Tag Archives: tea

Darjeeling – What tea actually tastes like

On Monday this week, we received a care package from our friend James in London. Alongside The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, he sent us some items from the Borough Market — spices, a sausage that looks like poop, and First Flush Darjeeling tea. As you know from here, here, and here, I like tea.

Darjeeling is called ‘the champagne’ of teas.* It is a black tea grown in the Darjeeling region of northeastern India:

Fun fact: Darjeeling is right next to Assam, the only place outside of China that grew tea plants before the British stole them from the Chinese. They just didn’t know those were tea plants. But that’s a different story. Interestingly, though, Darjeeling tea, unlike most other Indian teas, is made from the imported Chinese breed of tea plant, not the Assam plant.

IMG_5049What makes a ‘First Flush’ Darjeeling? First Flush Darjeeling is harvested in mid-March after the Spring rains. As I can attest, it has a very light colour and a delicate flavour. There is also ‘Second Flush’, harvested in June. It is my understanding that the ‘flush’ term refers to rain. First Flush is the first harvest of the season, and thus the most precious and most delicate.

Darjeeling tea is usually a black tea; however, Wikipedia informs me that due to the withering process used in today’s Darjeeling tea, so much of the original mass of the leaf remains that many top-quality Darjeeling varieties could be designated as Oolong (which is how the Chinese like their black tea and which should, in fact, be infused like green tea, not like black tea).

The tea James sent certainly has some large leaves. Note also the pale colour of the tea:

IMG_5048Now, if you’re used to, say, Red Rose or PG Tips, you’d be a bit taken aback by this Darjeeling. As you pour the water over the leaves, it does not instantly turn brown! You must be patient and wait for the tea to steep. The package says 2-4 minutes. Sometimes I forget and leave mine longer. But have no fear — a high-quality leaf tea such as this will never become bitter.

This is what makes a good Darjeeling so great. What you taste is tea. The flavour that tickles your taste buds is the delicate aroma of black tea. These leaves have not been mashed up by a machine or swept off the floor. This tea is not dust. Look at those leaves! Look at them within a minute of entering my cup:

IMG_5046That make actually be two minutes later — it took a lot of effort to get my camera to produce something not horribly blurry.

Many teas are flavoured/scented. When you drink Earl Grey, for example, which is a Chinese black tea, you taste a lot of bergamot oil, extracted from the bergamot orange. Similarly with Anastasia Tea (from Kusmi in Paris), or a chocolate tea, or Lady Grey, or a vanilla tea (such as Bourbon St Vanilla from the Tea Party in Ottawa) — or whatever. The tea has been flavoured or mixed with something else. Now, I like all of the above teas. But, while black tea is the root and determinant flavour, you get a lot of the others as well.

Many black teas, on the other hand, are low quality. At my church on Sundays, they have resorted to the making of tea by the cup in paper cups rather than by the pot and poured into lovely china mugs. It’s too bad, but that’s life. If you leave the tea bags in the cup for more than a minute or two, the tea becomes terribly bitter. The first time I tried making a single mug of Red Rose, it was virtually undrinkable. Jennie says that the Yorkshire Gold that you get on a lot of trains tastes like paper cups.

Rather than getting the delicate, beautiful flavour of the tea leaf itself in most black teas, especially in tea bags (although that loose ‘Scottish Blend’ available in most stores here is atrocious), what you get is something with a lot of edge that is the result of the powder they put in the blend — the finer the tea, the lower the quality. The bigger the leaf, the higher.

Thus, many people are compelled to add milk and sugar or honey or bergamot oil to their tea in order to make it drinkable.

With a First Flush Darjeeling, on the other hand, the tea itself is what you taste. And it is a fine flavour, one that may be overpowered by the unnecessary addition of milk. I recommend it.

*Like how Canada Dry is the champagne of ginger ales, only better.

No … tea … ?? – Life in Germany

Forget whisky; THIS is the water of life!

This morning at breakfast, a remarkable thing happened that I could not imagine happening in a British dining hall — probably not even a Canadian one.

They ran out of black tea.

And this wasn’t the first time this week when the black tea ran out at breakfast; we faced the same dire situation two days ago, and both times I was too late to get any. Two days ago I watched in sorrow as the girl before me took the last tea bag.

What sorrow!

Now, they nevertheless had the sort of thing people are prone to call tea. There was rooibos, there was camomile, there was some fruity thing. Indeed, there were six or seven boxes of available infusions.

But no black tea!

This is life in Germany. Where I took my German course upon first arriving, there was free tea and coffee for before class and at the break. Five boxes of herbal infusions. One box of black tea. Sometimes there was green tea. Which is, of course, tea. But I’m fond of black tea, the sort of tea Britain got itself addicted to in the 1800s.

It just isn’t really that German a thing, I guess. Although they’d better adjusted my cousin’s workplace for all the Brits and Americans, because one day when I was there, they’d run out of black tea. Perhaps Germany is slowly getting addicted.

But overall, they seem to prefer their fruity things and their camomile or peppermint or other flowers and leaves that quite simply do not come from Camellia sinensis. And I like my fermented, dried, black leaves from Camellia sinensis so very much.

Like Paris, though, Germany does come equipped with specialty tea stores. Unlike Paris, they are stocked almost entirely with these herbal unteas. This is a shame, especially since what black tea they do have comes in maybe three or four varieties (Darjeeling, Assam, Earl Grey, and one more for fun!), none of which has the whimsy or sense of adventure and class of what you can find at Kusmi or Mariage Frères in Paris. And all of which are several times the price of what I could get it for in Edinburgh.

Thankfully, though, the supermarkets sell real tea, in bags and looseleaf, at reasonable prices. I have had no failures such as the soap-flavoured Earl Grey of Paris to grace this trip to the continent!

Hm … now I want a cup of my Darjeeling …

For my tea adventures in Paris, read here!

Adventures in Tea

Living in Scotland, a person gets used to having a variety of drinkable tea available at the supermarket as well as affordable tea from specialtea shops. And, having grown up in Canada, it is a similar situation there, although our tea-drinking culture is not as strong as the Scots’.

Well, such is not the case in Paris.

Once I had moved into my own, wee studio apartment, I went to the Monoprix a few minutes away to do my grocery shopping. There, I purchased 200 g of Lipton’s loose leaf Earl Grey (not Early Grey, contrary to what I posted on Facebook). That evening, I decided to relax with a nice cup of tea.

That tastes like soap.

How disappointing! To sit down with a nice, warm cup of Earl Grey, only to find that it tastes like a bath product. I later discovered the problem — the ingredients list a mysterious item ‘bergamot flavouring’. Thus, in the factory, they sprayed the tea leaves with something meant to give the tea the flavour of bergamot. Ick.

I am not the only person to have had tea woes in Paris, though. My friend Catherine purchased the store brand tea at Carrefour. With milk in it, this tea tastes like warm milk. Without milk, it tastes like hot water. Fantastic.

I had, however, been informed of Kusmi Tea before coming here. Kusmi is Russian aristocrat tea that costs 12 euros per tin. Nonetheless, given the state of affairs at the supermarkets, it was decided to splurge on this tea! As a souvenir, of sorts.

So, after French class one afternoon and before my day’s excursion to the Bibliotheque nationale, we found a Kusmi shop in the 6e. I purchased 150 g of Anastasia tea. It is a blend of Earl Grey, lemon and orange blossom. The flavouring of the tea is delicately done, so that it still tastes like tea, just with citrus and bergamot. The way un thé parfumé should taste.

Not like soap, in other words.

On Saturday, the Edinburghers wandered our way to the original shop of Parisian tea merchants Mariage Frères. They have over 350 varieties of tea in the shop, lining the walls in large, black cylinders of awesome.

I smelled a good number of the teas, both scented and black. I believe they will pass muster, but I am waiting till Jennie is here, and she can choose a fancy tea of her own. Catherine, however, bought a Darjeeling. It smelled good; I imagine it tastes good as well.

Later, we discovered that there is another shop in the 6e much closer to Ethan’s stomping grounds. That’s the way it goes. You traipse across the city and through a street lined with sex shops only to learn that you could have stayed closer to home to buy the same thing.

The question that has been bothering me about the supermarket teas — be they Lipton (!!) or store brand — is why on earth they are so bad. The British know how to blend a good tea. They are probably the famous people on earth for drinking tea. Why not import good, British blends? The British are perfectly capable of importing good, French wines.

It was Julia who pointed out the difference — the French don’t really drink tea, whereas the British do drink wine. Therefore, the market for high quality teas is much smaller here. The French — despite the Mariage Frères book L’Art Français du Thé — do not drink tea, so it matters less the quality thereof.

Nonetheless, we have access to nice teas, even if pricy! I am drinking my Anastasia Tea right now and liking it!

To close, a quotation from Henri Mariage, co-founder of Mariage Frères: Un parfum d’aventure et de poésie s’évade à l’infini de chaque tasse de thé.

The fragrance of adventure and poetry endlessly pervades each cup of tea.


Since arriving in Scotland on August 27, J and I have drunk over 100 bags of Early Grey tea, 50 bags of Lady Grey, 1 bag of Chai, almost 125 g of loose-leaf Genmaicha green tea (mostly J), over 125 g of loose-leaf Scottish Blend, and many bags of decaffeinated black tea (I am drinking some right now).

This accounts only for our own teas.

We have also had tea after church pretty much every Sunday.  We have had tea with friends.  We went to E-Teaket once, and J went with friends twice (I think).  We have had Masala Chai at “In Delhi.”  Every Tuesday morning for six weeks, our lecturer provided tea for our 9:00 AM class.  I have had a few cups of tea at the refectory.

Tea is kind of a big deal.

One reason for tea being a big deal is the fact that people’s homes — ours included — aren’t necessarily warm here.  Many of them lack double glazing.  Electricity and gas are expensive, so people like us are slow to turn the heat on.  Some times I’m sure there’s a draft through the living room window.  It’s also windy outside and often rainy, although right now the snowy streets and pavement (sidewalks) remain unploughed.  So it’s cold in Scotland.  Often.  Tea, on the other hand, is warm.

Tea, however, also has ritual to it.  I like tea.  I like boiling the water, putting the tea in the mug or pot — either in bag form or in an infuser (we have both a tea ball and one of those sieve-like cup-shaped ones), and then pouring the boiling water straight over the tea leaves.  The clear, steaming liquid turns brown instantly.  Four minutes or so later (depending on if I’m paying attention to what I’m doing) I have drinkable tea.  If it’s in the pot, I pour it into a mug or a tea cup.

And then I put (in the words of Father Ted‘s Mrs. Doyle) “an optional Jaffa Cake on the side.”  Or a dark chocolate digestive.  Or a dark chocolate Hobnob.  Or a caramel digestive.  Or a ginger nut (gingersnap).  Or a cream biscuit.  Or any combination of the above.

Part of the tea ritual is the tea biscuit.  If you go into a Scottish supermarket, you will find a vast array of cookies you never knew existed.  A good many of them have been designed specifically with tea in mind — dip the biscuit into the tea.  Let it soak for a bit.  Eat the sodden, tasty bit that has been soaking.  This is a great thing.

And with my tea, I like best of all a good book.  So far in Scotland, I’ve read The Poetic Edda, portions of Chesterton’s The Thing and of Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism, as well as Lewis’ The Discarded Image and Ong’s Orality and Literacy whilst enjoying a cup of tea.  I’ve also read books for my studies with tea, books about Pope Leo, about Christology, about early Christian doctrine.  The book and the tea go well together.

Mind you, I also like watching Corner Gas or Father Ted whilst drinking my tea.  This is an indisputable fact.

So go boils some water.  Prepare your favourite tea (if it’s green, remember to wait 1 1/2 min before adding the tea to the water).  Get some tea biscuits.  Pull a good book or DVD off the shelf.  Then sit down and enjoy your tea.  It will warm you and not just physically.


I was going to write about tea, but I got wrapped up in working on a research proposal instead.  At least I drank two ladybug mugfuls in the process.

Remember:  All tea is herbal, but herbal tea is not tea.