciate the Asian, particularly Japanese, aesthetic in arts and crafts, especially as it relates to tea. The first teapot I ever owned was handmade by a Japanese potter in the USA, and many of the tea pieces I’ve collected are from Asia, especially Japan.
My dear husband has been known to mention my interest in tea and tea things to his colleagues, several of whom have been kind enough to bring teas and “things” back from their various travels. One piece that I particularly treasure is a Japanese lacquerware teacup.
Originally developed in China, the Japanese have been producing lacquerware since at least the fifth century C.E. The craft reached the height of its popularity in the sixth and seventh centuries with the advent of Buddhism for the creation of icons and ritual objects. That popularity began to wane with Western influences in Japan in the nineteenth century. While there are still Japanese artisans working in this medium, many of the products identified as lacquerware are fashioned from hard plastic to mimic the real thing.
Genuine lacquerware is produced with a type of varnish made from the sap of the lacquer tree. It is toxic in its liquid form; in fact, the lacquer tree is related to poison ivy. A good deal of skill is required to work with lacquer, as it is essential not to come into direct contact with it.
Lacquer is applied most commonly to wooden objects – like my teacup – but may also be used on baskets, pottery, and even paper. The lacquer dries to a durable and impermeable glossy finish that is can be decorated, often with inlays of semi-precious stones or minerals, before a final clear lacquer coating is applied. The technique is most popularly used for bento boxes – a compartmentalized Japanese lunch box – various containers, decorative objects, and serving ware.
While it may look weighty, my cup is actually quite thin – almost paper thin. The formation of the cup itself shows great artistry in woodworking, enhanced by the beauty of the lacquer finish.
If you’re considering buying one or more pieces of Japanese lacquerware, do be cautious! While contemporary pieces, like my teacup, do exist, a careful reading of product descriptions often reveals that what is described as lacquerware is in fact manufactured of plastic. Vintage pieces are more likely to have been created with traditional materials … and their prices reflect their authenticity. As with all fine objects, buy from a dealer you trust.