Thursday, 27 April 2017

Hermitcraft: Tea Hacks

Teepause Tea is an integral part of Zen practice, and, for those of us with old-school British or Japanese roots, life. It can also become an attachment in the negative sense when you can't get any, or the stuff you've got is uninspiring. Over the years I've learned a few tricks to smooth out these bumps, and this week I'm sharing them in the hopes they'll do good for others, however trifling.

Accidental treasure

I'll start with one I discovered by accident: if you seal a sachet of robust green tea, such as Dragonwell, in the same container with another of lapsang souchong, and leave them there for a while, the green acquires the other's smoky character, resulting in a brew that's good both hot and iced. Doesn't seem to damage the lapsang souchong, either.

Upgrading bad tea

Sometimes you have tea – black or green – but it's not very good. Though Not Very Good Tea can be depressing, you can amend it into Passable Tea (or even Enjoyable Tea) with other herbs.

The list of candidates is inexhaustible, but a few are so useful, and so common, that they deserve special mention.

Mint (Mentha) is common in most parts of the world, typically growing in drainage ditches and near any body of fresh water, to say nothing of residential areas where it's escaped cultivation. Throw in assertive, pleasant flavour, and mint may be the most useful tea-mixing herb there is. I especially prize the endless spectrum of flavours brought out by mint's promiscuous lifestyle. As varieties freely cross-pollinate, no two patches taste the same. Some are peppery, others icy, still others citrusy… the discoveries are endless. And of course, mint anchors a fine herbal mix all by itself if you have no real tea at all.

Several mint relatives are also handy. Catnip (Nepeta) is especially tasty, and frequently found feral. Lemon balm (Melissa), easily identified by its very mint-like appearance but strong Lemon Pledge odour, is too harsh to anchor a mix but welcome in restrained quantities in others. And bee balm (Monarda), a popular garden flower that was used as a tea substitute in colonial times, also mixes well with green or black tea.

Common non-mint tea stocks that
Bee balm (Monarda).
can enliven an uninspired cup include sweet white clover blossoms (Trifolium repens), lemony sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) or wood sorrel (Oxalis; see photo below), and orange peel or zest. Both of these last tend to be fairly bitter, especially whole peel, so proceed mindfully.

No tea at all

When you're flat out of Camellia sinensis, a few substitutes can put you back in the game.

Blackberry or raspberry (Rubus ssp) leaves, dried and crumbled, are a defensible green tea surrogate. I've found that the red winter leaves of our local native trailing blackberry (Rubus ursinus) work best, having a rosy flavour and less tannic bite, but I've had good luck with other species as well. Add amendments, and you have a worthwhile mix

Many people don't think of conifers when preparing food and drink, but at the risk of ripping off Euell Gibbons, many parts are useful.

Black spruce (Picea mariana) is a famous beverage stock, for its comparatively sweet bouquet. (Bearing in mind that all conifers taste like turpentine. They're an acquired taste, but once acquired, nothing else will do.)

The soft new pale-green tips of many others can also be tasty and nutritious. (Loads of Vitamin C, for starters.) Among my favourites are Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga) and Sitka spruce (P. sitchenensis). Hemlock (Tsuga) is another standby, but because it's fairly tannic, I prefer to use mix it with weaker herbs to give them a real-tea edge, rather than use it as an anchor.

Roasted rice is another good stop-gap. Just spread a handful of brown rice in the bottom of a dry skillet and toss it over medium heat until the grains become dark brown and smoky. Some may even pop like popcorn.

The toasted grains can be infused as-is, but make a much better beverage if ground first. A mortar and pestle is adequate for this. Grind only as needed to preserve freshness and potency. Useful amendments include milk, baking spices (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg…), toasted fucus, or orange peel. Some like a few grains of salt in it.

Civilisation in a cup

Tea-mixing is a huge topic, the possible ingredients literally endless. These are some the most easily- and universally-accessible, and all of them support my practice on a regular basis.

Here's hoping they enrich yours as well.

Wood sorrel (Oxalis).

(Top photo courtesy of Kristina Walter and Wikimedia Commons.)
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