Tea leaves: read them, set them free or bag them

March 19, 2000|By Rob Kasper

Birds gotta fly, and fish gotta swim. But what about tea leaves? When making tea, should the leaves float freely? Or should their movements be restricted by a tea bag or other leaf-confining apparatus?

This question came up last week during a lively tea tasting I attended at Cafe Hon, a cozy restaurant in Hampden. On the free-swimming side of the issue were Ann Gordan and Sarah Begus, two tasters who have strong opinions about tea.

The women said that in addition to drinking a lot of the beverage, they have studied British tea-making practices and read a number of English detective novels in which the characters are constantly sipping the stuff.

"The tea leaves have to swim freely," Begus says. Gordan nods in agreement, saying the free range of motion enables the full flavor of the leaves to blossom.

Begus outlines the steps the British use to make a proper pot of tea -- heat the teapot with a splash of hot water, add the loose tea leaves (1 heaping teaspoon per cup), then add freshly heated, just boiling water to the pot. The tea sits in the pot no more than 5 minutes.

The two free swimmers also introduce me to some new phrases used by British tea drinkers: "murder a cup of tea" and "Bob's your uncle."

Gordan explains that when a character in a British novel says he could "murder a cup of tea," it means he craves the stuff. She also points out that the characters never drink tea made with tea bags.

As for "Bob's your uncle," Begus says, this is another way of saying that everything is fine, as in, "You've got a cozy around the teapot and Bob's your uncle?"

Making the case for confinement was Tom Thompson, owner of the Coffee Mill, the Hampden coffee and tea shop which put on the tasting. Thompson says there are advantages to corraling loose tea leaves.

When you've got your tea leaves on a short leash, he says, you can easily yank them out of a cup or pot, thereby preventing them from overstaying their welcome. He explains that most teas should spend no more than 3 minutes in contact with the hot water. During that time, the water extracts flavor from the tea leaves, Thompson says.

"After that, what comes out is tannic acid," which, he adds, "is bad tasting stuff." Tea leaves that have spent too much time in the water are likely to have an unpleasant, metallic taste, he says.

While conceding that the quality of leaves used in tea bags is usually lower than that found in loose tea, Thompson says that there are devices on the market that use high quality tea but still keep the leaves from roaming.

One of the devices is a stainless steel apparatus, nicknamed a "clam shell." It traps a teaspoon of loose tea inside a porous, two-sided stainless steel spoon. The trapped tea is then plunged into a cup of hot water.

He also displays a teapot equipped with a removable tea holder. Once the tea has brewed, you can slip the spent leaves out of the pot, preventing any off tastes.

During the tasting, I sip five different kinds of tea -- camomile, green, oolong, Assam and Darjeeling -- and ponder my tea-making practices. I decide to buy a half pound of loose Darjeeling for experimenting.

One day, I will let the tea leaves roam. The next day, I'll confine them.

When I find the tea-making method that suits my tastes, I will be happy. Life will be good, or as some tea drinkers might put it, "Bob will be my uncle."

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