Monday, August 18, 2008

World of Tea: Britain & Europe

World of Tea: Britain & Europe

The world of tea is rich with variety.

Afternoon tea with scones and cucumber sandwiches in England; kneeling on a tatami rice mat while awaiting powdered green tea during the tea ceremony in Japan; diluting a strong cup of black tea with hot water from a samovar in Russia; buying a cup of spicy chai tea from a train window in India; cooling off on a hot summer day with a clear glass of iced tea in America. In addition to the hundreds of different types of tea, there are innumerable customs found in nearly every country around the world, and with a little familiarity these customs can enrich your life no matter where you’re from.

First the basics. All tea, including black, oolong, and green, comes from either Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (China variety) or Camellia sinensis var. assamica (Assam variety). Once a tea leaf is picked it immediately begins to wither and oxidize, much like a slice of apple turns brown after slicing(many books incorrectly call this “fermentation”). If the tea is steamed or dry-fried immediately and then dried, it becomes green tea. If it is allowed to wither and oxidize partially and then heated to stop the oxidation, it becomes oolong tea. If you oxidize the tea leaf 100 percent, you have black tea. Of course there are many other factors that affect flavor, but basically it all comes from one plant.

English Tea: Traditionally, English tea is a full- bodied black blend, often served with milk and sugar. Over the past couple of decades, teabags have, unfortunately, become common in Britain (P&G and Tetley are especially popular). However, good English tea requires loose tea. Remember that “afternoon tea” is served around 4 pm and is a light meal of sandwiches and cakes, “5 o’clock tea” is just tea and sweets, and “high tea” is a working class supper served with tea around 6pm. The words "high" and "low" refer to the heights of the tables used.

German Tea: Good quality loose tea has become popular throughout Europe in recent years, especially in Germany and France. People in the northern German state of Ostfriesen consume more tea per capita than anybody in the world, and some of the largest tea importers are based in Hamburg.

French Tea: In Paris, tea salons are now more numerous than in London, and the emphasis is on quality, variety, and proper brewing technique. Unlike England, where tea is an everyday drink, tea is a special occasion in France and approached in the same manner as wine. The most famous tea salon in Paris is Mariage Freres, which dates back to 1854 and sells around 500 types of tea, including small, muslin tea bags. Of course the French pay attention to food and tea, and sweets include the renowned little madeleines that Proust wrote so about so eloquently.

Russian Tea: Throughout the former Soviet Union, people still follow the custom of placing a small pot of very strong black tea ("zavarka") on top of the samovar (a small tabletop electric water heater for tea), and pouring some of this tea into a tea cup, diluting it with hot water from the samovar, and then adding sugar, or fruit jam to the cup. Some people scoop a teaspoonful of jam in their mouths or place a sugar cube in their mouth and wash it down with tea. Tea is popular in the afternoon or after the evening meal, and is often served in a glass held in a silver holder with handles. Russians often serve their tea in glass mugs. Most popular are full-bodied black teas from Assam, Sri Lanka, Kenya, or Vietnam. The smoky or orange flavored teas non-Russians think of as "Russian Tea" are not Russian, just Russian- inspired.


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