ENGLISH TEA time was a significant part of each day of my Canadian grandparents' lives together. Partly because, I always suspected, it allowed them to eat sweets they ordinarily denied themselves. Their adherence to the ritual was as important to the continuity of their lives as Chinese and Japanese formal and informal tea ceremonies are to people of those cultures.
In the United States, this erudition is not shared by all tea drinkers, 36 percent of whom make their tea from instant (verses 1 per cent in Great Britain). Many of us are obviously taking tea strictly for quick refreshment and a caffeine lift. According to the Schapiras, coffee and tea-purveyors in New York, instant tea "bears as much" resemblance to tea as cherry Kool-Aid does to Beaujolais".
The wine analogy for this and other aspects of tea appreciation is apt.
There are many types of tea and many places where it is grown. The main tea-producing countries are China, India, Sri Lanka, Java, Indonesia, Formosa, Africa and South America. The production of tea is as complex as that of wine and it would be as serious an endeavor for an avid scholar to get to know the tea industry as viniculture.
First of all, as in wine, tea is grown but is manufactured and finished by man. There are three ways to process tea leaves: black tea is fully-fermented; oolong is semi-fermented, the leaves are greenish-brown; green tea leaves are not fermented or withered at all. Fermenting releases caffeine from the tannins in the tea leaves and develops color and aroma. Black tea has the highest concentration of oil and least resembles the natural leaf; it accounts for 87 per cent of the tea drunk in the United States.
Each classification of tea is graded for quality, the terminology varying with its country of origin. Black tea in China is broken down into leaf grades: Orange Pekoe (pronounced peck-o not peek-o) has a long, thin and twisted leaf; Pekoe is less wiry; Souchong has a large and coarse leaf. Orange Pekoe, by the way, was a Chinese term used thousands of years ago for tea with a tinge of white which was sometimes flavored with orange blossoms. Today, it has to do only with the size of the tea leaf and does not refer to quality or flavor. The old boast of a commercial American tea company which uses a "special" kind of Orange Pekoe leaves is more than a little misleading.
There are further grades of broken black tea, 80 per cent of which are used in the production of tea bags.
Because oolong tea is partially fermented, it possesses qualities of both green and black teas. Almost all oolong tea comes from Taiwan (Formosa) and is graded by quality, Choice being the highest grade. Oolong is the classic Chinese restaurant tea.
Green teas come mainly from China, Japan and Taiwan and are graded by leaf age and style. Gunpowder has leaves shaped like pellets and a gray-green gunpowder color. Young Hyson leaves are longer and thinner, and so on down to Dust, which is the smallest siftings resulting from the sieving process, used in blends for high color and a quick brew.
There is an endless variety of scented and flavored teas on the market. This alteration is done by drying flowers or leaves and pulverizing them, mixing them with tea after fermentation. Finished teas can also be sprayed with authentic or artificial essences. Much of this processing is done in Europe.
Of course, many familiar brands of teas are blends of two or more of the basic types of tea. There is nothing sacred about the professionally-flavored and blended teas. By buying unblended tea in bulk and experimenting on your own, you can come up with very pleasant combinations. For example, cinnamon tea is made by adding a whole cinnamon stick to the leaves before brewing. You can make fruit tea by putting finely-diced apple, pear or strawberries into the teapot with the tea leaves.
Here is a rundown of some of the major tea varieties which can be found in well-stocked shops around town:
Darjeeling -- finest of Indian teas; full-bodied yet delicate; dark amber color.
Assam -- a robust, strong tea from India.
Ceylon -- best are from the high districts: Uva, Nuwara, Eljii; intense flavor, smell of flowers.
Keemun -- best of China black teas; thick, superb bouquet, excellent served with food.
Lapsang Souchong -- distinctive, smoky flavor; often blended.
"Black Dragon" -- looks and tastes like half black and half green tea; elegant.
Pouchong -- often scented with jasmine and gardenia.
Gunpowder -- bitter flavor and yellow-green color; steep for only 1 to 2 minutes.
Bancha -- inexpensive Japanese tea, mild flavor.
English Breakfast -- a name originally applied to China Congou (black) teas in the U.S. and Canada, later used for Keemun alone; now identifies blends of black teas in which the China character predominates.
Earl Grey -- tea blended originally for a British Earl, usually sprayed with oil of bergamot for a citrus flavor.
Russian Caravan -- highly-prized tea that took 16 months to transport from China to Russia; today this term refers to blends made in the Russian style, which is very strong and may account for the Russian custom of sipping through sugar cubes.
Irish Breakfast -- strong blend of black teas, good mixed with milk.
MASS MARKET TEAS
Commercial tea companies, with such recognizable supermarket names as Lipton, Red Rose and McCormick, bag teas which are blends of up to 20 types of tea. This is to insure a uniform flavor despite the vagaries of the world crops. Because it is a competitive business, these companies keep their prices down by buying cheap teas which grow in lowland areas. They are most often bitter with a strong color and need to be cut with milk and/or sugar.
This is the way my grandmother taught me to make a perfect pot of tea.
"First," she would say, "you must start with fresh, cold water which has not been standing and has never been heated. While the kettle is coming to a boil, you must hot the pot."
And with that she would run steaming tap water into her porcelain tea pot and rinse it out. Then she would add one teaspoon of loose tea for each cup she planned to make, plus one for the pot. As soon as the kettle began hissing furiously, my grandmother poured the boiling water over the leaves, put the top on the pot and covered the whole thing with her beautiful quilted tea cozy. In we would go with the tea and a tray of goodies to the living room where my grandfather was waiting patiently.
My grandmother was right about a lot of things, it turns out. The fresh water was used to keep the oxygen in the tea and make it sparkle. The water should be boiling tumultuously in order to get the greater essence from the tea when it is poured on the leaves.
Tea must never steep for more than five minutes. It should alwasy be timed and not steeped according to its color because there are many intensities of color to expect, depending on the tea one uses. The best kind of pot removes the leaves from the tea after five minutes with an insert. Grandmother drank her tea the English way, diluting it with hot water and milk (never cream) when it got too strong.
A ceramic pot will not impart extraneous flavors to the tea. If you don't have a tea pot you can fashion one by using a saucer as a lid for a tea cup or mug and steeping the tea right in the cup, the way Chinese do it.
As for the kettle, a glass one is best, but stainless steel will do.
Iced tea is made the same way, but it should be twice as strong to stand up to the melting ice cubes. You can also make iced tea with cold water, leaving the tea or tea bags in the pitcher for a few hours.
An old-fashioned way to prevent iced tea from turning cloudy is make it in a glass pitcher and let it sit in the sun for a few hours. A little boiling water will clear it up as well.
We've visited some of the stores in our area which offer more than an ordinary selection of teas:
The Perfect Cup -- White Flint Mall, Bethesda. This shop has a fine selection of 89 teas, ranging in price from $3.10 to $20.30 per pound, with most in the $6 to $9 range. There is also a small space with tables where one can sit down to a cup of hot tea for 75 cents. The Perfect Cup has a Coffee and Tea Club which offers a 10 percent discount, a newsletter and occasional tastings for a $7.50 fee.
Georgetown Coffee, Tea and Spice -- 1328 Wisconsin Ave., sells over 40 types of tea, many hard-to-find, such as the Fortnum and Mason brand, in a price range of 99 cents per pound for a rarely-imported Russian Georgian tea to $20 per pound for St. James Darjeeling. Most are in the $6 category. They also stock 12 decaffeinated teas which are imported from Switzerland at $12.99 per pound.
M. E. Swing -- 1013 E St. NW, is an old-time coffee and tea purveyor which sells 10 kinds of bulk teas at extremely reasonable prices: from $4.60 to $5.80 per pound. This store also carries McGrath's Irish tea, TyPhoo, Jackson's of Piccadilly as well as some others.
Swing is one of the few stores in the area which carries Getrude Ford teas, although in a limited selection. Gertrude Ford is the last of the gourmet American tea companies, owned for many years by a colorful woman in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. For 40 years the Duke of Windsor bought all of his specially blended tea from the Gertrude Ford Tea Company. Today, the company is run by Alice Bogad, who keeps Miss Ford's memory alive by packing her tea balls in charming, and reusable lavender metal containers.
Chinatown -- Because many of the best teas imported into this country come from China, it pays the inquisitive tea shopper to investigate the closest source. You can start at the Tuck Cheong Company, 617 H St. NW, which has a tremendous selection of exotic Chinese teas at unbelievably low prices. We found an 8-ounce plastic bag (no frills) of Oolong for 75 cents and a 4-ounce box of Keemun for 60 cents. Be sure to check out all of the interesting and pretty tins which contain tea and can be used to carry teas around for a long time in the future.
La Touraine -- 300 6th St. NW. This wholesale distributor of coffee and tea to many Washington-area restaurants will sell you a box of 100 tea bags for only $1.47, which beats Lipton's price of $2.75 for the same amount.
International Foods -- 7720 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. This store doesn't have a huge selection, but it does carry a few kinds of unusual Indian tea: Brooke Bond brand and Lipton Green Label. They run about $6 per pound.