• Tea for you
     | March 20,2005

    More than two centuries after colonists dumped 342 chests of Darjeeling into the waters of Boston Harbor in protest of British taxes, tea finally is getting respect again in this nation of coffee drinkers.

    People who once viewed tea as a bag of generic orange pekoe now are happily shelling out as much as $30 for an ounce of rare green tea on the Internet. The best restaurants treat the leaves with the reverence they give to fine wine. Coffee shops pour Earl Grey alongside mocha java.

    Behind this change in tastes is mounting evidence that tea is good for you, says Joe Simrany, president of the Tea Association of the USA. A growing body of research shows the traditional "cuppa" contains components believed to strengthen the immune system and reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.

    "The health issues are underlying everything," says Simrany, who estimates the wholesale market for tea has tripled to $5.4 billion in the past 15 years. "It's raised the awareness of tea."

    Tea sales took off in the 1990s with the introduction of a wide variety of sweet tea drinks in bottles and cans. It was a master marketing stroke for a country that consumes more soft drinks than any other beverage.

    Today, although bottled tea sales remain high, the new growth is in specialty teas from around the globe. The choice is mind-boggling, from assertive black teas grown in the Darjeeling region of India to delicate green teas picked and rolled by hand in China.

    Some teas are flavored with fruit or herbs to appeal to the American appetite for bold tastes. Others are more subtle, sometimes featuring only the first flush the tea industry's term for harvest leaves from a single estate. Whole-leaf teas, with more complex flavors and aromas, are prized above the convenient bag, although it's now easy to find good quality tea in bags.

  • The specialty market is an outgrowth of the increasing sophistication of American tastes, says Barbara Graves, vice president of sales at Marin's Republic of Tea in California, one of the early leaders in the specialty-tea market. Her firm sells 104 teas, including herbal blends.

    "American consumers are really, really upgrading in the quality of food that they're eating," Graves says, "and the beverages they're drinking."

    At the Village Pub in Woodside, Calif., a favorite of Silicon Valley's high rollers, sommelier Chris Wright says demand for good tea began growing about a year ago.

    "Some people just wanted green tea. Some people wanted oolong teas," he says. "I have some wine-drinking friends who don't drink coffee, and they expressed an interest in getting a cup of tea."

    So Wright focused his trained palate on the vast spectrum of teas. He found suppliers of fresh, high-quality leaf teas, researched teapots and worked on getting water temperatures right for proper brewing. (While black teas are brewed with boiling water, green teas need slightly cooler water.)

    Now, teas are listed by variety on the Village Pub's dessert menu: $5 per serving. They're brewed to order and strained through wire-mesh filters before they're served.

    Wright says many longtime tea drinkers, accustomed to getting a bag of ordinary tea and a cup of tepid water at even the best restaurants, are surprised by the service. "We find they're really happy with it," he says, "because they're getting a very nice product and they were expecting something mediocre."

  • Another significant trend is the fact that guys are going for tea. The stereotype of older women sipping tea in cozy little tea shops is fading, say many who are in the business.

    David Kinch certainly fits that category. The executive chef and owner of Manresa in Los Gatos began drinking tea when he decided to cut back on his coffee habit last year. "I've weaned myself from having to have coffee or I'm a bear," he says.

    Now he's a big fan of the teas from Mariage Freres of Paris and the first-flush Darjeeling from the Castelton estate in India that a friend brings him from Europe. "It's so delicate," he says, "and I've been reading that after you steep the teas, you can take the leaves out and dry them and cut them up and use them in salad."

    About the same time Kinch was developing a fascination with tea, Michael Kean joined the restaurant's staff as general manager. Kean had become attuned to tea while working at a restaurant owned by a Japanese family, and he began working to improve the tea service at Manresa, which is known for its upscale, creative cuisine.

    Kean found organic artisan teas hand-sewn into little bundles from Numi, an Oakland, Calif., company. He and Kinch thought the teas were so beautiful that they invested in small, round glass teapots to show them off while they steep, as well as a special water machine to ensure the right temperatures for steeping. The price is $6.50 a pot.

    "You bring a glass teapot to the table and you fill it with hot water. You drop this bundle into the water, and when it blooms, it's done," Kean says. "It's amazing how sales have gone up because of this transition."

    Some recipes:

    Masala chai

    Makes 1 large mug

    1 cup water

    1/2 cup milk

    2 rounded teaspoons spice and tea blend (recipe below)

    2 teaspoons sugar, or to taste

    Place water and milk into small, heavy saucepan. Bring to a full boil over medium-high heat. Turn heat to low, stir in spice and tea blend and sugar, turn off heat, cover and let steep 4 to 5 minutes. Strain into mug and serve.

    To prepare in microwave: Place milk and water in 4-cup Pyrex glass measuring cup. Microwave on high until it comes to a full boil (about 5 minutes). Stir in spice and tea blend and sugar, cover tightly with plastic wrap and let steep 4 to 5 minutes.

    Spice and tea blend

    1 (4-inch) stick cinnamon

    8 black peppercorns

    10 whole cloves

    4 green cardamom pods

    1/4 cup Indian black loose tea (look for Taj Mahal or Red Label brands in an Indian grocery, or use loose Darjeeling tea)

    Thoroughly crush the cinnamon, peppercorns, cloves and cardamom pods with a mortar and pestle or a meat pounder. Combine the spices and tea in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake well to mix before every use.

    Adapted from "Savoring the Spice Coast of India" by Maya Kaimal (Harper Collins)

    Cranberry walnut scones

    Makes 8

    2 cups all-purpose flour

    1 tablespoon baking powder

    2 tablespoons sugar, divided use

    1/4 teaspoon salt

    4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks

    2 eggs

    1/2 cup cream or half and half

    1/4 cup walnut halves, toasted

    1/2 cup dried cranberries

    Preheat oven to 450 degrees and grease a baking sheet or line it with parchment paper.

    In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, whirl together flour, baking powder, 1 tablespoon of the sugar and salt. With motor running, drop in butter and process for a couple of seconds until mixture is crumbly.

    In separate small bowl, beat eggs with fork. Reserve 2 tablespoons of eggs. Stir eggs and cream together; pour through feed tube of processor with motor running and process just until dough starts to come together. Add walnuts and cranberries and pulse a couple of times to mix.

    Turn dough out onto floured surface. Knead a couple of times and press into a circle about 1 inch thick. Dough will be sticky. Cut into 8 wedges or use a biscuit cutter. Brush tops of scones with reserved egg and sprinkle with remaining sugar. Place on prepared baking sheet and bake about 15 minutes, until golden brown.

    Recipe from Aleta Watson

    Lemon poppy-seed shortbread

    Makes 40 cookies

    1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

    1/2 cup sugar

    Grated zest of 2 lemons

    1/4 teaspoon salt

    2 cups flour

    3 tablespoons poppy seeds

    Position racks in center and top third of oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Lightly butter two baking sheets or line with parchment paper.

    With electric mixer, beat butter, sugar, lemon zest and salt on medium high until light in color and texture, about 5 minutes. Reduce speed to low. Add flour and poppy seeds and mix until incorporated.

    Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface and divide into 4 pieces. Gently form each piece into a flat circle 1/2-inch thick. Arrange circles on baking sheets and slightly flatten each one.

    Bake about 50 minutes, switching positions of baking sheets top to bottom and front to back at the halfway point. Circles should be light-colored and firm in middle.

    Remove shortbread from oven and cut each circle into 10 wedges. Separate wedges and spread out on the baking sheets. Return shortbread to oven and bake until tips of cookies are firm, about 10 minutes.

    Transfer cookies to wire racks and cool completely. Shortbread may be stored at room temperature in airtight containers up to one week.

    Julia Cookenboo, "The Baker's Dozen Cookbook" (William Morrow)

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