Thursday, February 28, 2013

The First Cup

Hello lovelies!

So it's been awhile since we've had a post. Martin's been quite busy and has just returned from vacation, me on the other hand-- I guess I have no good excuse. :) I've been meaning to write my first 'tea' post for awhile. Here goes!

Recently at work, a co-worker and I were chatting about nothing in particular when the topic somehow rolled-around to tea. She explained to me that other than an English Breakfast, Orange Pekoe, or Earl Grey, she's never had any other sort of tea. Of course I was shocked. "What do you drink with or after dinner?" I asked. "Well, water or coffee," she said, and thus we got into a not so brief introduction to teas. (She was actually interested, I have to say-- I didn't force this on her by any means!)

A great tea to start with for people new to Asian teas is Jasmine. Funnily enough, Jasmine is not actually considered tea. Jasmine is actually another tea (usually green) which has been "infused" or "scented" with the jasmine flower. Jasmine tea has a very light, slightly sweet taste, and is highly fragrant. It's a wonderful soothing/relaxing any-time tea. 

Jasmine comes in different forms. If you've had Jasmine, you've probably tasted it from this particular tinned-brand. It is the typical tea served at Chinese restaurants (if you haven't specified which tea), and can sometimes can be found in grocery stores. Don't go on your restaurant experience, though-- oftentimes they serve it so watered-down you can't taste a thing.

Jasmine Tea from Fujian Province, China - courtesy of Steepster

Another common form in which you'll find Jasmine tea is rolled into small balls often referred to as "pearls". Martin and I recently picked some up in our Montreal Chinatown, on the corner of Rene Levesque and Clarke-- This small tea shop, simply named "Thé / Tea", and owned by a Mr. Lau has a nice collection. We picked up 100g of a medium-high grade of Jasmine tea for about $9.00.

The jasmine pearls we bought at Mr. Lau's

The pearls after steeping-- not fully unfurled yet!
We need to buy some white cups so that you can see the colour!
Water temperature:
Jasmine is usually made with a green-tea base, so go with a similar temperature. Different teas are better steeped with the proper temperature water. Green tea require the coolest temperature at around 80°C. Boiling water will burn the tea and won't give it the right taste (it'll make it bitter), so if the water's been boiled, just wait 2-3 minutes for the temperature to go down a bit before pouring. 

How much tea? 
If it's your first time drinking tea, I wouldn't go too strong-- about 3-5 pearls to a cup is probably enough. In a pot, you can probably drop 10-15 pearls. You can re-steep maybe 3-4 times before the flavour is completely released. Also! One of the greatest parts about re-steeping teas is that for many teas, this is how you get the full experience. Each steeping will uncover a slightly different layer of the tea's taste. Don't worry about leaving the pearls in the cup if you're just drinking yourself. They'll naturally sink to the bottom when they unfurl.

Where to buy?
To get a good loose-leaf tea (in pearl format or other), you can probably find a tea-store in your local Chinatown or tea-shop. Occasionally you'll see the tin mentioned above at some grocery stores. It's a fairly common tea. It's also a fairly inexpensive tea. For $5-10 you can easily get a small bag of very decent Jasmine which can last you quite many cups. :)

Overall-- a great starter tea. Most people really enjoy the soothing, wonderfully fragrant experience of a well-brewed jasmine tea. My co-worker, after trying out the jasmine that I gave her, has been increasingly interested in trying more and different teas. Her husband was somewhat freaked out by the leaves as they unfurled in the cup-- something about their shape reminded him of worms. After a sip, he came around. Now they're looking for a place to buy. :P

Do you remember your first loose-leaf tea? How was your experience?

Until next time! :)

Monday, February 25, 2013

Review: Cha-An, an NYC Tea Haven

For this post, we will be taking a quick breather from the tea family and will be doing our first review! I happened to come across pictures on my phone today and got flooded with memories, tastes, and experiences from a wonderful little tea house in NYC.

Cha-An was first discovered by Al when she went down to NYC with a few friends. Though her passion for tea was not fully developed at this time, she thought of me and ventured in. Needless to say, it left a lasting impression and I made sure to go and experience it first hand when we visited New York this past winter.

The Ten Rules of Tea to be expanded in a future post
New York is a bustling city, full of traffic, noise, crowds, and smells and so when a refuge is found amongst the chaos, it's hard to resist. Located at 230E 9th Street, Cha-An is no exception and immediately embraces you with a calming silence, comforting surroundings, and tantalizing aromas the moment you climb it's stairs. When you reach it's first landing, you are instantly transported out of New York and arrive to a quaint Japanese alleyway tea shop.

Cha-An Interior

Right away you notice the walls are lined with many selections of quality teas, the counters populated with steaming cups and tea pots, and smiles are resting every client's face. After a ten minute wait, we were shown to the one free table and handed nicely crafted, simple menus depicting the numerous choices of tea and tea related delicacies. Delicacies? Oh yes, delicacies. 

Al and I had trouble deciding and so we settled upon the chef's menu comprising of several incredible desserts accompanied by a tea of choice (in this case a Dong Ding oolong) to which Al added a mach latte with red bean. The food and drinks arrived quickly and Al quickly realized that her matcha latte was no laughing matter as it came in a bowl sized cup filled to the brim with foamy, green matcha. Though I do not usually have matcha, this one was too tantalizing to resist and proved to be a delightful mixture of sweet red bean and bitter green tea.

One thing that I immediately appreciated was the presentation of our oolong. Unlike some places that give you the tea pre-steeped (or currently steeping), Cha-An respectfully presented the tea and all it's required tools separately. Though this is not uncommon for a tea house, I was surprised that they included a 'smelling cup' which is a cup made to (obviously) smell the subtler and gentler aromas of freshly steeped leaves. Though I have used one before in several tea classes, this was the first time that I was given one when ordering tea.

Our Oolongs first arrival with the quickly disappearing treats in the background

(A future post will be reserved to explaining each item required for making tea 'traditionally' as well as the steps. For now, I will just skip over my compulsively executed steps and jump right to the tea….though I urge you not to forget that preparation is half the enjoyment!)

The dong ding oolong was very enjoyable, pleasant, and mouth watering. It had a full bodied taste and was almost sweet with very little after taste in a good way. You tasted it when you wanted to but it did not interfere with the pastries. In fact it's very light aftertaste complimented the selection of delicacies perfectly. After enjoying a few steepings, I examined the leaves to find that they were of good quality. No tears or discolouring, large & intact leaves, and very soft (chewable) leaves. 

The sweets, oh the sweets! What an incredible selection and variety, each relating to tea in some unique way. We were treated to the following:
  • Chocolate Oolong Cake
  • Black Sesame Creme Brûlée (ok..not related to tea, but damn good)
  • Caramel Icecream (…also not tea related…what was I thinking!)
  • Black sesame shortbread (was anything tea related?!)
  • Almond Earl grey Soft Moist Cake

The incredible desserts would merit a blog of their own, but as we are here to discuss tea, I'm going to let you imagine and drool over the pictures!

All in all, Cha-An was an amazing experience and I regret not having enough time to go back and try their wider selection of teas. I also learned that waiting 58 days to write a review is not the best idea, but if anything, this truly proves how memorable the experience truly was!

Next time, continuing and finishing the tea family introductions.

Steep and be happy!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Bud in the Dead of Winter

Hello everyone! :)

I'm Al (short for Alexandra). While I have written things like personal journals or small ramblings to no one in particular, this will be the first time I write about something for a specific audience and with a purpose. Martin and I have discussed at length different things to write about for this blog, but one thing we both agree on is that we'd like to introduce people to experiencing and enjoying tea. I have grown up drinking tea in my family and pretty much drink tea every day at all different times of day and night. Even so, I am always exploring and trying new teas and learning new things about tea all the time. I would like to introduce tea at a very basic level to people who have some interest but have no idea where to start.

At the same time, Martin and I will probably roam around town and check out different places that are selling tea and tea related product that we can later review for you to try too. :) In case you're not already a friend of ours and you've happened to stumble on this blog through some other way, Martin and I are from Montreal, Canada. The winters here are long and can be unforgivingly cold. It seems appropriate then, that there are some great home-grown tea startups and tea houses from here including names such as David's Tea, Camelia Sinensis, Cha Noir, My Cup of Tea, and others... Reviews on aspects of these companies/shops are definitely going to come soon.

Over the summer, we've also had the luxury of visiting China and bringing back small tasters of tea from different regions, so you'll probably see some commentary on that as well. Here are some of the teas we brought back from our visit:

Some teas include: Huangshan Mao Feng, Huangshan Tai Ping Hou Kui,
Maosheng Liubao, Bi Luo Chun and others...

What are you interested in hearing about in the future?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The 5 Tea Siblings: Black Tea

As promised, we are continuing on with the tea family and being introduced to Black tea, the second eldest sibling.

There is no easy way to begin such an introduction so we are going to jump right in and ignore the pleasantries. Black tea is serious business and isn't afraid to show it with its 100% oxidation. It's a strong confident tea and has every right to be considering it is one of Europe's most loved and most commonly drank teas.  It is India's tea of choice and even extends his reaches to North America when it is used to brew both hot and iced teas. He has no shame being combined with milk and sugar and provides a comforting, yet confident flavour. He is quick to boast about such accomplishments but is elusive when confronted with the fact that he is China's, Japan's, Korea's, and Taiwan's least consumed tea. This shameful flaw is not without a slight sense of irony as China produces some of the most pleasant and enjoyable black teas.

Black teas are an odd bunch as they can range greatly in quality, leaf types, and preparations. To give you a brief idea, black tea exists in four basic groups: Blended teas, seasonal teas, single-estate teas, and  self-drinking teas. Blended teas are teas such as Earl Grey or Ceylon Breakfast blend and are immensely popular. Being somewhat of a tea purist, I tend to frown upon blended act, I must admit, that is slightly naive and stupid. Blended teas can be some of the most enjoyable, flavourful, and unique types of teas when created by the hands of a skillful and passionate blenders. The secret is combining the right proportions of teas to bring out and accentuate various qualities and aromas. Come to think of it (and as I mentioned in my first post) my first introduction to loose-leaf teas was an incredible blend of Earl Grey! That being said, I do prefer when it is just me, the leaves, and water.

Seasonal teas are quite self-explanatory and are not unique to black teas. They are teas that are produced during a specific seasons, and as such, have unique qualities. Single-estate teas are much like a good scotch and are pure teas from a specific farm. They remain unblended and true to their roots.

Because of the large varieties of black tea, it is hard to recognize the loose leaves at the drop of a hat (with the exception of blended teas which contains lots of bits of shredded leaves and stems...depending on the quality...coming up in a future post). Black tea leaves can be distinguished by any of the following: curly, broken, granular, wiry, rolled, or spiral shaped. As you can see, not as distinctive as rolled oolong!

What black tea lacks in loose leaf appearance, it more than compensates with flavours and aromas. A good steeping is often very aromatic and full bodied, some many be reminiscent of nuts and freshly-rained-upon-earth, while others may be have a sharper, coppery, spicy, or smoky personality. Either way, it will not be easily forgotten.

An interesting aspect of black teas is that it does not shy away from additions to it's brew. Unlike lighter  teas which would be ruined by the addition of anything, black teas invite milk, sugar, honey, or even lemon to join the party. Most people prefer to add sugar and milk to help with the natural astringency present in black tea (due to the fermentation) but surprisingly, adding a touch of lemon will help to accentuate the astringency and introduce you to a whole new experience.

Being such a broad type of tea, precise steeping instructions do not exist as such but the following will start you off on the right foot. Once you experiment with different types of black teas, you can adjust according to your tastes and preferences. 2 tablespoons for 6 ounces of water at around 195F (91C) will push you in the right direction.

Like white teas, I am not as comfortable and familiar with black teas as I would like. It is a personal goal of mine to venture into the world of black teas and come to appreciate them as I do a nice cup of green or oolong. Do you have any to recommend?

Related tea posts

Monday, February 4, 2013

Introducing a new blogger!

Hello Teanions,

Today's post will not be about tea sadly, but worry not! It will payoff in the long run. (not to mention I will be doing an actual tea post later this week, continuing with the tea family...Almost done!)

This post is about introducing a new blogger, co-writer, and tea enthusiast. Readers, meet my tea loving fiancée, Al.

Al will be helping me with new writing new material for our blog as well as reaching out to fellow tea bloggers in the internet community. Though we have slightly different ideas of where to take this all, I am sure she will bring a fresh and new perspective to mar-tea and is sure to bring good content and input. While I would like to continue to concentrate on the 'basics' of tea, Al would like to start reviewing and sharing her (our) tea experiences as we enjoy both, old classics and new experiences, in the tea world. Quite honestly, I had hoped to be reviewing and describing teas by this point of this blogs life, giving the ins and outs of tea drinking, good buys, and interesting finds. I then started writing about the basic building blocks of tea and what a can of worms that has been! It's difficult to know when to stop, when to pull back from the cold hard information and start mixing in opinions and when to open the door to discussions relating to preferences, methods, and tastes.

I still believe I should finish with my tea introductions so that new teanions will have the basics when we go more in depth into different varieties of tea and the subtler flavours. At the same time, I think it will be great to start sharing our experiences and mix up the blog content a bit as well as generate discussions.

So stay tuned for future posts from Al and I and remember that we are always open to feedback!

Steep away and be happy! I'll see you guys later this week with a full-fledged post.

Tea out