Thursday, 18 July 2013

Hermitcraft: Sunshine Tea

Scalding days here on the North Coast put me in mind of a great simple delicacy, the sublime sunshine tea. Nothing beats this stuff on a hot day. A shady place, a good book, and a tall glass tinkling on the apple box – there is no other enlightenment in this life.

Sunshine tea is so easy the procedure doesn't even qualify as a recipe, but like all simple things (tea foremost) the difference between good and great is in the attention. The basics are as follows:


o Fill a gallon jar with cold water

o Put in six to eight teabags. (Black tea.)

o Put the jar in full sun all day, shifting as necessary

o Squeeze out the tea bags and discard

o Refrigerate; serve over ice

Slow brewing gives this tea a lighter, less tannic flavour than boiling. For that reason, and the fact that it's served cold (and, ideally, herbed; see below), quality is less important than usual. Any respectable cutting pekoe will do; here in North America, Red Rose or Tetley are ample. (Lipton, to my certain knowledge, has no culinary uses, and those horrific "store brands" are fair-dinkum hazardous material. Keep out of the reach of children, and anything else you want to thrive.)

Water quality, however, is vital. If your tap water is heavily chlorinated, run it through a Brita pitcher first. If it's very hard, you may want to buy commercial spring water. (Which is actually just distilled or filtered municipal water in many cases; the whole industry's a giant scam.) Other tea-fancier strategies – rainwater, melted snow – are less effective this time of year, though when I lived in Québec I could count on a ten-minute late-afternoon deluge most days that gave me enough tea water to supply the town.

But the real difference between acceptable and fantastic sun tea is a large shock of some herb. Judging by how rarely I see any in others' jars, and the surprised delight of friends, this fact isn't yet common knowledge. So I'm blowing the lid off it: there is no comparison between unenhanced tea and that made with mint.

And mint is the best herb for the job: it has a clean, sweet tingle; grows like kudzu this time of year; and actually triggers the cooling receptors in your body. With enough of this in your mix you'll feel the frost all the way down, and even up in your eyeballs.

Spearmint, the pointed, green-stemmed stuff that tastes like chewing gum, is notably better than peppermint, the round-leaved, purple-stemmed sibling that grows wild here on the North Coast, but the latter is plenty good if it's what you've got. Pennyroyal, another wild mint that grows along lakeshores here, is also fine, and so is catnip, an almost-mint I've often found wild on the Gold Side and in Québec. Both have a lemon thing going on that is most welcome.

To use, cut a good big fistful, fold it up so it'll fit in your jar, and crush and roll it briefly in your hands to liberate the volatile oils. (The jar in the photo only has about a quarter of the mint [catnip here] I prefer.) Then stuff the sheaf in the jar, fill it with water, and put the teabags in last; otherwise it will be hard to fish them out. At day's end, after removing the bags, reach into the jar and manhandle the sheaf again in the tea a few good times. (You may have to remove a few glasses first, to make room for your hand.) Then refrigerate the jar with the mint still in.

I've also used other herbs: lemon slices; raspberry and blackberry leaves; the berries themselves (lightly bruised); rosemary; Melissa; Monarda; even grand fir. (I was going for a well-chilled retsina effect. Not bad, actually; c.f. lemoniness.) In my opinion none have bested the mints, but they’re worthy in their own right, and better than nothing.

A few notes for readers outside of North America:

You may be wondering, "What the hell is this guy talking about?" Yes, we drink iced tea here. The specifics vary from region to region – if you order it in Canada or the American South, be sure to specify unsweetened, or you may be served a paste of sugar – but it's generally an incredibly refreshing way to confront the dog days. Really. Trust me on this one. (North Americans can grasp the revulsion many outlanders feel at the idea by picturing themselves enjoying a nice bowl of iced soup. Another summer staple in many nations.)

Sunshine tea is in fact so popular on this continent that they sell special jars for it (see photo), basically an ordinary gallon jar with a spigot punched in the bottom, saving the user lifting the whole heavy thing to pour. But any glass or clear plastic jar will do. Plastic is actually the more effective, owing to superior heat transfer.

Also, as I implied above, North Americans are divided on the sugar issue. I prefer my iced tea utterly clean; this goes double if it's minted. Most here on the North Coast agree, or sweeten their tea very lightly, often with fruit juice. Other regions partake fully in the New World conviction that sugar is a vegetable, a spice, a vitamin, a source of fibre, and part of this complete breakfast. Listen, just make your own, eh? Disregard the contemptuous sneer of your neighbours when you set the pot out, and play around with post-production till you find a formula that works for you. Who knows? You might found an entire national sun tea sensibility of your own.
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