Tea: Civilized ‘lift to the spirits’

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 9, 2004

Tea is a pleasure enjoyed nearly the world over these days. In Asia, Africa, Europe and here in North America, tea is appreciated for the lift it provides to both body and spirit.

Great Britain practically comes to a standstill at 4 p.m. every day while someone puts a kettle on for a &uot;cuppa&uot;.

It’s been said British soldiers in WW II paused during the invasion of Normandy to enjoy a cup of tea on the beach (much to the consternation of their American allies).

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But did you know that this beverage most beloved by the Brits has a special connection to the Camellia City?

There are more than 3,000 varieties of tea out there (not including herb teas), yet they all begin with the dried leaves of one plant: the camellia senensis. Think about it – a &uot;cousin&uot; of our own beautiful camellia plants is the basis for the drink that was the centerpiece of last Sunday’s charming &uot;Tea with the Queen&uot; in Greenville.

It’s in the name

During that recent tea party, the ladies present got to sample a variety of teas with intriguing names such as &uot;Pompadour&uot; and &uot;Raspberry Royale&uot;.

The names of tea varieties are often quite exotic, representing their origin:

Assam is a province in northern India; Ceylon tea comes from Sri Lanka, and Darjeeling is a district in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Most packaged teas you find in local stores, such as English Breakfast and Irish Breakfast, are blends of two or more varieties. Fragrant scented teas are flavored with the essential oils of fruits, flowers and spices.

The most popular scented tea is probably Earl Grey, which contains orange oil. (The tea was named for a 19th century Englishman who served as a diplomat to China where he learned to enjoy the deliciously scented tea blend still bearing him name today.)

What about that familiar Orange pekoe many of us use to make our cherished sweet iced tea? Turns out it’s not a variety or a blend, but a term referring to the size of the tea leaf.

Tea leaves tell tales

And speaking of tea leaves, there are many folk tales associated with tea drinking. Did you know a few loose leaves floating atop a teacup means a mysterious visitor is coming to call? If you find bubbles on the surface of your cup, good news – you’ll soon receive some money.

And never stir the tea in the teapot – you’ll just be stirring up trouble.

Here’s one more old superstition: if two ladies pour tea from the same pot, one of them will give birth to a red-headed child within the year.

A ‘veddy’ British tea

If you want to celebrate with a British style tea party, here are a few things to keep in mind: after the tea is poured, first the sandwiches and other savories are served, then scones with Devon cream and finally the sweets (is it any wonder the Brits love their tea time?).

And by the way, an elegant affair like last weekend’s &uot;Tea With the Queen&uot; is not considered &uot;high tea&uot;: high tea is actually served at the supper hour and features hearty, filling foods such as shepherd’s pie.

Teas featuring dainty cakes and cucumber sandwiches are correctly called &uot;afternoon tea.&uot; (If scones with clotted cream are the main feature of the tea, it is called a &uot;cream tea&uot;).

Wonderful foods – and names

Traditional afternoon tea foods include watercress and egg, cucumber and radish sandwiches, scones (light, tender biscuits served hot with jam and butter or clotted cream), teacakes, crumpets (griddlecakes) and pastries. Of course, all are served with plenty of piping hot tea (cream, sugar and lemon slices optional).

There are many kinds of British teacakes, and like so many other things British, they often have wonderful names: &uot;singing hinny&uot; (a scone-like griddle cake that sizzles as it cooks); &uot;fat rascal&uot; (plump scone studded with raisins); &uot;small coal fizzer&uot; (a version of the singing hinny from coal mining country); &uot;lardy cake&uot; (a butter-rich bun once made with lard), and &uot;petticoat tails&uot; (a shortbread cookie).

Teabags – yes or no?

The now-common teabag was in fact, a great source of controversy in its infancy.

Teabags were invented quite by accident by a New York tea merchant in 1904. Instead of sending samples of tea to his customers in tea tins, he came up with the idea of packaging the samples in hand-sewn silk bags. Soon, the enterprising merchant was inundated with orders for tea in bags.

However, there were some who turned up their noses at teabags, claiming that simmering loose leaves was the ONLY way to brew tea properly. Others, however, really liked the convenience of teabags. Because the tea particles in bags were small, the tea brewed faster.

Teabag lovers had to be careful not to leave the bag in the water too long or their tea would take on a bitter taste. Today, most people seem to find teabags make an acceptable cup of tea.

Tea – be it hot or cold, fruit, herb, spiced or the &uot;plain old&uot; kind, served loose or in bags – is a delicious and civilized habit we all can enjoy.