The Ladies' Tea Guild

Saturday, July 31, 2010

What would Jane Austen eat with her tea?

Tea with toast and jam. Image from
Tea-drinkers in Jane Austen’s time liked to have a bit of food with their beverages just like we do, but tea time was not the feast of pastries that it often is today. One or two kinds of tea, bread and butter, and one kind of cake were about all you could expect to have with tea, otherwise you were approaching a proper meal. Tea was enjoyed with breakfast, and served more formally after dinner, especially if there were guests, and it's a lovely custom to revive. If you want to enjoy tea the way Jane Austen might have done, here are some menu suggestions:

Rose congou (Chinese black tea scented with roses)
Bohea (Chinese large-leaf black tea) or Pekoe (known as “orange pekoe”)
Hyson (Chinese large-leaf green tea)

Toast (homemade or country-style bread) or Toasted English muffins

Pound cake or fruit cake

China was basically the only tea supplier to England during Jane Austen's lifetime, so choose a loose-leaf, unflavored Chinese black or green tea. Twinings is one well-known tea company that was in business from the late 1700s. Offer sugar cubes instead of granulated sugar with the tea, and whole or skim milk if your guests want it (Jane didn’t have 2% or lowfat!). Save the cream for your coffee; it will cover up the flavor of the tea. Have a CD of classical music, especially piano or harp, playing in the background, and you will be ready for a wonderful tea experience in the style of Jane Austen and her contemporaries! You can also check out _Tea with Jane Austen_ for more great ideas, including recipes.

If you want to go all out and have a Regency-style tea served to you, and you're in California, you can go to Capitola and attend the Jane Austen Tea at Bloomsbury Tea Room:

Jane Austen Tea
Friday, August 6, 6:30 p.m.
Bloomsbury Tea Room,
911-B Capitola Ave
Capitola, CA
Cost: $34.95 per adult guest, $15.95 for children.
Limited Seating - Reservations Required

“Tea history: what type of tea did American Founders drink?”
“Teas of Yore: Bohea, Hyson and Congou”
Tea with Jane Austen by Kim Wilson
“To Make Bread” Regency recipe from the Jane Austen Centre, Bath, England
“English Muffins” Regency recipe from the Jane Austen Centre, Bath, England
“To Make An Excellent Cake” Regency recipe from the Jane Austen Centre
“Jane Austen Historic Reciepts”

Thursday, July 29, 2010

How to have a Jane Austen tea party.

Jane Austen sketch, ca. 1804, by Cassandra Austen. Wikipedia, public domain.
In honor of the author Jane Austen, who died in July of 1817, why not have a Regency tea party? While afternoon tea – as a codified ceremonial social event – hadn’t been invented yet during Jane Austen’s lifetime, tea was already an important part of life for many people in England. In the Austen household, Jane herself was in charge of the tea and tea equipment, as well as making breakfast for the family, as part of her daily household chores.

Specialized tea china and silverware had been manufactured in Holland, England and France for almost 100 years by 1800, and was widely purchased along with imported Chinese porcelain. The tea cups were usually handle-less, after the Chinese style, and were used with cup plates which were small, shallow bowls, rather than fitted, flat “saucers” as we do today. These were accompanied by teapots and slop bowls (for the used tea leaves), and occasonally matching sugar bowls and milk jugs; when made of pottery or porcelain, tea things were included with small plates and coffee or chocolate pots and cups in “breakfast sets” which were highly popular with the middle and upper classes. Silver and pewter tea and coffee pots, tea spoons, tea scoops, sugar nippers and sugar tongs were available to upper and middle class families like the Austens.

It is unnecessary to use expensive 200-year-old antiques in order to get the Jane Austen/Regency “look”. Use a small round table, if you have one, just big enough to hold your teapot, sugar bowl and milk jug, and maybe a plate of toast. Any small table or flat-topped piece of furniture will do. Cover the table with a plain white tablecloth, an embroidered one if you have it, or a pretty tray to protect the surface from any spills and the heat of the filled teapot. You can have the cups, saucers, plates and cloth napkins on another table, like your coffee table – even a folding TV tray covered with a small tablecloth -- and the guests will sit on chairs and sofas around the room, holding their cup and saucer in their hand, and their plate in their lap. This is why non-messy finger food – bread and butter, and small tea cakes -- became the standard for tea parties; nobody can handle food plus a knife and fork! Just a spoon for stirring the tea.

As for the china itself, Blue Wedgwood, Spode and “Blue Willow” are patterns that were available to Jane Austen and are available to us, and “Blue Willow” and Spode dishes can be found at Marshall’s in the Great Mall of Milpitas! Use real silver flatware if you have it, or nice stainless flatware in a vintage-style pattern – nothing obviously modern. Some nice things can be found at thrift stores, Marshall’s, and Target, as well as the specialty dish stores. Try to find a decorative tea scoop and a pair of sugar tongs, as well. Make sure you have a tea strainer and an extra bowl to hold the used tea leaves.

Choose Twinings loose tea, tea from an established English company, or an unflavored Chinese black or green tea. Jane Austen’s England was familiar with jasmine-scented green tea, as well, although Earl Grey tea was not available until after Jane’s death. Take your tea out of its store packaging and put it into a decorative tea caddy for your party; this is an ornamental wood or metal container which can hold about a cup of loose tea leaves, and has a tight-fitting lid to seal out air, light and moisture. Empty tea caddies can be purchased at Marshall’s, at Cost Plus World Markets, and occasionally at Target in the housewares section. Measure out the tea leaves from the tea caddy into the tea pot with a decorative tea scoop or tea spoon. Put together a Regency-style menu and you are set!

“The Georgian Breakfast” from the Jane Austen Centre, Bath, England
“Tea in the Regency Era”
“Jane Austen Lived Before the Inventor of the Tea Party” by Jenny Wells
Jane Austen Life and Works Timeline History
“Chinese black tea in San Jose”
“Favorite Chinese green teas in the San Jose area”
“Tea history: what type of tea did American Founders drink?”
Tea with Jane Austen by Kim Wilson

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Disposable tea filter bags: lightweight, convenient, and so useful for tea-drinkers!

Japanese tea filter bags.
If you're going to get into drinking loose tea, or would like to carry tea with you when you go to restaurants (to avoid using the random stale tea they usually serve), it would be a good idea to have some disposable tea filter bags to prepare your tea. Several places in San Jose carry them. These filter bags are modeled on paper coffee filters, and on those cheesecloth sacks that we use to contain whole herbs and spices when infusing flavor into soups and other liquids. They are made in a few different designs, and are meant to be used and thrown away, although the sturdier kind can be hand-washed and re-used in a pinch.

One style is white, made of a kind of sheer fabric, and designed like those clear plastic sandwich bags with the fold-over tops. They hold enough loose tea for a 6-cup pot (about 1 to 2 tablespoons of tea leaves) and are sturdy enough to be hand-washed (or emptied, rinsed and soaked in boiling water) and re-used once. This style is an imported Japanese product. The other, more common, style is made of white or tan paper, like paper coffee filters, formed like a tube, closed at one end, with a long tab at the open end, which is meant to hang over the rim of your mug to keep the bag from turning upside down or sinking to the bottom of the cup. They hold about a tablespoon of loose tea, and are not strong enough to be re-used. This kind of filter bag is sold in San Jose under two primary brands: T-sacs, and Finum.

Finum brand tea filters.
Tea filter bags are sold at the many Asian markets in the San Jose area; the two grocery stores in Japantown (one on Empire between 5th and 6th Streets, and the other at 6th and Jackson) almost always have the Japanese mesh fabric kind, and often in more than one size. Certain San Jose shops sell tea accessories as well as tea and tea-based beverages; these include Lupicia and Teavana at Westfield Mall, and various Peet's Coffee & Tea locations. The tea and coffee shops tend to sell the T-sac style filter bags, along with the hinged metal tea balls and the washable fabric tea "socks". The Japanese fold-over tea filter bags are especially useful because they enclose the tea leaves and are less likely to let any of them escape if the bag turns upside down in your cup! You can also put them in your water bottle and turn your drinking water into cold-brew tea.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Have a summer-time traditional English tea!

Beatrix Potter Tea table setting, May 2007. Elizabeth Urbach.
Now that the weather is staying warm for the season, it is the time of year for spending the day in the fresh air. Whether in your back yard or in a local park or garden, a traditional English-style tea party is an enchanting way to entertain. Taking inspiration from beloved author and illustrator Beatrix Potter, one can put together a lovely tea party. Here are some menu suggestions for a Beatrix Potter Tea:

Black tea with milk and sugar
Chamomile tisane with honey
Lemon Squash

Strawberry preserves
Clotted Cream

Cucumber sandwiches
Egg and Cress sandwiches
Welsh Rabbit (Rarebit)
Sausage rolls

Tea Cakes
Summer Pudding
Sticky Toffee Pudding
Berries and cream

Decorate with vintage linens (if you have any) or at least cloth napkins and tablecloth, and floral china. Casual bunches and nosegays of fresh flowers, tied with ribbons, would also be appropriate. Stuffed animals, especially rabbits, ducks, mice, hedgehogs and other traditionally English creatures would also be a fun addition. Make sure to tie ribbon bows around their necks to dress them up for the party!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What do we mean when we talk about tea? The basics.

A "cream tea," not "high tea!"
Tea, as an event, rather than just a beverage, is becoming more and more popular in the United States, due to the fast-paced, ultra-practical nature of most 21st century life. Setting aside some time to socialize and relax over an elegant and beautiful assortment of snacks and sweets is an excellent way to stave off the adverse effects of stress, and good practice in “being civilized,” something that is noticeably missing from many aspects of modern society.

Having a cup, or pot, of tea as part of a daily break from the normal routine, has been a traditional part of life in many countries of the world. These "tea times", especially in England and the former British countries, have their own vocabulary that has become the standard when talking about Western-style tea culture. Unfortunately, many people don’t understand the different terms, and confusion results. Even tea business owners have been known to use the terminology incorrectly, treating the words as if they’re interchangeable. So we need a vocabulary: what is tea, anyway?

Tea: the beverage prepared with leaves from the tea plant. It can be served hot or iced, in innumerable varieties, flavors, or blends, and at any time of day. It is usually served black (without any additions), white (with milk, or milk and sugar), with sugar or honey, with lemon, or with both lemon and a sweetener. Tea contains caffeine, unless it has been decaffeinated.

If the beverage that you are drinking does not contain actual tea leaves, then it is not tea. It is something called a tisane, also known as an “herbal tea.”

Tisane: an herbal infusion made with culinary herbs, edible flowers, fruits, and/or spices, but no tea leaves. It can be served hot or iced, with or without sweetener, but usually not with milk. The most popular tisanes contain citrus, fruit, or another tangy ingredient that will actually curdle any milk it touches! Most tisanes are naturally decaffeinated. Certain tisanes can be taken as home remedies.

And now we come to the English-style “tea-time” vocabulary, indicating a break in the day in between the regular breakfast, lunch, and dinner hours. Anytime someone sits down with a cup of tea, it can be called "tea," but here are the time-specific terms to use when the time of day matters, like when inviting someone to join you:

Elevenses: a small mid-morning snack of a cup or mug of tea and a cookie or two, or some bread and butter, or toast and jam. A quick, casual event, like a coffee break, it does not require utensils like a fork and knife. Traditionally taken around 11 a.m.

Afternoon tea: a mid-afternoon snack, consisting of tea, served hot or iced, with bread and cake. “Bread and cake” is most often interpreted to mean scones with jam, sandwiches, and small cakes or bite-sized pastries, again, not requiring a knife and fork. If several sandwiches or “savories” are included on the menu, it can substitute for lunch, but everything must still be bite-sized and dainty. Cream teas are a variety of afternoon tea, prominently featuring whipped cream, clotted cream, and dairy-rich pastries. Afternoon teas can be simple or elaborate affairs. Traditionally served between 2 and 4 p.m., "afternoon tea" is what most people picture when they think about having a tea party.

High tea: often mistaken for afternoon tea, or a fancier version of it, high tea is actually a hearty evening supper. It is often served buffet-style, with meat pies, cheese, fruit, and other filling foods, requiring the use of a fork, knife, and spoon to eat. Traditionally served between 5 and 7 p.m., it began its existence as the early evening supper of the working classes after a long day in the fields, factories, mines or shops.

Many American tea parlors have created their own, non-traditional, take on afternoon tea by adding bowls of soup, plates of salad, quiche, raw fruits and vegetables, and heavier desserts like cheesecake, and giving it the name "high tea." While these meals are served between 2 and 4 p.m. like afternoon tea, and contain heartier foods like high tea, we can see that they are neither. They are, instead, a new kind of tea meal, and I think they should have their own term: how about American tea?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Decaffeinating your tea at home.

Wikimedia Commons. Tea bags.
Tea is the second most popular beverage in the world, other than water, but many tea-drinkers are advised by their physicians to avoid caffeine. It seems that most people are under the impression that de-caffeinated tea contains no caffeine, and is as safe as “herbal tea” for those who cannot have caffeine. For the record, tea is a beverage that is made from infusing the leaves of the true tea plant, Camellia sinensis, in boiling or hot water. Any leaves, flowers, bark or seeds from other plants, prepared in the same way, are not actually “tea”: they are properly called “herbal infusions” or “tisanes,” and most do not contain caffeine in their plant structure, so infusions made from them are completely caffeine-free.

Caffeine is a natural part of the tea plant, however, and most of the caffeine can be commercially removed. Traditionally, infusions made from commercially decaffeinated tea leaves are of inferior quality due to the extreme processing that the leaves receive to remove the caffeine, and it follows that they produce a beverage that lacks in flavor, compared to regular tea. As a result, de-caffeinated teas can be unsatisfactory to some tea lovers, besides the fact that they still contain small amounts of caffeine, and tea growers, manufacturers, and retailers have been working to solve this dilemma.

Over the past 15 to 20 years, some theories have developed relating to caffeine in tea, and some are repeated as fact, even by the most respected and truly knowledgeable people in the business, such as James Norwood Pratt, author and tea scholar, who wrote the highly-influential books "The Tea Lover's Treasury" (1982), and "The Tea Lover's Companion" (1995). Pratt is the Honorary Director of Imperial Tea Court tea room in San Francisco, and in his “New Tea Lover’s Treasury” from 2000, he describes the process that so many tea lovers have embraced:

"Caffeine is highly soluble and is one of the first constituents of the tea leaf to be extracted in steeping. Usually 80 percent of the tea's caffeine content is released within the first 20 to 30 seconds of steeping. You can enjoy virtually caffeine-free tea with small sacrifice of flavor, therefore, by discarding the water after the first 30 to 60 seconds of steeping and adding fresh hot (temperature depending on tea type) water to the
now-decaffeinated leaf." (Pratt, New Tea Lover's Treasury, p.182)

Unfortunately, the research done to test this theory has provided conflicting conclusions at best, and recent research actually indicates that caffeine is not extracted as quickly or completely from the tea leaf as is widely believed. Many tea experts, including Nigel Melican, founder and managing director of Teacraft, Ltd., consider the "30-second decaf" theory to be actually debunked, and relegated to the realm of urban myth. A 1996 study at Auburn University [Hicks M.B.; Hsieh Y.-H.P.1; Bell L.N. "Tea preparation and its influence on methylxanthine concentration." Food Research International, Volume 29, Number 3, April 1996, pp. 325-330(6)] tested it, infusing multiple samples of tea in boiling water, and concluded that only 9% of the caffeine was removed during the first 30 seconds of infusion. The researchers also found that it took approximately 3 minutes to remove 50% of the caffeine, about 9 minutes of infusion to remove 80%, and approximately 15 minutes to remove more than 96%. A separate study done in 2008 at Asbury College, by Chemistry professor Dr. Bruce Branan and his team provided similar results: after 3 minutes of infusion, only 46-70% of the caffeine was removed, and it took 6 minutes to remove approximately 80%. Since flavor and bitter tannins are also released with the caffeine, a cup of tea brewed after being de-caffeinated by this method would be unpalatable to most people!

While the hot-water decaffeination method does reduce the amount of caffeine in your cup of tea, if you have to avoid all caffeine, you essentially have to avoid all true tea. Tisanes are known to be completely caffeine-free, so until research indicates otherwise, a nice cup of herbal tea is best!

“Too Easy to be True: De-bunking the At-Home Decaffeination Myth” by Bruce Richardson, from Fresh Cup magazine, January 2009.
"Tea and the rate of its infusion” by Professor Michael Spiro. Published in Chemistry in New Zealand, 1981, pp172-174.
“Tea preparation and its influence on methylxanthine concentration” by Monique Hicks, Peggy Hsieh and Leonard Bell, published in Food Research International vol 29, Nos 3-4, pp.325-330.
Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)