Friday, December 17, 2004
On a wintry afternoon, don't just take five; take tea
Taking tea is a Chinese custom dating back 5,000 years. The first tea in America came to Dutch colonists in New Amsterdam (later New York) by way of Peter Stuyvesant in about 1650. Tea was available in England perhaps as early as 1652 and quickly became England's most popular drink. The Duchess of Bedford is credited with starting the afternoon tea craze in England in the late 18th century when, in response to a "sinking feeling" between the two main meals of the day, she invited some friends to her boudoir at five p.m. to enjoy the beverage along with a small meal of bread and butter sandwiches, cakes and sweets. By then, of course, tea was extremely popular on these shores as well, which is why it became a watershed economic issue in the American Revolution, and why angry Bostonians threw hundreds of pounds of it into Boston harbor in 1773.
Tea is enjoying a renaissance here, possibly in response to globalization and the need to lessen stress in a fast-moving and increasingly health-conscious society. Like the dictionary writer Samuel Johnson, I am "a hardened and shameless tea drinker." It has long been a mission of mine to raise the popularity of tea in our coffee-guzzling society.
There are many reasons to do this. First, tea has reported health benefits. It contains antioxidants: polyphenols to aid digestion and help fight the free radicals that may lead to cancer and heart disease, and catechins which kill germs and bacteria. It contains fluorine to help prevent tooth decay and strengthen bones. Tea can restrict the buildup of cholesterols and aid in blood vessel function. It is also a rich source of vitamins (B1, B2, B6, K, carotene), folic acid, and minerals (manganese and potassium). Green tea contains vitamin C. Tea does contain caffeine, but not as much as coffee, and can be decaffeinated easily at home (see below: "Brewing the perfect cuppa").
Because tea has long been associated with ceremony, most notably in Japan where the ritual of serving it is an art form, it is also associated with social behavior. We think of tea as a drink to be shared with a friend or two, along with a small meal like that served by the Duchess of Bedford. This more Anglicized tea ceremony is becoming widely popular here in America as tearooms and small tea houses are popping up everywhere. During the holiday season, time out for tea is a great way to take a break from shopping, or a great gift for a relative or friend. At other times during the year, a trip to a tearoom can be a great alternative to the business lunch.
Brewing the perfect cuppa
If you want to get into tea at home, it's easy to brew a great cup of tea and it makes for a wonderful excuse to have a friend over. Here's how, according to cookbook author and tea connoisseur Iris Ihde Frey and Teapot Tea Room proprietor Sharon Hood:
1. "Hot the Pot." Pour hot water into the teapot and let it sit while bringing fresh water to boil in a kettle.
2. As the kettle is about to boil, empty the teapot and measure into it one teaspoonful of tea per cup plus the mandatory "one for the pot" (this last is sometimes not necessary with the stronger teas, like Taylor's Scottish Breakfast). Pour the boiling water over the tea leaves.
3. For regular tea, put the lid on the pot, keep warm with a tea cozy, and let steep for five minutes.
4. For decaffeinated tea, count to 20 and then pour off the first pot of tea. Use a strainer to catch any tea leaves that escape and return them immediately to the pot. Replace the water immediately with more boiling water from the kettle. This process reduces the caffeine by 90%.
5. If all the tea is not to be served immediately, strain the brewed tea into a separate heated pot to prevent the bitter taste that is caused by too much steeping.
You can purchase paper strainers which will go directly into your pot and can be removed like coffee filters, and you can also purchase a Bodum teapot which works like a French coffee pot and tamps the tea leaves down, preventing them from contacting the water too long.
Where to find great tea
In our area, there are a number of fine tearooms where full teas (tea served with savory sandwiches, scones or crumpets, and sweets) or so-called cream teas (tea served with crumpets or scones) can be purchased reasonably and enjoyed mightily.
Teapot Tea Room, Boxborough
One of my favorite spots is the Teapot Tea Room (61 Stow Road, Boxborough). Here the full tea has delicious accompaniments, but the star of the show really is the tea itself. Perfectly brewed and strained into individual pots, the choice of black, green or blended teas is wide and delicious. Proprietors Leslie Drew and Sharon Hood are very happy to bring out samples of aromatic tea leaves to savor and choose from, and to explain brewing and buying. The atmosphere is relaxed, informal, and friendly. Interested patrons can attend one of the many tea workshops or celebrations available as well.
Special Teas, Northboro
Another good spot is Special Teas at 10 Church Street in Northboro. The atmosphere here is more contemporary and hip than at the Teapot Tea Room. Here is where I tasted my first chai, the delicious Indian blend of tea, milk, and spices. Here again, tea is brewed from leaves and blends have real spices added.
Tea in Wenham and Concord
One of the keys to good tea is to avoid teabag blends, which are stale and dusty tasting in comparison with freshly blended and brewed teas. For that reason, although the tea service at the Wenham Tea House (4 Monument Street, Wenham) is lovely bone china and the scones are tasty, I cannot recommend it. Teabags just don't make the grade. The Colonial Inn in Concord has the same problem. The atmosphere is lovely and the accompaniments are excellent, but the tea is bagged, not freshly brewed.
Crumpets Tea Room,
Crumpets Tea Room (56 Water Street, North Andover) is a Victorian tearoom. Here you can munch on wonderful crumpets while choosing from a variety of freshly brewed black, green, and blended teas. The scones taste a little like American muffins, but you can cover them with clotted cream and jam. This won't help your cholesterol level, but it will make you happy while you're there!
Boston and Cambridge
Boston and Cambridge have a number of Japanese and Chinese tea houses, like House of Flower Wind and Kaji Aso Japanese Tea House (40 St. Stephen Street, Boston), and Dado Tea (955 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge), that are fun to try and replete with aromatic green and smoky teas, as well as the more usual jasmine and other floral teas.
Boston, of course, is home to the queen of tearooms, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Arlington Street. Tea at the Ritz is an event that should be combined with a walk in the Public Gardens at the very least, or perhaps a trip to Shreve, Crump, and Low or a matinee at the theater. It is expensive, lavish, and relaxing in every way. A full tea will eliminate the need to eat dinner, and the sandwiches, scones, and sweets are superb. There is a more limited choice of teas than at some of the tearooms out in the suburbs, but they are beautifully prepared. The only criticism I have is that they are brought to the table unfiltered, so that requests for more hot water are necessary to try and reduce the heavy, bitter taste which forms when you leave tea leaves steeping too long.
Other upscale Boston hotels that offer wonderful teas are the Four Seasons (in the Bristol Room), and the Swans Café at the Boston Park Plaza. My favorite among these for atmosphere is the Ritz, and for tea quality is the Four Seasons. The restaurant L'Espalier also serves tea, including delicious-sounding savories. I haven't had a chance to try it yet, but it's on my list. For a full list of tearooms in Massachusetts, log on to www.teamap.com.
© 2004 The Carlisle Mosquito