All About Food: Tea: Brew it, steep it or ice it

Ahhh! Sit down and relax with a great cup of tea. Then ponder the power of it. Besides the simple pleasures of a cuppa, this ancient beverage has had medicinal, religious and political implications throughout almost 5,000 years of history. Legend has it that Emperor Shen Nung, a scientist, was boiling water when a gust of wind blew a camellia blossom into the water and turned it brown. He decided to taste it, and voila! Tea officially became a beverage. In China, for a time, tea was the state currency and used as cash.

Originally, tea was valued for its medicinal properties, including aiding digestion and hastening the discharge of nicotine from the body. A Buddhist priest introduced this Chinese beverage into Japan after observing the benefits of tea for religious meditation. Its popularity spread like wildfire, and drinking it became an art form in the eighth century, leading to the meditative Zen-influenced Japanese tea ceremony with its strict procedures for brewing, steeping and serving.

By the time tea arrived in Europe in the 17th century, it cost more than $100 a pound, making it a luxury for the very rich until importation increased, causing the price to drop and its popularity to spread. It replaced ale as the national drink of England. Ultimately, England had the most powerful trade monopoly in the world based on the importation of tea. Our own nation began when the colonists rebelled against the high taxes levied by the English. The last straw was the tea tax, and you know the rest of that story.

What you may not know is that all tea comes from the same source: the Camellia sinensis bush. There are four basic categories of tea based on how the leaves and blossoms are processed. White tea, reputed to have the most health benefits, is made from immature leaves, before the buds are fully opened. Green teas are not fermented during processing, so they retain their original green color. Black is fermented, while oolong, the champagne of teas, is partially fermented. Oolong is milder than black but stronger than green. Orange pekoe is not actually a type of tea but refers to the size of the black tea leaf (large). Scented teas such as jasmine are made by mixing various flowers with green or oolong. Herbal teas like mint, chamomile or rooibos have no caffeine and are not true teas.

Most important in getting a great cup of tea is the brewing process, but there is no exact formula because every tea is different. There are three basic variables: the amount of tea you use, the water temperature and the steeping time.

We spoke to Cathy Ackley, the tea maven at Laguna Coffee Company, who is English. She prefers full-bodied black tea such as the loose leaf Darjeeling and Earl Grey that are carried at the shop. Those teas are large leaf and can be brewed for four minutes without becoming bitter. The more delicate green and white teas need only a minute or two. The best method for brewing is the classic teapot, which allows the tea to unfurl and the water to circulate around the leaves. Worst is the tea ball, next is the teabag, both of which compress the leaves. Cathy has pyramid-shaped whole-leaf tea bags, which allow room for the leaves to open.

Water should be brought to the boiling point and never reboiled. The rule of thumb is one teaspoon of tea for every six- to eight-ounce cup. Having said all that, 80% of the tea that is drunk worldwide is served iced.

Tea purveyors in Orange County include Teavana in South Coast Plaza, featuring 100 loose-leaf tea selections and a myriad of pots; Ten Li Tea & Ginseng Company in Fountain Valley; Alta Coffee in Newport Beach; and the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and Peet's, with multiple locations. Bon appétea!

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.

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