Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Is it really tea?

Photo Credit: Wikimol
What is this thing called tea? Let’s face it, it’s a bunch of leaves thrown in some hot water.  The leaves are brewed at the right temperature to infuse the water with flavor and voila!  We have tea!  Or do we?  Many other drinks referred to as tea can be prepared the same way using flower petals, dried fruit, leaves from all sorts of plants, roots, etc.  Is it all tea?

Technically tea is derived only from the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant.  It's the different processing techniques that create the many different varieties of tea - black, green, pu-erh, oolong, et al.  The Tea Council of the United Kingdom estimates as many as 1,500 tea varieties.  Tea making, like wine making, has been refined over centuries to unlock the beautiful multi-faceted essence of the tea plant.  Processing techniques include aeration (aging in air), maceration (chopping), drying (can take 5 years), and rolling of the leaf (locks in flavor).  In addition to processing, where the tea is grown affects the varietal characteristics - flavor, color, caffeine content.

But what about the other drinks referred to as tea?  Hot drinks brewed in the style of tea, but not technically tea, are tisanes, a.k.a. “herbal teas.”   Tisanes are very popular and can be found in the tea section of any store or café.  Some are enjoyed simply for their non-caffeinated flavor, others for their reputed health benefits.

So is it really tea? You decide, but for me it doesn't really have that special "oomph" unless it's the real thing, Camellia Sinensis.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Tea in Old Town


Photo credit: Le Pain Quotidien

We begin our Tea Dreams in historic Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia located about 15 miles away from the nation's capitol.  Since the American colonial period, Old Town has been a vibrant center of commerce and an attractive home to notable people, including our very first president George Washington, who built a town house in Old Town and stayed there when business and inclement weather did not permit travel to his estate at Mount Vernon.   Old Town's original charm - Colonial architecture and cobblestone sidewalks - is carefully preserved.  Old Town is also where a bakery called Le Pain Quotidien can be found.

Le Pain Quotidien is a Brussels-style establishment known for its fresh baked organic breads and pastries. Less well known is its fabulous tea! This past holiday season my sister and I tried their Brussels Breakfast, which is an organic Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka.  It is a bright full bodied beverage brought to the table brewing in a ceramic pot with two small bowls - one to drink it from and the other for the used tea bag when finished brewing. It has a lovely dark reddish brown color and a pleasant aroma.  And when you taste it, this tea delivers!

Interestingly, Brussels, Belgium is not known as a place with much of a tea culture.  According to a Trade for Development Centre 2009 study, Belgian tea consumption measured in kilograms per capita is only 28% of the average per capita tea consumption of other European countries (http://www.befair.be/en/content/availability-sustainable-tea-belgian-supermarkets).  If Le Pain Quotidien Brussels Breakfast tea is representative of the quality of tea that that small group of Belgian tea lovers enjoys, then they are quite discerning.  Lucky for us all, Brussels Breakfast dry tea bags are available to take home from the bakery.

The Brussels Breakfast stands on its own as a wonderful tea, yet part of our experience the day we tried it was the atmosphere at Le Pain Quotidien in Old Town.  The bakery has a casual, slightly rustic decor.  Perhaps some of its charm is captured in this, our first attempt at video commentary:

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