Thursday, September 16, 2010

An Introduction to Tea

Taking tea with my grandmother was a special treat for me and a tradition that I remember as far back as any in my childhood. To me it was a simple pleasure and one where I always felt safe. Doing something the same way everyday does tend to have that effect, especially on a young child. Every summer my sister and I would visit our grandparents in Connecticut for two weeks, providing a nice break from home life. At five o’clock each afternoon the tea tray was arranged and the tea table was carefully set. We would all sit down and drink a cup of tea with a nice freshly baked Scottish oat and ginger cookie centered with a blanched almond slice. We would talk about the fun we’d had during the day and see if we could earn another nickel for another wagon full of apples we’d collect.

There was a certain ritual to taking tea and when done correctly turns this afternoon snack into an open-eyed guided meditation. I always remember how quiet the pouring of the tea was. My grandmother taught English to a wealthy Chinese lady and we had access to some rare Chinese teas. Frankly at a young age, I wouldn’t have known the difference and today I have several favorites, none of which come from China. The tea was always steeped in a porcelain teapot with a lovely thick tea cozy hand knitted by my grandmother. There was a silver hot water pot used to dilute the tea to a desired potency, a sugar bowl with small white sugar cubes and a pitcher with cold milk. There was a glass plate with slices (not wedges) of lemon. I quickly learned how to use sugar tongs and a lemon fork. I remember one day when I was in Sea Island Georgia, I decided to go to the Cloisters Hotel for a cup of tea and some of their delicious cookies. I was about 11. The hostess asked me if I’d like milk or lemon. I confidently stated that I’d like both. I soon realized that “less is more” and that the acid from the lemon causes the milk to curdle. The hostess very politely asked if I would like a new cup. I looked at her, having turned beet red, and with an embarrassed tear in my eye, said yes thank-you. Thank goodness for those delicious cookies.

Tea rituals in any household or hotel will vary. But there are a set of principles which stay very much in play in almost every case. These principles ensure a pleasant experience. The Japanese tea ceremony has the strictest of rules and many years of study and practice are required to master this – many years. But in the Western world, tea service is quite different. And there are different kinds of tea service. One of the most misused names of services is that of “high tea”. Many people think that this is the be-all-to-end-all of teas. In fact high tea is a very hearty meal usually including meat and is served family style, at the end of a long hard day of work. It was developed during the Industrial Revolution. It includes tea as well as alcoholic beverages. Tea served in the afternoon with scones, tea sandwiches and sweets is properly referred to as ‘afternoon tea’. It was correctly named ‘low tea’ as well as it served on a low table. If you add a glass of champagne to the mix you are now serving “royal tea”.

I was recently in Washington D.C. where I was fortunate enough to take a workshop from one of world’s leading tea experts. My eyes were open to a whole new world thanks to Bruce Richardson of the Elmwood Inn in Perryville, KY and a mentor of mine, Dorothea Johnson, founder of the Protocol School of Washington. I learned about the different types of teas: Black, Oolong, Green, White, Scented and Flavored, Herbal, and Chai.

Most interesting to me was the fact that all teas (other than herbal and Chai) come from a single plant – Camellia sinensis. The difference in the tea types comes from the specific leaves that are picked and how they are grown and processed.

Another thing to which I was introduced was the concept of honoring the ladies that actually pick the tea leaves. Without their tender loving care, we would not be lucky enough to imbibe in this most refreshing and at the same time relaxing of beverages. This is done silently and privately but is a fine way to honor those women. After tea, discard the tea leaves in your garden. This completes the whole cycle.

I will cover the faux pas, dos and don’ts of tea service in both social and business settings in an upcoming column. In the meantime, enjoy this most delightful time of day. And for heaven’s sake, don’t hold out your pinkie!