There is nothing more satisfying than that first cup of tea in the morning. The process of sleepily brewing, steeping the bags and slowly watching the colour deepen. To many of us tea drinking is a form of ritual, a moment of calm before the days starts. In essence tea is therapy.
In many countries tea culture has become a form or ritual where not only the drinking of the beverage matters but how it is prepared and how it is linked to arts, cultural and ceremonial practices. Take for example the Japanese Tea ceremony-which is also known as ‘Way of Tea’. Here tea is not only prepared but celebrated by pre-defined movements presented in a considered presentation of matcha tea (抹茶), powdered green tea.
The whole process is about preparing the tea and the aesthetics of every movement, vessel and tool matter. Beautifully designed tea equipment, called chadōgu (茶道具) are handled with exquisite care and the ceremony is often combined with creating calligraphy scrolls, flower arrangements and meals, all in the context of the tea ceremony.
Though our own tea drinking in Ireland may not be quite as aesthetic and considered it is nevertheless deeply rooted in our country’s history. Orla Donohoe of the Consumer Foods Division, at Bord Bia says that tea is synonymous with the home, comfort and warmth in a way that perhaps no other food or beverage category is. In the consumer study, drinking tea was found to be about a mood -It is slow, reflective, contemplative, warm, friendly, relaxed and comforting. We Irish also happen to consume a huge amount of tea per capita-in fact worldwide we come second after Turkey!
Considering how much of a role tea plays in our culture -‘Would you like a cup of tea father?’ it is surprising that many of us don’t think about where this ground leaf actually comes from. In fact tea grows on the Camellia sinensis plant. These beautiful plants are native to Asia and grow at high altitudes of around 300–1,100 metres. A fascinating fact is that these beautiful plants are the ones used for the making of tea. All tea, whether black, green, white or oolong is made from varieties of this one plant-the Camellia sinensis. The flowers on this particular plant are white and smaller than those of the Camellia japonica, which is the one that is more readily available at your local garden centre. The plants like slightly acidic soil and are most fond of partial shade but most do well in sunshine too.
For the making of tea, the leaves or leaf tips of the Camellia plant are picked and fermented in great mounds and then rolled and dried out, or slow roasted. I was fascinated to learn that it is the process that these leaves go through that determines whether the tea ultimately becomes black tea, green tea, white tea, oolong or pu-erh tea. Essentially the result comes down to the length of oxidation the Camellia leaves are allowed to undergo-more oxidation will result in black or dark coloured teas such as pu-erh teas and less oxidation will give green or white teas. Fascinating.
Apart from the making of our morning cup of tea the Camellia plant has many other uses. Pressing the seed can make a fantastic oil which is used for frying in Asia as it has a high smoke point and is ideal for salads and sauces as it has a delicate flavour. The cold pressed Camellia oil is also used as a beauty product for skin and hair. Japanese Geishas use the oil which is rich in omega 9, for their amazingly glossy hair.
Legend has it that the first cup of tea was brewed in China in 2737 B.C. when some tea leaves were dried and accidentally fell into some boiling water which was being served to the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung. From China, the ritual of tea drinking spread to the rest of the world, with information filtering back to Europe by the Arabs via the Venetians during the tenth century. The actual Camellia plant however is said to have been first brought to the Western world by Chief Surgeon to the Dutch East India Company Engelbert Kaempfer in 1692.
Another interesting fact is that Camellias can live for a very long time-the oldest living tea tree grows in the Yunnan province in south-west China and is said to be 3,200 years old. 500 gramms of its tea leaves reportedly sold for $40,000…That’s one pricey cup of tea!
Tea fact-In China, Camellias are said to be lucky symbols and are used in offerings to the gods during the Chinese new year.
Keep calm and grow your own tea
Thomas Quearney, founder of Mr Middleton, recently launched the sale of tea plants on the Irish market. He is the exclusive Irish distributor of these plants which grow on the cool, damp mountains in China which are much like the cool, damp gardens we experience in Ireland. I love the idea of having my own tea plant- how cool would it be to actually follow the process of tea and tasting your very own brew-from leaf to cup! Here’s some advice from Thomas to show how simple it is to grow your own:
“When new shoots appear in the spring, this is called a flush, pick the new growth which is the two smallest leaves and the bud for your tea. Growing outside you should get four flushes per year, in a greenhouse or conservatory maybe six or more all depending on the sun and temperature. Once you have plucked your new growth, you have tea. The harvest is that simple. What you do with the harvest determines whether you make green or black tea either way the process takes only hours”
Included with the plant are fully detailed notes on how to grow and make delicious black tea so loved by us Irish or indeed the much in vogue green tea.
Mr Middleton is Ireland’s oldest mail order garden retailer, which is 100% Irish family-owned. Their first mail order advertisement ran in 1977 and over the last 40 years the company has grown and blossomed with a shop in Mary Street, Dublin and a 15,000 sq. ft warehouse. For more information or to order your own tea plant see www.mrmiddleton.com