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Cup of Tea 1 2 3!

Say Camellia and frilly flower flutes in shades of shameless red and vibrant pinks come to mind. Say herb tea and faint flavors and tones of golden auras come to mind. Put Camellia and herb tea together and puzzling looks usually follow. Yet, a very special Camellia is responsible for all the tea in China and everywhere else in the world, and, in essence, that Camellia is an herb that makes herb tea. Since the definition of an herb requires only that the plant be useful, then surely the Camellia sinensis plant is one of the most loved and most used herbs in the world. Like most Camellias, growing conditions for the tea plant are very specific; almost mystifying. So particular are these plants that they don’t grow well in most of the US. Indeed, we could find only one commercial operation in the US.

And so, out of necessity (usually medicinal), teas in the United States were born from what was found growing here. Early teas in this country were often made from boiled roots and bark and taken with protest at the time of illness or other malady, like insomnia. Ranging from bitter to flavorless, these teas were part of the arsenal found in Native American healing and Colonial stillrooms. And, when the colonists decided they would no longer get tea from China, they started to think of their medicinal brews as possible substitutes for the pleasure of drinking Camellia leaf tea. One natural choice for this was Monarda didyma which is native to the eastern US. Found growing in great abundance, it made a rich flavorful substitute for Camellia tea leaves.

Today, “tea” is a multi-faceted word. There are as many ways to make tea as there are tea drinkers. We mix our Camellia leaves with herbs, fruits, even yogurt. We enjoy it both hot and iced. And, while you won’t be able to grow your own Camellia leaves, you can grow your own herbs. The addition of fresh herbs to a brew of black or green tea can make an ordinary occasion festive.

Of course, herbs can be used all by themselves, too. Herbal teas are not only healthful, but also refreshing; and they definitely don’t have to be boring or tasteless. To make the very best teas, use fresh ingredients, pure water, and a non-reactive vessel. Your fresh, home-grown ingredients will provide organic herbs that are picked at the peak of perfection, dried quickly, and stored properly. Since you will be growing your own, there is no need to keep dried herbs for prolonged periods of time. Dry only what you will need for the near future or what you will need to get you through the winter until your plants are producing again. The longer you hang on to dried herbs, the more oils evaporate and the more your tea will taste like dust.

When reading about the history and development of tea, it seems as though the ritual of drinking tea is almost more important than the beverage itself. From the intricate Japanese tea ceremonies to the British custom of high tea, it is clear that throughout the ages tea has been a center stage event for many cultures. Leave it to Americans to put it in vending machines and make it with ingredients that are unpronounceable. While not in favor of mass-produced tea, I do think that making tea should be easy and enjoying it should fit your lifestyle. There will be moments when a quiet cup of tea and a garden seat with a friend will be the perfect play in time. There will also be times when a nice warm travel mug of tea imbibed quickly on the way to work will be a life-saver. Think outside the box, and don’t just leave tea for special occasions or occasional rituals.

HOT TEA

Nothing says loving like something steamy in your cup. During cold winter months we tend to keep a kettle on the stove at the ready. It just takes a few minutes to heat up a batch of fresh water, and by the time the cups are readied with a spot of honey and tea herbs of choice, the kettle is merrily whistling its tea time tune.

Below are a few tips for obtaining a tasty cup of steamy herbal tea. Use good-tasting water for good-tasting tea. Chemically-treated water will not taste any better after the tea is made. If your water is awful-tasting, consider installing a reverse osmosis unit at your tap. It will pay for itself many times over when compared to the expense of buying bottled water day after day, and you will drink more water and have better tasting tea!

The richest flavors come from tea leaves that are gently bruised on all sides by the hot water. Placing the herbs loose in the cup will give the herbs the chance to dance around in the water and release their volatile oils. Tea bags and tea strainers may be convenient but they may consist of powdered herbs packed tightly in their little pouches. If you make your own tea bags, be sure to only fill them half full to allow for as much swishing room as possible.

Fresh herbs should be lightly rubbed between the fingers before placing in the cup to help release more of the flavorful oils. Larger-leaved herbs, like Lemon Grass, can be torn into two or three pieces. Dried herbs should be milled gently between the fingers or, for stiffer herbs like Rosemary or Lavender, in a designated grinder at the time of making tea.

After the boiling water is poured into the cup, I like to cover the top of the cup with a napkin, which lets the tea steep. Because herbs don’t really color the water, it is a good idea to sip a spoonful every three or four minutes to see how the flavor is coming along. The longer you leave the tea herbs in, the stronger the brew. If the leaves sit too long, the tea can become too strong or bitter. If the tea seems too weak after five minutes, then use more tea instead of letting it brew longer. If you prefer to strain your cup of tea, be sure the second cup you strain into has been warmed.

If you like your tea sweetened, add the sugar or honey to the pitcher before the tea starts to brew. A quick stir afterwards will make sure that the sweetener is dissolved. Any coffee-brewing device could be used for making large amounts of hot tea; just be sure you use it only for making tea or be ready to have coffee-flavored tea.

This is a great way to prepare a tea concentrate for a crowd. Adjust the volume of herbs in the filter basket or strainer allowing enough herbs to make a strong brew that will keep its flavor after boiling water is added. Store this concentrated tea in the refrigerator until needed. When ready to use, fill each cup (pereferabley pre-warmed) with a bit of concentrate and add boiling water. Make the concentrate unsweetened and then add the sweetener according to your guest’s preference before adding the hot water. One of my favorite sugars is made with Scented Geraniums. Take thoroughly dried Lemon or Rose Scented Geranium leaves and/or flowers and pulverize with raw sugar in a grinder. Dried Rose petals and Lavender flowers or leaves are also fun and tasty additions when making herbal sugars.

An herbal milk tea can be made by steeping herbs in milk at just under boiling temperatures. Sweeter herbs like Chocolate Mint and Anise Hyssop are especially tasty when steeped in hot milk. This herbal milk tea can be used in any cup of hot tea or in place of the milk used in making ice cream or in baking.

ICED TEA

Iced tea has become so popular that it ranks right up there with soft drinks. Unfortunately, most of the canned, bottled, or powdered iced tea drinks don’t come close to the true taste of fresh brewed tea. I tend to use more fresh herbs in the summer because they are abundant. Lemon Verbena and Habek Mint are two of my favorites, but I am always throwing something different in the strainer. There are no set rules to kind or quantity. This is something you just have to experiment with. If you are new to herb tea, try one herb at a time. I tend to use a lot of the herb when I first try it (maybe three tablespoons of fresh herbs per cup) and then back down from there. But, you could just as easily start with a small amount (say a teaspoon) and move up.

Herbs make great iced teas by themselves or in combination with black and green teas and fruit and fruit juices. Herbal tea ice cubes are a lot of fun, too, especially if you add a small mint leaf or colorful flower to each cube before pouring and freezing. These iced tea ice cubes add special pizzazz to wine coolers, lemonades, and fruit punches.

THE HERBS

Before you can make that first cup of home grown tea, you have to get in touch with your herbs. If you have culinary herbs in your garden now, you have a built-in supply of tea herbs. Almost all culinary herbs have been used for making teas and many of them have healing properties as well. Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme all make excellent tea. And let us not forget Mint in its many and varied forms, all with slightly different chemical compositions and thus slightly different flavors. Each spring I treat myself to new mint pots. I take maybe half a dozen containers and choose six mints to be my iced tea companions that year. Each pot gets one kind of mint and is placed where the sun shines all day and the water is plentiful and automatic. Part shade in really warm summer climates works too.

So choose your tea herbs from any culinary listing of herbs. At Mountain Valley Growers, there are over 100 culinary herbs to choose from. Grow your herbs in at least six hours of sun each day and give them plenty of water. Feel free to snip at will and bring in herbs at any time for a quick cup. However, to harvest and dry large amounts to be stored, target the plant for a mass cutting when it is looking really fresh (with no yellowing or dying leaves) and vibrant. This is usually right before or several weeks after bloom. Cutting the plant back after it flowers will help regenerate the plant and cause it to produce more yummy leaves. Flowers can also be used fresh or dried. For more information on how to plant and grow tea herbs and other kitchen herbs check out The Culinary Herb Garden: Planting, Maintaining and Using Culinary Herbs..

After your leaves are harvested, make sure to wash them carefully and then dry them thoroughly. When properly dried, they should crumble crisply between your fingers. If they are not completely dry when you store them away, they will mold and have to be discarded. It is easiest to harvest stems and tie them in small bunches which can hang upside down to dry. Don’t let them hang longer than necessary before sealing them away in a glass jar out of the light. Label your jars with the name of the herb and the time of harvest. After six months, you will want to give the herbs the sniff test to see if they are still worthy to grace your cup. Dried herbs can also be frozen in zippered bags with the air squeezed out. If space in the storage container allows, wait to crumble the herbs off the stems until you are going to use them. They will retain more oils within the unbroken leaves and stay fresh longer.

Whether you invite your friends or sip in solitude, mix herbs with green or black tea or drink pure herb tea, enjoy your teas hot or iced or both, the possibilities for tea time are endless. The fun of growing, harvesting and preparing tea herbs far exceeds the simple act of sipping. Your understanding of gardening and using your bounty will take on new meanings that you will want to share with others.

Below are two of our favorite tea time recipes.

Pineapple Lemon Mint Iced Tea

So refreshing!

  • 5 cups cold water
  • 6 regular-size tea bags
  • 3 lemons, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh mint leaves, torn
  • One 12-ounce can frozen pineapple juice concentrate, thawed
  • 1 cup granulated sugar (or to taste)
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon pure almond extract
  1. Bring 2 cups of the water to a gentle boil in a small saucepan. Add the tea bags, lemon slices and mint. Cover, remove from the heat, and let steep for 20 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, combine the pineapple juice concentrate, remaining three cups water, sugar, vanilla and almond extract in a 2-quart container. Strain the steeped tea through a fine-mesh strainer and add to the pineapple liquid. Stir or shake until the sugar is dissolved.
  3. Let cool, then chill and serve over ice.

Excerpted from Iced Tea, by Fred Thompson, Copyright © 2002, with permission from Harvard Common Press, 535 Albany Street, Boston, MA 02118, www.harvardcommonpress.com

English Tea Cakes are perfect with homebrewed tea.

  • 1 3/4 cup sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon double-acting baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup soft shortening
  • 1/4 cup soft butter
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 3 tbsp milk
  • 1/2 cup chopped citron
  • 1/2 cup currants or raisins
  • Granulated sugar
  • 1 egg white, slightly beaten

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Mix shortening, butter, 3/4 cup sugar and egg until they are creamy. Add milk, citron, currants or raisins, and flour mixture. Mix well; refrigerate until it is an easily handled dough. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Roll dough into balls the size of walnuts. Dip tops in egg whites, then sugar. Place sugared side up, 2 inches apart, on greased cookie sheets. Bake 12 to 15 minutes until golden. Cool, then store, tightly covered. Makes about 3 dozen.

Try your hand at growing and using fresh tea herbs with our Zone 5-11 Tea Herb Garden. These plants can be successfully over-wintered in areas that don’t go below minus 20 and is perfectly suited for Zones 5 through 11. It contains traditional tea herbs that will brew up lots of cozy cups of tea.