Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A cup of tea

   We enjoy a lot of tea here, hot in the winter and cold in the summer.  A half-gallon jar full usually waits for the thirsty on the counter.  Sometimes it's the bright red of roselle (hibiscus) and other times it's the faint green of mint, both lightly sweetened with honey.  For no particular reason, we mostly pair lemongrass with stevia.  And we were excited to add tulsi basil to the mix last year with its licorice-like flavor.  New in the garden this year are anise hyssop, catnip, chamomile, lemon basil, and bergamont.  We are looking for good flavors in tea and these all come recommended.  Our basic method for herbal teas is to harvest a handful of the herbs we want (sometimes a mix), bring the water to a boil and let it sit for just a couple minutes, and then pour the water over the contents in a bowl.  We give it about 5 minutes to steep then pour the liquid through a fine sieve into a half-gallon jar (using a canning jar funnel), then sweeten with honey (if we didn't already use stevia). All of these teas we also dry so we use the same method, just taking out a comparable amount of the dried herbs.  We've mostly been content with teas we could grow, but Melissa still had cravings for black tea.  Maybe it's the cream and honey that pair so well with black tea or maybe it's the caffeine!  In any case, years ago we planted a 4 inch tall Camellia sinensis (Chinese tea), the camellia from which regular black and green tea are made.  C. sinensis, although it sizes up slowly like other camellias, does fine here. It's hardy enough to take the winters and has no pest trouble that we know of.  It's evergreen with small leaves and pretty but not showy white flowers.  Regular harvesting actually helps promote a compact bushy habit.  Our bush has now reached 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide and we were overdue to actually put it to use.  We're a bit hesitant to share our process because we're still very much experimenting.  If you have any personal experience processing C. sinensis from fresh leaves, we'd love to hear from you.  The basic process we followed for regular black tea was to harvest new growth, the youngest two or three leaves.  Then we laid the leaves out to simply wilt for a day.  This helps the leaves become more pliable for the next step of rolling/crushing them.  By doing this, the now bruised leaves begin to darken, somewhat like bruised basil.  We left the leaves out on a tray for another day and then finally put them in the dehydrator to completely dry out.  And the result for us: a light brown liquid with the characteristic bitterness of black tea and for someone who rarely consumes caffiene, a bit of a caffiene jolt!  It was delicious, especially with cream and honey. We're planting more Chinese tea as well as herbal teas and hope to soon be able to help you more regularly enjoy a good cup of local Chinese tea.  In the meantime, be sure to try the tulsi and roselle this year if you haven't already, and, of course, enjoy the mint, too.

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